Covid-19: A World United, A World Apart

8 minutes to read
Ana Deumert

The internet is filled with images of empty cityscapes: from Rome to New York, from Cape Town to Mumbai. In an attempt to contain the spread of Covid-19, a large percentage of the world’s population has been instructed to self-isolate

Covid-19 and mass quarantines: a world in lockdown 

Following the experience in China’s Hubei Province, mass quarantines are on the rise. To date, more than three dozen countries have implemented quarantines. This includes India with a population of over 1.3 billion as well as several countries in Africa. A further dozen or more countries are using regional quarantines to mitigate infection rates.

Mass quarantines and curfews – also known as stay-at-home orders – are emergency protocols that keep people and objects in-place. They are used to stem the spread of pandemics by ensuring – if necessary with force – that a physical distancing protocol is followed. 

The widespread implementation, and political acceptance, of mass quarantines – currently referred to as ‘lockdowns’ in English-language media – is noteworthy. As recently as 2018 the WHO noted that: 

‘Measures such as quarantine, for example, once regarded as a matter of fact, would be unacceptable to many populations today.’

The current change in attitude – with citizens not only accepting but demanding lockdowns – speaks to the humanitarian crisis that we are facing, and to the speed with which the coronavirus has been spreading (Slavoj Žižek, Monitor and Punish? Yes, Please!).

While physical distancing is now enforced across the world, the local realities where lockdowns are implemented are not the same and – as so often – sharp differences emerge between the global North and global South; reminding us of the afterlife of colonialism, haunting the present.

Covid-19 in South Africa 

I write this column in South Africa, a country that is a microcosm of the world at large. North and South are meshed into one, wealth next to poverty, a highly developed formal economy next to a buzzing informal economy, affluent global mobilities next to the forced mobilities of low-wage labour and the immobilities of socio-economic destitution. 

On Sunday 15 March 2020, the South African President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a National State of Disaster. At this point infections stood at 61. A week later, on 23 March 2020, infections had risen to 402, and the President announced a 21-day lockdown of the country, starting on 27 March. On the first day of lockdown infections stood at over 1000. The pattern is familiar, and the government acted swiftly and decisively. 

Stopping the spread of the pandemic is especially urgent in a country where comorbidities – TB, HIV/Aids, violence and nutritional deficiencies – has stretched the public health system almost beyond capacity. This will leave only very limited resources for dealing with Covid-19. 


In the last week of March 2020, the hashtag #StayAtHome – as well as the more emphatic #StayTheFuckHome – circulated on various social media sites, globally as well as locally. 

On Twitter the hashtag appeared in tweets posted in various languages: English, Portuguese, German, French, Turkish, Javanese, Hindi and Arabic. It appeared in tweets that originated in Kenya and the United States, in Serbia and Rwanda. 

The hashtag united the world in their response to the pandemic: not just a national lockdown, but maybe even a global one, a coming together of everyone in their commitment to ‘stay home’.

Yet, the moral force of the illocutionary speech act #StayAtHome is saturated with privilege. It assumes the existence of a home as a place that can be closed off from public life, that is safe and that can protect us. It assumes the existence of a home from which one cannot be evicted, or which is not in danger of being bulldozed to the ground. It assumes the existence of a home that is not a place of physical and emotional violence – something that, especially, women and children cannot take for granted (Emma Graham-Harrison, Lockdowns Around the World Bring Rise in Domestic Violence). 

Middle-class realities

As an academic working for a South African university I can stay at home in relative comfort: relying on various forms of digital media I continue to work and stay in touch with colleagues and friends. 

My life is now saturated with mediated socialities, and the bandwidth of my home WIFI connection allows me to maintain a sense of connectivity with others. My life has long been shaped by what Jan Blommaert (The Coronavirus and Online Culture) calls the online-offline nexus. Shifting to a full online mode for a few weeks is possible and, actually, surprisingly easy (even though I dearly miss the touch and the physical presence of others; as noted by Sisonke Msimang, Homesick: Notes on Lockdown). 

I also continue receive a regular salary and can thus follow the recommendation to shop as rarely as possible and rather buy supplies for a longer period. To ‘panic buy’ – something that happened the world over in recent weeks – requires one to have money, not to live from hand-to-mouth. Panic-buying is a pathological form of over-consumption, indicative of the capitalist logic under which humanity has lived for far too long.

Physical distancing – whether voluntary or via a stay-at-home order – is not easy, it is filled with worries and anxieties about the future. But it is possible for me and many others. Lindiwe Sisulu, Minister of Human Settlement, described the current South African lockdown as a ‘middle class solution’ during a press conference on 28 March 2020. Is the current response to the pandemic grounded in middle-class realities? 

When home is a slum

Karsten Nkoko, writing about Covid-19 responses in Africa, notes: ‘in Africa, social distancing is a privilege that few can afford’ (also Mark Western, How to Tackle Coronavirus in SlumsSteven Friedman, Pandemics Don't Heal Divisions).

For those who live in South Africa’s slums and informal settlements basic sanitation is difficult to follow. Water supply is intermittant and home is likely to be an informal make-shift structure – a shack, with several occupants and outside toilets that are shared by multiple dwellings.

Overcrowding is a major challenge in South Africa’s informal settlements. In Khayelitsha, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town, some areas house over 30.000 people per square-km. In the leafy middle-class suburb of Rondebosch, the population density is around 2000 people per square-km, whereas the opulent mansions of Constantia are located in an area with less than 200 people per square-km (Statistics South Africa, 2011).

Livelihoods are another problem: how can one survive and purchase the necessary groceries if one belongs to the 2.5 million South Africans who work in the informal sector? Or if one does not have a work contract and the employers stopped paying wages due to the lockdown? Or if one belongs to the large number of the unemployed? For how long can one isolate if there is no food? 

Abahlali baseMjondolo – South Africa’s shack-dwellers’ movement – voiced their concerns in a public statement, the day before the lockdown was announced:

Shack dwellers, and other poor people, including street traders, casual workers and undocumented migrants, have not been taken into consideration when it comes to the prevention of the corona virus, or included in decision making about the crisis … [T]he reality is that millions of us continue to live in shacks of indignity. It does not seem possible to prevent this virus from spreading when we still live in the mud like pigs, when in many settlements there is no water, or hundreds of people sharing one tap, and many settlements lack any access to sanitation. (A Call for Solidarity in a Time of Crisis)

The informal settlements represent what Frantz Fanon (Black Skin, White Masks, 1952) called the ‘zones of nonbeing’, the hellish place where the damnés survive the ‘disaster of black existence’ (Lewis Gordon, Through the Hellish Zone of Nonbeing, 2007).

Looking towards history

That it is the damnés who are most affected during global pandemics is a lesson from history. 

The Spanish Flu of 1918 hit the colonies especially hard: in Africa mortality rates from the flu were above 5% for many countries (such as Cameroon, The Gambia, Ghana and South Africa), in India it was over 6%, and a staggering 22% mortality was recorded for Western Samoa. By comparison, the death rate in Euro-America was below 1% (Niall Johnson and Juergen Mueller, Updating the Accounts, 2002). 

Moreover, in North America, Australia, New Zealand and Scandinavia, mortality was three to eight times higher for Indigenous people when compared to non-Indigenous people (Svenn-Erik Mamelund, Profiling a Pandemic, 2017). It is those on the margins – the wretched, the oppressed, the damnés – who suffer most.

The historical sources speak, time and again, to a strong correlation between poverty, deprivation and illness. In 1928, Punjab’s sanitary commissioner wrote: 

‘The people who suffer most are the poor and the rural classes, whose housing conditions, medical attendance, food and clothing are in defect’. (Cited in David Arnold, Death and the Modern Empire, 2019)

There is no reason to assume that this will be different today. Like the Spanish Flu, Covid-19 is a classed, gendered and racialized pandemic (David Harvey, Anti-Capitalist Politics in the Time of Covid-19). The we-are-all-in-this-together discourse, while encouraging international solidarity, misses this fundamental point. 

Mobilities and livelihoods

Reports from India suggest that under the dire living conditions in urban slums many prefer to return to their home villages, creating new forms of mass mobility (Anjali Mody, India’s Poor Adrift). These, in turn, carry the danger of spreading the virus.

In South Africa, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize urged South African migrant workers not to return to their villages: his message was not only #StayAtHome, but also #StayWhereYouAre. 

Yet, mobility, which lockdowns try to prevent, are an important livelihood strategy. 

Lockdowns – while vital to public health in times of pandemics – isolate people from their diverse, often fragmented and rhizomatic, networks of support. These networks of support are not only economic, but also emotional. 

And here another chasm opens up: that of digital inequalities (which I discussed at length in a previous column). In South Africa and India, to stay with these two countries, digital connectivity remains polarized: extensive access for the affluent, limited access for the working classes and those who are without employment, without income. 

Calls to network providers to offer free data – beyond access to government and selected educational sites – have so far fallen on deaf ears (Koketso Moeti, How a Pandemic Underscores the Importance of Internet Access).

The world as we know it

Looking at Covid-19 from an Olympian distance, one could argue that what is happening right now is a gigantic socio-economic experiment under conditions of extreme uncertainty (and fear): mass quarantine measures around the world are reshaping workplaces, education and social life. As social scientists we will study this when all is over. We will count the deaths and the survivors. We will ask if the nature of sociality has changed, if new economic practices emerged, if life-on-the-screen can be emotionally nourishing in the same way as physical co-presence. But not now. 

At this point in time, with infections rising rapidly and exponentially, there is no alternative to mass quarantine. And lockdowns could, in principle, seed a new politics of compassion and care: an expansion of social welfare measures to all, free access to the internet, new forms of working, conferencing and teaching remotely, less damaging forms of consumption. They could end capitalism as we know it, and show the world how Africa can do it (Chambi Chachage, Social distancing and "flatten the curve").

For example, suggestions have been made to support South Africa’s informal sector workers with a minimal grant of 1000 Rand (circa 50 Euro; Kate Phillip, The Case for A Special Covid-19 Grant). To implement such a grant would require committed government action: a commitment to help and empower the most vulnerable, right now but also in future. This does not seem to be happening; at least not yet. On 30 March 2020 a group of South African economists wrote a public letter, asking for a range of economic measures to protect households, protect workers and businesses, and to strengthen public health. 

Similarly, to support online teaching massive investments would be needed to ensure digital access for all – otherwise we will create a bifurcated education system, leaving many students behind. 

It is not only national governments and business (such as mobile phone companies) that are called to action, but also the international community. This is the time for debt relief and for more intense discussions about reparations. The countries in the global South are attempting to stem the pandemic, but they do so with limited resources – while still in the grip of a neoliberal world order.

Caring and compassionate policy interventions are possible, but the question is whether they will happen. If we are optimists, then we will hope for them. Alternatively, Covid-19, just like the Spanish flu and HIV/Aids, will work along the existing fault lines of our societies and those who suffer most will be those who have suffered for centuries.