When Presidential Public Grief Rhetoric Ignores Health Disparities

President Biden holding microphone behind podium with head bowed and eyes closed
May 10, 2022

It was March 2020 in New York City. As one of the first and worst-hit U.S. cities to experience a surge of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, New York’s healthcare infrastructure began to crumble. New terms including “social distancing,” which were common to the technical practices of epidemiologists and public health experts, became mainstays in public vocabularies. With no immunity to the novel virus, severe illness, contagion, and death followed. To “flatten the curve and slow the spread,” funerals and other grief rituals abruptly shifted. With capped attendance limits, families grieved lost loved ones in isolation, while eulogies were mediated through Zoom. 

During any global or national disaster that produces mass casualties, we rely upon our politicians and public leaders to help us process loss and grief. Because the onset of the pandemic coincided with the tumultuous 2020 election cycle, many looked to the candidates for policy direction and national mourning. On the one hand, sitting President Donald Trump repeatedly denied the existence and severity of COVID-19, equating the illness with the annual influenza. He was unwilling to perform basic grief practices that required—at minimum—a recognition of the severity and impact of the global health disaster. His emotionless response and lack of empathy were the subject of numerous news articles in April 2020. On the other hand, candidate Joseph Biden was framed as an “emissary of grief” by the New York Times. Biden knew of grief intimately, having lost two of his children and his first wife earlier in his life. Biden was also a keen public eulogist, having publicly remembered heads of state, key civil rights leaders, and the victims of school shootings. 

While Biden’s capacity for engaging in difficult public grief rituals was undoubtedly a breath of fresh air in a moment when Trump’s very denial the virus’s existence felt tantamount to ignoring the deaths themselves, I have recently argued that Biden’s grief practices were marked by a “sanitary rhetorical gesture.” Put simply, amid a larger context wherein cleaning supplies flew off the shelves, hand sanitizer was nowhere to be found, and refrigerator trucks functioned as macabre makeshift morgues to extend infrastructural capacity, Biden’s eulogistic campaign rhetoric sanitized the social differences and disparities that made minoritized inhabitants of the United States more vulnerable to the virus. Despite his remarkable capacity to eulogize and grieve, Biden’s sanitized public grief rhetoric ignored structural racialized health disparities, which allowed the nation to embrace individualized responses to the public health disaster long after Biden became President.  

Despite his remarkable capacity to eulogize and grieve, Biden’s sanitized public grief rhetoric ignored structural racialized health disparities, which allowed the nation to embrace individualized responses to the public health disaster long after Biden became President.

Coronavirus and its Racialized Health Disparities 

When COVID-19 emerged in the United States and precipitated stay-at-home orders in March 2020, a common—but naïve—refrain was that we were “all in this together.” An April 9, 2020, USA Today article even framed the virus’s status as a “great equalizer” as “good news.” However, as millions began to work from home, millions more were denied that opportunity because of their “essential worker status.” Low-income, undocumented, and minoritized inhabitants of the United States found that they were systematically barred from practices of social distancing. As thousands of minimum-wage workers crowded onto meatpacking plant lines, many with considerably more privilege learned how to make sourdough bread. As Marina Levina has argued, the cruel irony of the COVID-19 era was that it essentially rendered the most vulnerable among us disposable. Proclaiming in no uncertain terms that we’re not all in this together, veteran HIV/AIDS researcher Lisa Bowleg put it well: “Deadly viruses spotlight fissures of structural inequality.” While the precise contours of these fissures depended on each minoritized community’s histories of resource deprivation and marginalization, Damien Barr’s poem was accurate when it declared: “We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat.” 

Not only are different communities in different boats, but many also face several compounding storms at once. Emory Professor and Emergency Physician Kimberly D. Manning wrote that in the time of COVID-19, Black people in the United States live in “a time of two pandemics”—the novel coronavirus and anti-black racism. Pandemic anti-blackness magnified two distinct registers: medical racism and police brutality. As it became clear that Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities were experiencing disproportionately poor outcomes from the coronavirus, Raquel Robvais taught us that references to “pre-existing conditions” individuated a public health disaster, elided structural determinants of health, and reinforced the idea that race and not racism was responsible for the inequitable health outcomes.

Furthermore, the 2020 lockdowns coincided the high-profile murders of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia, and George Floyd in my home city of Minneapolis, Minnesota. As the world watched these pandemics converge in Minneapolis, public health scholars and community practitioners Rachel R. Hardeman, Eduardo M. Medina, and Rhea W. Boyd wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine about George Floyd’s words: “Please—I can’t breathe.” Attending to the convergent reasons Black people cannot breathe in the time of COVID-19, they reminded us that “we are preemptively grieving the 1 in 1000 Black men and boys who will be killed by police,” and that “legacies of segregation and white flight, practices of gentrification and environmental racism, and local zoning ordinances combine” to subject Black people to disproportionate loads of environmental toxins and, thus, to higher rates of asthma and chronic diseases that fuel poor COVID-19 outcomes. Demographer Elizabeth Wrigley-Field and colleagues confirmed these statements by examining death certificates from the Minnesota Department of Health office of Vital Records. They concluded that “COVID-19 mortality and excess mortality were substantially higher for Metro-area BIPOC than for Metro-area White people living in similarly disadvantaged neighborhoods.” In these “times of suffocation,” as Ersula J. Ore and Matthew Houdek put it, we must remain attentive to both visible and hidden manifestations of racialized health disparities. 

Because the exigencies are complex, so, too, is the grief. Bringing together the split understanding that increased viral load exposure produces a higher likelihood of infection and that minoritized communities experience complex and compounded grief from multiple angles, Avril Maddrell connected the idea of health disparity, virality, and grief with the metaphor of an “emotional-viral-load.” The heightened emotional-viral-load of racialized grief requires a type of public recognition that eulogistic speech from leaders can make possible. 

The heightened emotional-viral-load of racialized grief requires a type of public recognition that eulogistic speech from leaders can make possible.

Public Eulogy amid Amplified Emotional-Viral Loads

Death transforms kinship structures and requires processing at individual and social levels. Because public health crises require a response at the public level, Communication scholars are well-equipped to understand the roles eulogistic speech can play in both processing the immense grief of unfathomable loss and ameliorating the underlying conditions that produce disproportionate emotional-viral-load. Communication scholars have long attended to the eulogy’s rhetorical form and function. As a ceremonial address, the eulogy is oriented to the present moment when the death of a beloved community member tears open the social fabric. Eulogies publicly acknowledge the loss, move the deceased from the present to past tense, and reknit communities together in the spirit of continued life. 

Public and presidential eulogies are notably different insofar as they not only occupy the present moment of epideictic ceremony but also may gesture toward future policy that would ensure the deceased’s passing was not in vain. Examining President Obama’s speech following the Tucson, Arizona mass shooting, Jamie Landau and Bethany Keeley-Jonker proclaim that eulogies are potent “conductors of public feelings” that help to coordinate and co-regulate a grieving body politic toward better futures. Indeed, Lisa M. Corrigan has noted how powerful grief can be in social movements like the struggle for Black freedom in the “long sixties.” Because eulogistic speech can harness the generative power of grief to set a new national or community agenda, it is crucial for specific and grounded recognition of the unique structural dynamics surrounding a loss. In other words, because the emotional-viral-load of grief is higher in resource-deprived communities that have their own multigenerational histories of violent loss, there are unique needs to be met. 

From Campaign Eulogy to Presidential Address

President Biden wearing a black face maskDuring the 2020 election cycle, the United States recorded 100,000 and then 200,000 deaths from COVID-19. At each “grim milestone,” as Biden called them, he publicly acknowledged and recognized the losses that had accrued. At 100,000 lost, Biden released a brief campaign video that displayed profound empathy as he described the visceral feelings associated with grief, such as feelings of “emptiness, pain, anger, and frustration.” While he released the video just two days after George Floyd was brutally murdered by Minneapolis police, Biden made no mention of the racialized grief and outrage that was simultaneously occurring. Biden’s recognition of the ongoing mass casualty event was welcome, but his appeal to empathy was limited because it was intended for a universal audience. However, Claudia Rankine reminds us that “there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a Black person, you can be killed for simply being Black.” Displays of empathy—while certainly warranted during this time—did not also include ameliorative policy to attend to the underlying roots of the virus’s continued proliferation. 

Displays of empathy—while certainly warranted during this time—did not also include ameliorative policy to attend to the underlying roots of the virus’s continued proliferation.

As the 2020 election drew near, Biden delivered an address in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during which he both recognized the more than 200,000 COVID-19-related deaths that had occurred and commented upon racial injustice in policing. As is the case for so many public eulogies, the address included a sense of forward-looking deliberation. However, faced with pressure to support a systemic re-thinking of public safety, Biden emphasized that he “never supported defunding the police.” I argue that this, too, was a sanitizing rhetorical gesture—one that did not take seriously the public health consequences that over-policing has on resource-deprived communities. Hardeman and other colleagues published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that there is an association between contact with law enforcement, living in highly policed neighborhoods, and preterm birth. Disproportionately impacting Black birthing people, this is just one of the structural barriers to health equity that have only been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic. 

On January 19, 2021, the eve of his inauguration, President-elect Joe Biden attended a coronavirus memorial event to honor the nation’s 400,000 recorded deaths. His remarks were brief: “To heal, we must remember. It’s important to do that as a nation. That’s why we are here today.” As he and First Lady Jill Biden turned their backs to the camera in quiet contemplation, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris followed him with the words, “We gather here tonight, a nation in mourning, to pay tribute to the lives we’ve lost… For many months, we have grieved by ourselves. Tonight, we grieve and begin healing together.” Harris’ reference to the early days of pandemic loss, when funeral homes limited attendees and people could not gather to grieve, recognized the inability of communities to knit themselves back together with the power of eulogy. Her address looked forward with platitudes about better futures: “My abiding prayer is we emerge from this ordeal with a new wisdom. To cherish simple moments. To imagine new possibilities. And to open our hearts just a little bit more to one another.” While the imagination of new possibilities might include a renewed effort toward public health equity, this statement ignored the structural disparities that had produced a disproportionate emotional-viral-load for communities of color. 

On February 22, 2021, Biden addressed yet another “grim milestone”: 500,000 lost to COVID-19. Delivered at the White House, this speech reiterated many of the sentiments Biden had mentioned when marking 100,000 deaths. Unique to this address, however, was how the President recognized cultural differences in grieving practices and the loneliness of absent grief practices: “so many of the rituals that help us cope, that help us honor those we loved, haven’t been available to us…. The proper homegoing, showered with stories and love. Tribal leaders passing [with]out the final traditions of sacred cultures on sacred lands.” Listing general Black and Indigenous grief practices, Biden creeped closer to recognizing difference. However, he called for individual ameliorative action—for everyone to follow public health protocols to “stay socially distanced, mask up, get vaccinated when it’s your turn,” and to fight misinformation. Here, too, there were no specific mentions of the underlying structural disparities that made more Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people victims of the pandemic. Biden may well have offered comfort to many, but by eliding health disparities, he could not set an agenda for future action.

When the Public Eulogies Halt with No End in Sight

Following the marking of 500,000 confirmed dead, President Biden’s public recognitions of ongoing loss slowed to a halt. While Biden would again pull out his briefing card to recognize 609,441 known deaths to the coronavirus, it was done with considerably less fanfare and with even less recognition of underlying structural health inequities. Far from “the incalculable loss” that the New York Times framed on its May 2020 front page following the deaths of 100,000 people, grieving mass loss at seven times that level at the national scale has receded into the background. Instead, on the horizon of the delta variant’s widespread peak in July 2021, Biden framed the ongoing circulation of the virus as part of a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” individuating a public health crisis and placing responsibility at the feet of individual decisions. Pre-existing conditions now gain renewed attention as those in the United States are instructed to talk with their primary healthcare providers about their conditions. Similar appeals abounded when Biden marked 800,000 deaths with a tweet, and when he marked 900,000 deaths with a brief press release in February 2022. 

As I write this piece, the U.S. Omicron wave has temporarily crested and the BA.2 variant is on the horizon. With ongoing losses and pandemic fatigue, the shift to commemoration and memorials is becoming more pertinent. However, Communication scholars should lean on the possibility for eulogistic speech to set national agendas and recommit to resolving the structural inequities that make some more vulnerable to the virus than others. Doing so is an important way to lighten the emotional-viral-load during the “time of two pandemics.” 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


WINDERMAN

EMILY WINDERMAN is an Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Winderman specializes in the rhetorical study of a wide range of public health problematics, including reproductive healthcare, family planning, abortion care, and birthing practices. She approaches these topical areas through the theoretical affordances of affect theory, rhetorical history, and public address. Her work asks how public emotions constitute and manage different communities’ relationships to their own health. Her work appears in the Quarterly Journal of Speech, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Women’s Studies in Communication, Rhetoric of Health and Medicine, and Feminist Media Studies.