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As COVID-19 Continues To Spread, Many Want The White House To Help America Mourn


Of course, COVID-19 is just one of the profound tragedies that has family members like Steven White grieving. Survivors of loss from gun violence, mental health crises, racial injustice and the pandemic are all part of a coalition to call for the creation of a White House office of bereavement care. Kenneth Feinberg supports this idea. He served as special master of the September 11 Victims Compensation Fund and, of course, has also worked closely with families affected by the Boston Marathon bombing and mass shootings at Newtown and Aurora.

Kenneth Feinberg joins us now from Bethesda, Md. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Feinberg.

KENNETH FEINBERG: Glad to be here. Thank you.

SIMON: What could a national office of bereavement do that empathy, compassion and even prayers for those who believe cannot?

FEINBERG: I think it would prioritize the impact of tragedy of all types, individual and, as you say, 9/11, the Boston Marathon - collective community tragedies - and try and minimize the impact of these tragedies long term on the mental health and the individual security of individuals who have lost loved ones, communities that have to promote resilience after a community-wide bombing or something. And I think that it's long overdue that national policy take into account the long-term adverse impact of tragedy, both individual and collective.

SIMON: Well, what have you seen, for example, in so much of your work?

FEINBERG: What I've seen is that calculating how people should be compensated, survivors or family members or the individuals themselves who are terribly injured, that's not the hard part of what I do. It's not rocket science. I've said it over and over again. Judges and juries do it every day. It's the emotional impact of tragedy. What I've learned, the most difficult part of what I do when President Obama or President Bush ask me to take on one of these assignments, brace yourself for what you're going to hear from the victim or the surviving family and how they're going to try and cope moving forward. And there's not enough attention given to that.

SIMON: Yeah.

FEINBERG: There is in the military. You've got Home Base in Boston and elsewhere dealing with troops who come back from Afghanistan - PTSD. There are programs in place. But on the civilian side, there's really nothing like that. And I think that's a gap in our public policy.

SIMON: I have to ask. Is - we have lost more than a quarter of a million Americans from COVID-19. Families, friends, colleagues grieve. There does not seem to be the same shared sense of loss that we saw, for example, after 9/11 and the more than 3,000 lives lost there.

FEINBERG: Oh, I think that's absolutely right. We're in a different era. The impact of the virus on the American community has been sort of politicized - masks and what do we do with injured victims - and it's very unfortunate. And if you look back at 9/11, where it was an apolitical response - and this whole idea of a bereavement office must be apolitical. It is not red state, blue state, liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican. In all of the programs I've been involved in - Boston Marathon, all of them - they were apolitical, and I received tremendous support from everyone in America. It was a wonderful help to me of great assistance. But there's not today that type of attitude. I hope it will return. But how we deal with these individuals, I think - and the communities, I must say - I think it's important that bereavement be prioritized, yes.

SIMON: Of course. Attorney and victim advocate Kenneth Feinberg, thank you. Thank you very much for joining us, Mr. Feinberg. Take care.

FEINBERG: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARTHUR VEROCAI'S "SYLVIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.