Scenes From a Pandemic: 2

13 04 2020

by Kate Savage

This post continues a series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe it. The series is a collaboration between Kopkind and The Nation, where each dispatch initially appears online.

(photos: Kate Savage)

Life, Disease & the Geography of Catastrophe

Salt Lake City

When the earth starts shaking, you’re not supposed to run to a doorframe. The doorframe is no safer than anywhere else, and rushing there is dangerous. 

It doesn’t matter. When the largest earthquake in Salt Lake City’s recorded history hits—as it happens, early on Wednesday morning, March 18—and at every heavy aftershock, we still run to the doorframe. Education doesn’t help; the allure of the wood of the doorframe is inescapable. Gripping it is a plan. A goal. Something to do amid the uncontrollable.

From the doorframe I learn that the first stage of an earthquake is chaos-shaking; the second stage is rocking, forward and back, as if the earth finally finds its rhythm. I learn the noise of it, a low raspy hum right at the lowest frequency my ear can detect. 

Our city sprawls at the foot of the Wasatch Range. These are absurdly beautiful mountains, ready-made for brochures. Only now do we remember the Wasatch Range was built by catastrophe, bit by bit.

It confuses me, all the small kindnesses of this place, and all the big cruelties. All the catastrophes past, present, and future.

The day of the quake, our city is at the foot of another slope, the exponential rise of Covid-19 cases. We refresh websites all day. One tab shows the latest aftershocks, so we can determine whether the earth moved underneath us or we just imagined the tremor. Another tab shows the latest case count for the virus in Utah. 

The numbers don’t help us. They are doorframes, a useless handhold amid the uncontrollable.

* * *

I live in a small community house. There are just four of us, all climate justice and immigration rights organizers. All introverts. Here we call this the Crone Virus, and embrace the life we hope to have when we are old. We tend to our hens and our sprouting garlic. We make big batches of soup and herbal tea. We feel a secret relief that we are ethically obligated to stay home.

But we’re still stumbling over this new moral calculus, trying to sustain a network of families facing deportation and detention, using phone calls and texts and awkward porch drop-offs. I cherish my time with two kids during a food delivery as they describe their favorite TikTok videos and tease each other about their crushes. They are so lively and normal. But we all grow silent when their mom asks what will happen to her husband in immigration detention. 

Throughout the day I remember; I forget; I remember. The cold chill of it. The people we know in detention, the people we don’t know. Even in non-pandemic times, diseases hit detention centers hard. Last year mumps and chickenpox roared through Colorado’s Aurora Detention Center. In expensive phone calls to their families living here, detainees described the nightmare: whole wings locked down in quarantine, the aches and fevers and fainting. They said it felt like they had been left to die.

* * *

When my ancestors first settled this place, they brought all their dreams and all their diseases. Both their dreams and diseases eradicated whole peoples. The part of Utah Mormon culture that feels so safe and stable to me was, like the mountains, built by catastrophes.

Today, a woman from the suburbs left boxes of fancy food-storage meals on our porch for us to redistribute to immigrant families. The food comes from her Mormon neighbor, part of his two-year End Times supply that he wants to share with those who need it more. 

It confuses me, all the small kindnesses of this place, and all the big cruelties. All the catastrophes past, present, and future.

Salt Lake City is built around a Mormon temple, with all the street numbers counted out from this ground zero. At the top spire stands a 12-foot-tall Angel Moroni, hammered out of copper and covered in 22-karat gold leaf. He faces east and holds a trumpet to his mouth. When I was a kid, my mom told me the statue would blow the trumpet to announce the End Times. 

In the earthquake, Moroni’s trumpet clattered out of his grip and fell to the ground, and now we have to wait here within time, unsure what’s beginning and what’s ending.

Kate Savage lives in a collective house in Salt Lake City. For money she writes about legal technology. For no money she works at local immigration rights organizing. Kate participated in Kopkind’s Occupy camp in 2012. This piece appeared on on April 8, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and all our collaborators in The Nation crew.


Bonus: A Note From Tariq Ali

London, April 11. For your Kopkind short reads? Cao Zhi, son of Cao Cao and one of the best-known poets of the late Han/Three Kingdoms period, wrote this piece, below, about a plague. Here in the UK, 1,000 deaths a day, and this is not counting care homes, where a holocaust of the elderly is in process all over Europe. The nuns near Valencia fled from a home, leaving people to agonising deaths… T.

The Plague Airs 
Cao Zhi (192-232 CE)

In 216, the 22nd year of Establishing Peace, the contagion spread, bringing sorrows over corpses in every family, tears of lament in each abode. They died behind shuttered doors or perished by the clan. Some said this was the work of ghosts or spirits. Yet the fallen were the rag-wearers and bark-eaters, in hovels of bramble and sedge. Among those who dwelt in great halls and supped from bronze cauldrons, cloaked in marten fur, on plush cushions… it was rare. The cosmic forces were out of balance; winter and summer had turned around: this was its cause. Some tried to drive it away with far-fetched spells. That was laughable too.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Triumph of Death. Circa 1562. Oil on panel. Prado Museum.


建安二十二年,疠气流行。家家有僵尸之痛,室室有号泣之哀。 或阖门而殪, 或覆族而 丧。或以为疫者,鬼神所作。人罹此者,悉被褐茹藿之子,荆室蓬户之人耳!若夫殿处鼎 食之家,重貂累蓐之门,若是者鲜焉。此乃阴阳失位,寒暑错时,是故生疫。而愚民悬符 厌z之,亦可笑也。

(Translated by Chris Connery)

Tariq Ali’s latest book, co-edited with Margaret Kunstler, is In Defense of Julian Assange (O/R Books). Tariq was a guest speaker at Kopkind in 2003.



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