The inauguration of the 46th president of the United States, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. and Vice President Kamala Devi Harris was a grand panoply of history, color and talent. A sense of renewal imbued the festivities as familiar faces of past presidents (bar one), first ladies (bar one), and a number of Supreme Court justices, senators and members of the U.S. House of Representatives participated in the ceremony, bridging the great partisan divide, even if only for a day. Yet, a feeling of lurking danger persisted throughout the day. A pandemic, disunity and disinformation have been leveling us of late. And the huge cheering crowds of previous inaugurations were conspicuously absent on the Mall.
There were many firsts and highs on Inauguration Day.
America now celebrates the oldest president in our history. This is a stupendous mark of resilience, a sign of the endurability of 78-year-old President Biden and his never-say-die enthusiasm.
We also celebrate Kamala Devi Harris to the vice presidency; the first woman to this position who checks many other first labels: Indian American, Jamaican American, Black American and Asian American. A small niggling issue: Harris’ middle name “Devi” was a wee bit mispronounced during the ceremony. (Devi is the Sanskrit word for goddess and is phonetically pronounced “theyvee” and not “davie.”) And the nation has, for the first time, a second gentleman: Mr. Douglas Emhoff.
We also saw the youngest inaugural poet, the first national poet laureate, 22-year-old Amanda Gorman, a Californian, read aloud a poem she had written for the occasion. “Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished,” she recited, her words soaring with eloquence.
There was a sense of history unfolding every single minute of that occasion, even as we were reminded of ever present dangers in almost every speech made, with Vice President Harris urging us to summon “the courage to see beyond crisis,” and to Gorman’s questioning “where can we find light in this never-ending shade?”
The mix of hope and peril was apt. On Inauguration Day alone,19,220 people registered positive for COVID-19 and 611 people died from the disease.
The significance of holding festivities in the midst of a pandemic was not lost on the new president, who called for a moment of silence for the 405,000 people who lost their lives to COVID across the country over the course of a year.
Too often have I read messages or heard people mention “COVID-fatigue” and “COVID-hype.” To them I say: I don’t doubt you’re tired of hearing about it, and I understand that you voice these ideas because you have not yet become acquainted with the devastation that COVID can wreak. I hope you never do. And it is sheer selfishness to believe that something is not true if it doesn’t affect you or the people you love. Just four weeks ago, I might even have offered up some data to change your mind, without any sense of urgency. Not anymore.
About three weeks ago, four members of my family tested positive for COVID. There ensued a harrowing few days that shook the very foundation of my life. First, my 14-year-old niece was rushed to the hospital and I heard my sister-in-law’s heartbroken sobs as she sat in the parking lot after her daughter had been admitted to the intensive care unit. My niece received care and treatment and began to make a slow recovery, just as the others in her family started to deteriorate. Then came the night when my 54 year-old brother-in-law texted to say he was having a tough time.
Unable to help in any significant way, we were glued to our phones as my sister-in-law, exhausted and under the delirium of a recurrently high fever, drove her husband to the nearest ER. I noted on that day that the Bay Area had a capacity of 0.7% ICU beds available, and the United States was recording over 200,000 new infections and 4,000 deaths per day.
My family and I spent the next few days terrified as we zoom-watched my brother-in-law gasping for breath after every few words. In the meantime, my sister-in-law was unable to get out of bed, my niece was weak and listless, and my nephew began losing 1 to 2 pounds every single day.
My family has now mostly recovered. Needless to say, the experience has shaken each one of us.
Yes, thankfully we came out of it without any serious damage, but more than ever it has made me painfully cognizant of those who have suffered the painful sweep of this deadly disease.
With the 100 Days Mask Challenge executive order that President Biden signed on his very first day of office, mandating masks on federal property, and then adding the same requirement for planes, trains and buses, it felt as though finally there was some direction to dealing with the pandemic, since its very first appearance in the country about a year ago. If there is to be any kind of renewal, we must first recover. And the only way to do that is to wear masks and get the vaccine.
Words often cannot assuage deep wounds, yet I found myself deeply affected when President Biden said, “Because here is the thing about life: There is no accounting for what fate will deal you. There are some days when we need a hand. There are other days when we’re called on to lend one. That is how we must be with one another.” Here’s to renewal and resolve.
Jaya Padmanabhan is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner. Write to her at email@example.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan.