Joe Biden plans to lead a unique nationwide memorial service on the eve of his inauguration to honor the grim toll of nearly 400,000 American lives lost to the coronavirus.

The presidential inauguration committee (PIC) announced recently that it would host a lighting ceremony around the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool along the National Mall in Washington, a day ahead of Biden’s swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. Capitol.

Cities and towns across the country are invited to join the ceremony by illuminating buildings and ringing church bells at the same moment, shortly after east coast sunset on 19 January, the first publicly marked moment of national unity since the pandemic began to spread across the country earlier this year.

“The inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris represents the beginning of a new national journey,” said Pili Tobar, PIC communications director. “However, in the midst of a pandemic – when so many Americans are grieving the loss of family, friends and neighbors – it is important that we honor those who have died, reflect on what has been one of the more challenging periods in the nation’s history, and renew our commitment to coming together to end the pandemic and rebuild our nation.”

The virus has already dramatically reshaped plans for Biden’s inauguration. Far fewer guests will attend the swearing-in ceremony on the steps of the US Capitol, while most inaugural festivities move online. The committee has said it was “urging the public to refrain from any travel and participate in the inaugural activities from home”.

Biden made the coronavirus pandemic the central issue of his 2020 presidential campaign, drawing a sharp contrast with Donald Trump by wearing a mask in public and frequently evoking his own experience with tragedy to empathize with families who had lost loved ones to the disease.

Now he is preparing to take office as the public health crisis deepens. The United States has more than 24 million confirmed cases, and almost 400,000 deaths, the highest in the world.

“Things are going to get worse before they get better,” Biden has warned.

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