Philip Amis is a senior lecturer in International Urban Development at the University of Birmingham. He has experience of urban issues both through research and consultancy in Africa and South Asia. His research interests include: Urban policy and poverty, Local Government and Aid management.
The current Covid 19 pandemic is likely to spread in the next few weeks and months to the South and in particular South Asia and Sub Saharan Africa. The impact may well be of a greater scale than that currently experienced in the North; India was the region with the highest loss of live in the 1918-1919 Spanish flu Pandemic. The experience and historical experience suggests that urban areas will be disproportionately affected.
Many urban areas in the south contain significant areas of informal settlements where the poor and/or those on low income reside. These are usually on marginal sites and vary in scale; they have very high population densities; single room occupancy: and poor or non-existent direct water provision and sanitation facilities. Estimates vary but these settlements may account for somewhere between 20%-60% of the population in many urban areas. However in most cases because of high density they represent a much lower proportion of the urban land area.
Many of the cities in South Asia and Sub Saharan Africa have inherited a colonial spatial structure. Ideas of disease control and distance where a significant element in this conception. In many cases the idea of the “cordon sanitaire” is a colonial construction and was used to keep apart the native and the administrative (colonial) urban areas. This was consistent across both Anglophone and Francophone zones. The combination of medical ideas and racist ideologies are intimately linked; the debate on which was the primary driver is complex and does not matter here.
This spatial pattern is common to almost all cities in Africa and South Asia and takes different forms: in some like Nairobi this was explicitly built in to ideas of racial residential zoning and planning and was codified in the 1948 Nairobi Plan. This urban morphology remains more or less in tact with income now substituting for race. In this model the poor and/or informal settlements are in very clear defined urban areas.
While Nairobi is an extreme example many cities have similar morphologies the difference is often one of scale; fine graded differentiation in some India cities while often large patterns of spatial residential differentiation in other urban areas. In almost all such urban areas such informal settlements and/or slums can be clearly identified not least by the physical construction of the buildings and lack of infrastructure provision. This is often reinforced by public perception and official (non)recognition. This is often a construct that is well established by the police and other law enforcement agencies.
The idea of surrounding such areas in policing is an implicit policy in many cases. This can be both overt and subtle; large retail units in India for example seem to be able to keep the poor and/or undesirables out without any overt policing. Alternatively in times of conflict and protest isolation and policing can be explicit.
Given that poor areas in the cities in the Global South are likely to be areas of high prevalence of disease it seems that there will be a strong desire to isolate them on mass. This would be justified on the policy of “social distancing” and on the grounds that in such areas of high density a conventional social distancing policy could be argued to be untenable. Hence the desire to do such a policy at scale is likely to be overwhelming; not the least symbolically when there may be few other realistic options.
In some settlements there –especially where governmental control may be lacking- this may be attempted by local political/criminal/ community groups. There are reports that criminal gangs are seeking to do this in the favelas of Brazil; it is unclear at what scale this informal policing is trying to work.
The result is likely to be a systematic increase in residential segregation and policing at a slum and/or informal settlement level with serious potential outcomes. This would reverse twenty to thirty years of slum upgrading that has both implicitly and in some cases explicitly trying to incorporating such areas into the body politic and general idea of citizenship.
The argument here is that this is relatively easy to do because of the inherited urban morphology and also reflects a continuation –evident in many cities of the South- of affluent gated communities for the affluent. These are often driven by similar but different forces; thus security in South Africa and service and infrastructure provision in South Asia. There is also a literature on “fractured cities” in the North that makes similar observations.
Twenty years ago I would have suggested that this containment policy would be relatively unproblematic. My feeling is that the agency of the poor is now much greater with the general increase in democratic space resulting in greater political and community activity, and that such a policy is likely to be contested. The results of which are unknown but may be of considerable and national political significance. Potential conflict around the policing of the pandemic have already been reported in India, South Africa and Kenya.
The possible outcome would depend upon the extent to which community groups could be involved in this process; in many settlements they are effectively the main actors. There is strong evidence of the strength in many settlement of such actors and “institutions” This can vary from fairly democratic social capital type situations to situations where criminal gang type group (sometimes referred to a negative social capital) are in control. It is not clear to me what the outcomes are likely to be but may depend upon: the existing pattern of social activity in each settlement; the willingness of the local government to negotiate and the role and behaviour of community leaders. We hope the relevant municipal authorities will work with and not against grassroots community organizations to limit the impact of this pandemic.