A mosh pit, an email and COVID-19

Sunday, September 6, 2020 - 4:47pm

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Illustration by Maggie Wiebe

I’ve been settling recently. I’ve settled into a new home. I’ve settled into a new routine. I’ve settled into a global pandemic. I watch as my friends and family seem to do the same. The mention of  “COVID-19” sounds like the name of an estranged relative my family likes to gossip about. While I get annoyed when my mother brings it up at the dinner table, I can’t help but listen to every word, waiting for the next update in the soapbox drama that is the havoc of our lives. 

But we should be on the brink of panic. There have been more than 188,000 deaths in the United States due to COVID-19. Yet, here we are. We’ve settled. Perhaps it’s a testament to the persistence of the human condition — we have to adapt or else we’ll fall behind. 

Though we’ve only begun to settle now, early March seems like a childhood fever dream — hazy, intense and difficult to decipher what’s real and what’s not. But it was at that moment that I was still settling into a city I had been in for only two months, away in London on a study abroad program. I miss the feeling of being unsettled. 

“Drinks are so much cheaper here,” said Abbey, another study abroad student from New Jersey, as she tossed the convenience store cashier five pounds. We drank Strongbow Dark Fruit on the tube to a punk show in Shoreditch in an effort to not buy the expensive drinks the venue sold. We were both scholarship students, and we couldn’t afford expensive nights out like our cohorts. Yet, we were also both huge fans of punk rock music, and we were absolutely thrilled at the prospect of going to a show in Britain —  the birthplace of punk music, which later became politicized in places like Latin America and Australia. Though today, the genre has shifted greatly from the punk rock of the 70s, we were drawn to the outspoken anti-establishmentarian politics it still possesses. 

We finagled our way into spending as little as possible while enjoying the evening as much as we could. Abbey was wearing black lipstick to match her black eyeliner and hair. I was wearing something not as fashionable, I’m sure. Abbey was cooler than she thought she was, which made her even cooler. She was the one that introduced me to the venue, and I was just happy she’d asked me to go with her. 

I borrowed cigarettes from strangers all night, exhaling the smoke from the burnt tobacco into the foggy London air. The smoke traveled into my own lungs and the lungs of the punk rockers on the streets. We shared stories with one another, we shared our cigarettes and we shared our drinks, too. It seemed like we were sharing just about everything. I feel unsettled by the idea of this now, but then, sharing a drink wasn’t something to be afraid of. 

One of the smokers had graduated from the university I was attending in the United Kingdom. He studied drama, just as I did, but he told me he regretted his decision, lamenting his past mistakes and failed job prospects. He finished off his drunken ramble by scuffing his cigarette butt into the cement and saying, “There’s no way you can control anything. Anything at all!” I agreed with him then, but I’d soon realize even more just how right he was. 

Inside the venue, I pressed my body against the hordes of people at the foot of the stage, bumping and thumping to the heavy drums of the band before me. We crashed into one another, letting out screams and embracing each other’s sweat. I view the mosh pit of a punk show as the epicenter of what punk stands for: a collective of people, typically lower class, coming together to release their pent-up anger toward a system that has failed them. Historically, punk music has been a symbol for anarchy; in fact, as is stated in an article by CrimethInc., a decentralized collective website, “A large proportion of those who participated in the anarchist movement between 1978 and 2010 were part of the punk counterculture at some point, indeed, many were first exposed to anarchist ideas via punk. This may have been merely circumstantial: perhaps the same traits that made people seek out anarchism also predisposed them to enjoy aggressive, independently produced music.”

The lyrics we were moshing to were full of angry words directed at demolishing a flawed government. Being in the mosh pit becomes synonymous with an overwhelming sense of belonging. As odd as it seems, crashing my body into hordes of sweaty strangers brought me a feeling of comfort as I partook in a collective rage toward a failing government system. If only I had known then that in the months to come, the U.S. would fail to protect the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. 

Clutching the empty can of Strongbow we’d snuck into the venue, Abbey said, “I’ve got to pee.” We headed to the bathroom. Rows of people were sloshing around, falling into and over each other. As we passed a couple making out in the corner and a man yelling at his friend under the TV,  I saw a familiar pair of eyes peering at me. It was Thomas, a student in my study abroad program from Michigan State University.

“Hey! What are you doing here?” I laughed. I couldn’t believe I saw someone I recognized in a city so big — the anonymity of London was one of the most unsettling things about it. Running into a familiar face felt like I was back at a party in Ann Arbor.

“Hey,” he replied, his response colder than I expected. I was surprised; we’d had a few classes together abroad, and we’d developed some type of comradery over being from rival schools in the U.S. His response was more stoic than usual, so I asked him what was going on. 

“Have you seen your email?” he asked. I hadn’t — my phone was deep in the pocket of my winter coat, buried under piles of others by the front door. He showed me his. The words of the drunken drama student earlier in the night — you can’t control anything! — echoed in my head. The email had to do with a newly discovered coronavirus that was infecting thousands and threatening the lives of millions. The email was clear: Our home universities were calling us back to the U.S.

Over the next few days, the city of London began to shut down. The tube was scarily empty, and on the off chance you’d sit in the same row as someone else, they'd pierce you with a look of panic. Hand sanitizer, toilet paper and Cadbury chocolate bars were among the many goods that were missing from the grocery store shelves. Companies were offering discounts on major tourist attractions because there were no tourists to attract.  

I had about a week until my flight back to Ann Arbor, where I’d remain for the foreseeable future. I wanted to embrace the last moments of what the city had to offer: West End shows, double-decker bus rides and curry from the East End. Yet, it seemed as though there was no city left. I watched what happened in the U.S., and the next day, the U.K. would follow suit. When Broadway in the U.S. shut down, so did the shows in London’s West End. When the University of Michigan went online, the universities in England did the same. I watched as a country I was so familiar with changed completely, and a country I was just starting to fall in love with morphed into something I could’ve never predicted. I was grappling with the pain of change two times over. 

Like in the mosh pit, I was again experiencing a collective feeling; though this time it was fear instead of rage. We weren’t alone in this. Browsing the headlines out of both countries and talking with my friends abroad, it was clear the same thing happening there was happening here, and we were connected in our struggle.

During my flight’s layover, the enormity of this crisis finally hit me, and grief ensued as I walked through the Dallas Fort Worth Airport. During my time abroad, I had noticed many similarities between the U.K. and the U.S. Though I didn’t know it while I was sitting at the airport, our two countries would grow even more similar. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Health Service would call on their citizens to wear masks so as to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Social distancing would be enforced in both countries. U.K. citizens would be asked to stand two meters apart; equivalent to the six feet in the U.S

As the quarantine days dragged on and spring turned into summer, I kept in contact with my friends and family in London. Sharing our collective fear, though we were miles apart, made me feel less alone. The other day, I spoke with my friend Ollie from the U.K. via FaceTime, and we mourned over those last few days of normalcy before the world turned inside out. He commented with a sad laugh, “I realized it was bad when the pubs started to close because the pubs are never closed here … like ever.” 

When I FaceTime my friends across the pond, I am met with strange relief. We are oceans apart and time zones away, but in a way, we still were in the punk show mosh pit — now as a combined force battling against the threat of the virus, begging our leaders to prioritize our lives in their decision-making. Yet, it seemed as though our leaders were more focused on the economy than us. In the U.S., much of the COVID-19 relief ended in the midst of the ongoing pandemic. The Republican Senate rejected extending the $600 enhanced unemployment benefits that expired for almost 30 million Americans on July 25.  

“If you are making $50,000 a year, it is more advantageous to be on unemployment insurance than it is to go back to work. That’s an example in this legislation of something that’s going to hurt, not help the economy,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, told CNBC. Yet, going back to work means more exposure to the virus, and for many Americans, that could lead to some serious health issues. It brings me immense sorrow to think of my fellow Americans returning to a deadly work environment just so they can pay their rent for the month. 

In the U.K., changes to benefits have left disabled people facing poverty. According to the Guardian, “The Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC) said in an open letter to the work and pensions secretary, Thérèse Coffey, that changes introduced last week to raise the weekly rate of universal credit by £20 would not apply to those on legacy benefits. Many claimants will not receive the increase, worth more than £1,000 a year, because they receive employment and support allowance (ESA), a disability unemployment benefit that pre-dates universal credit.” 

This will lead many disabled citizens to face an unforeseen loss of income and federal support. Many of my friends and family members that live in London are feeling the same kind of immense sorrow for their fellow citizens that I do for those in the U.S. 

In our phone conversation a few days ago, Ollie said that London looks entirely different than it did in May. “It’s super busy. The streets are packing up again, the tubes are getting busier. There is a strange sense of normality now.” This may be due to the fact that, in an effort to resurge the economy, many U.K. businesses have opened up. This is not unlike the businesses reopening in the U.S. in an effort to continue collecting sales tax. This reopening does not come without a price, as the U.K. has contended with a second wave of COVID-19, while the U.S. is still grappling with more than 40,000 new cases daily. After my conversation with Ollie, I was again amazed at the similarities between the U.K. and the U.S. I told him that it seemed as though both of our governments valued saving the economy over saving the lives of their citizens. 

“It seems like people are dropping dead left, right and center over there,” he said. I nodded my head to agree, and we were silent for a moment. “I’m scared,” I admitted. “I am too,” he agreed. 

I felt comforted to know I wasn’t alone in my fear. These past few months have been filled with self-quarantining and social distancing, both of which only bring a sense of unsettling isolation. But similar to the punk rockers bobbing about in the mosh pit, I’ve realized it is our collective feelings that allow us to feel some sense of belonging, even during these frighteningly isolating times.