[COVID-19] Conviviality in Quarantine

by Serena Stein

As Covid-19 accelerates in the United States, we are only beginning to come to terms with new realities of  ‘distancing,’ immobility, and enclosure that jeopardize the conviviality  and deeper bonds that sustain us. As infection and dis-ease spread throughout the world, the belated arrival of coronavirus to the United States was an opportunity to prepare for disaster that was largely squandered. As we now know, the fleeting window for better preparedness was undermined by disbelief, fueled by misleading statements from government officials, and namely the president. The following poem, written on Sunday March 15, is now a kind of artifact of a strange moment of incongruity, refusal, and impending doom in the brief interim before more severe measures were implemented to reduce coronavirus transmission in the American arena.

 Where I currently live in the northeast, Monday began with the shutdown of many university campuses, local schools and daycares for the foreseeable future, followed by restaurants, shops, and gyms. We move steadily, it seems, toward strict shelter-in-place policies as the coronavirus accelerates (although confirmed cases remain low, as very little testing is accessible to the public). In what follows, I reflect on a walk through my neighborhood on a brilliant day of sunshine when chirping birds and sweet earthy aromas of spring provide terrible contrasts of menace and beauty, knowledge and reckless denial, commons and constraint. Although public spaces were bustling with little children at play, they did so under a somber pall. Patrons of neighborhood cafes complained loudly of distancing measures, while sitting in awkwardly separated arrangements. These places, now closed, teem with birds chirping energetically – for no one.

In the coming months, we will together be reimagining the convivial cultures of our societies, after isolation, loss of life, and great shifts to global economy and socialist projects. As we push toward more ‘tolerant, humane, pluralistic and cosmopolitan’ worlds, I hope we will also marvel at new ways of togetherness and solidarity created in the interim.

Conviviality in Quarantine

Spiteful hoarders! (Silly, prescient)

Baseless closures! (Needed, excessive)

With no mask to pocket and no shelves to plunder,

Let the springtime sun shine on pallid cheeks!

So envelope your body, and wonder, with me,

As crocuses, pink and purple,

Burst through damp earth,

yearning, facing the springtime sun.

Just a person (discrete, alone) in the quiet couplets meandering,

Smiling upon extravagant floral crowds.

Blissful, but for

The unknowable and unseen,

Why sacrifice, for this joy

To gather


Where there is friendship,

Warms us

The cordon will constrain the world so small.

The cordon will constrain the world so small.

I’d rather be porous, porous

Porosity that honors the

cracks and fissures,

of encounter, and the making of


I have been taught to be porous, porous,

Open, inclusive,

Now the distance is prescribed,

Amplifies the threat and chill,

The distance, that is prescribed,

Must repair, instead:

The cordon

As a tangle of roots, and arms,

As promises, that tether


Beyond self and kin.

To encircle the world,

In webs of moral regard,

The willing porous self in quarantine,

Can evaporate into riotous song that floats from balconies, and is carried

In sweet small gestures

of harmony,

Porosity that sacrifices


Repair, found at a distance. The paradox of encounter

in separation,

And openness in enclosure.

The cracks and fissures,

That lets death and loss in,

That lets light in, and sweet song,

The scent of Spring

In our insistence to heed, what is not seen,

Beyond the self, beyond kin,

That leads us on.


 Serena Stein is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Princeton University and visiting researcher at the Program in Agrarian Studies at Yale University in 2019-2020 while on an American Council of Learned Societies – Mellon Foundation Dissertation Completion Fellowship. Her doctoral research, entitled Kindred Frontiers: South-South Experiments in Aid, Agribusiness, and Extraction is an ethnography of postcolonial kinships, conflict, and conviviality among settlers, investors, agricultural scientists, and smallholder farmers across a landscape of northern Mozambique. Her work has found support from the Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, National Science Foundation, Fulbright Hays Fellowship, and National Geographic Society, among others.



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