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Biden marks Americas Covid-19 grief before inauguration pomp

Hours from inauguration early on Thursday morning (NZT), US President-elect Joe Biden paused on what might have been his triumphal entrance to Washington to mark instead the national tragedy of the coronavirus pandemic with a moment of collective grief for Americans lost.

His arrival coincided with the awful news that the US death toll had surpassed 400,000 in the worst public health crisis in more than a century – a crisis Biden will now be charged with controlling.

“To heal we must remember,” the incoming president told the nation at a sunset ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial. Four hundred lights representing the pandemic’s victims were illuminated behind him around the monument’s Reflecting Pool.

“Between sundown and dusk, let us shine the lights into the darkness … and remember all who we lost,” Biden said.

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The sober moment on the eve of Biden’s inauguration – typically a celebratory time in Washington when the nation marks the democratic tradition of a peaceful transfer of power – was a measure of the enormity of loss for the nation.


US President-elect Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden are joined by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff during a Covid-19 memorial event at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in Washington.

Evan Vucci/AP

US President-elect Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden are joined by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff during a Covid-19 memorial event at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in Washington.

During his brief remarks, Biden faced the larger-than life statue of Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War president who served as more than 600,000 Americans died. As he turned to walk away at the conclusion of the vigil, he faced the black granite wall listing the 58,000-plus Americans who perished in Vietnam.


Nurse Lori Marie Key sings Amazing Grace' during a Covid-19 memorial in Washington.

Alex Brandon/AP

Nurse Lori Marie Key sings Amazing Grace’ during a Covid-19 memorial in Washington.

Biden was joined by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who spoke of the collective anguish of the nation, a not-so-subtle admonishment of outgoing US President Donald Trump, who has spoken sparingly about the pandemic in recent months.

“For many months we have grieved by ourselves,” said Harris, who will make history as the first woman to serve as vice president when she’s sworn in. “Tonight, we grieve and begin healing together.”


Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks during a Covid-19 memorial in Washington.

Evan Vucci/AP

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks during a Covid-19 memorial in Washington.

Beyond the pandemic, Biden faces no shortage of problems when he takes the reins at the White House. The nation is also on its economic heels because of soaring unemployment, there is deep political division and immediate concern about more violence following the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.

Biden, an avid fan of Amtrak who took the train thousands of times between his home in Delaware and Washington during his decades in the Senate, had planned to take a train into Washington ahead of Wednesday’s Inauguration Day but scratched that plan in the aftermath of the Capitol riot.


US President-elect Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden arrive at Andrews Air Force Base.

Evan Vucci/AP

US President-elect Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden arrive at Andrews Air Force Base.

He instead flew into Joint Base Andrews just outside the capital and then motorcaded into fortress DC – a city that’s been flooded by some 25,000 National Guard troops guarding a Capitol, White House and National Mall that are wrapped in a maze of barricades and tall fencing.

“These are dark times,” Biden told supporters in an emotional sendoff in Delaware. “But there’s always light.”


Lights surround the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, placed as a memorial to COVID-19 victims after US President-elect Joe Biden spoke, with the US Capitol in the background.

Alex Brandon/AP

Lights surround the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, placed as a memorial to COVID-19 victims after US President-elect Joe Biden spoke, with the US Capitol in the background.

Biden, who ran for the presidency as a cool head who could get things done, plans to issue a series of executive orders on Day One – including reversing Trump’s effort to leave the Paris climate accord, cancelling Trump’s travel ban on visitors from several predominantly Muslim countries, and extending pandemic-era limits on evictions and student loan payments.

Trump won’t be on hand as Biden is sworn in, the first outgoing president to entirely skip inaugural festivities since Andrew Johnson more than a century and a half ago.


US President-elect Joe Biden and wife Jill listen during a Covid-19 memorial, with lights placed around the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.

Alex Brandon/AP

US President-elect Joe Biden and wife Jill listen during a Covid-19 memorial, with lights placed around the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.

The White House released a farewell video from Trump just as Biden landed at Joint Base Andrews. Trump, who has repeatedly and falsely claimed widespread fraud led to his election loss, extended “best wishes” to the incoming administration in his nearly 20-minute address but did not utter Biden’s name.

Trump also spent some of his last time in the White House huddled with advisers weighing final-hour pardons and grants of clemency. He planned to depart from Washington Wednesday morning in a grand airbase ceremony that he helped plan himself.

Biden at his Delaware farewell, held at the National Guard/Reserve Centre named after his late son Beau Biden, paid tribute to his home state. After his remarks, he stopped and chatted with friends and well-wishers in the crowd, much as he had at Iowa rope lines at the start of his long campaign journey.


US President-elect Joe Biden tears up as he spoke at the Major Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III National Guard/Reserve Centre in Delaware.

Evan Vucci/AP

US President-elect Joe Biden tears up as he spoke at the Major Joseph R. “Beau” Biden III National Guard/Reserve Centre in Delaware.

“I’ll always be a proud son of the state of Delaware,” said Biden, who struggled to hold back tears as he delivered brief remarks.

Inaugural organisers this week finished installing some 200,000 US, state and territorial flags on the National Mall, a display representing the American people who couldn’t come to the inauguration, which is tightly limited under security and Covid restrictions.


Flags are placed on the National Mall ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

Alex Brandon/AP

Flags are placed on the National Mall ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

The display was also a reminder of all the president-elect faces as he looks to steer the nation through the pandemic with infections and deaths soaring.

Out of the starting gate, Biden and his team are intent on moving quickly to speed distribution of vaccinations to anxious Americans and pass his US$1.9 trillion virus relief package, which includes quick payments to many people and an increase in the minimum wage to US$15 ($21) an hour.

Biden also plans to unveil a sweeping immigration bill on the first day of his administration, hoping to provide an eight-year path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million people living in the US without legal status. That would be a major reversal from the Trump administration’s tight immigration policies.


US President-elect Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden look out at lights.

Alex Brandon/AP

US President-elect Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden look out at lights.

Some leading Republican have already balked at Biden’s immigration plan. “There are many issues I think we can work cooperatively with President-elect Biden, but a blanket amnesty for people who are here unlawfully isn’t going to be one of them,” said Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who is often a central player in Senate immigration battles.

Many of Biden’s legislative ambitions could be tempered by the hard numbers he faces on Capitol Hill, where Democrats hold narrow majorities in both the Senate and House. His hopes to press forward with an avalanche of legislation in his first 100 days could also be slowed by an impeachment trial of Trump.


Joe Biden speaks during a Covid-19 memorial, with lights placed around the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.

Alex Brandon/AP

Joe Biden speaks during a Covid-19 memorial, with lights placed around the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.

As Biden made his way to Washington, five of his Cabinet picks were appearing Tuesday before Senate committees to begin confirmation hearings. Treasury nominee Janet Yellen, Defence nominee Lloyd Austin, Homeland Security nominee Alejandro Mayorkas, Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken and Director of National Intelligence nominee Avril Haines were being questioned.

Yellen urged lawmakers to embrace Biden’s virus relief package, arguing that “the smartest thing we can do is act big.”


A field of flags is spread across the National Mall, with the Washington Monument in the background as seen from the West Front of the US Capitol on the evening ahead of the 59th Presidential Inauguration in Washington.

Susan Walsh/AP

A field of flags is spread across the National Mall, with the Washington Monument in the background as seen from the West Front of the US Capitol on the evening ahead of the 59th Presidential Inauguration in Washington.

Aides say Biden will use his inaugural address – one that will be delivered in front of an unusually small in-person group because of virus protocols and security concerns and is expected to run 20 to 30 minutes – to call for American unity and offer an optimistic message that Americans can get past the dark moment by working together.

To that end, he extended invitations to Congress’ top four Republican and Democratic leaders to attend Mass with him at St. Matthew’s Cathedral ahead of the inauguration ceremony.

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