cape flatsThis essay, on why the devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic in not equally shared, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 5 April 2020, under the headline ‘Whether in the UK or the developing world, we’re not all in coronavirus together’.

The virus does not discriminate’, suggested Michael Gove after both Boris Johnson and the health secretary, Matt Hancock, were struck down by Covid-19. The virus does not. But societies do. And in so doing, they ensure that the devastation wreaked by the virus is not equally shared.

We can see this in the way that the low paid both disproportionately have to continue to work and are more likely to be laid off; in the sacking of an Amazon worker for leading a protest against unsafe conditions; in the rich having access to coronavirus tests denied to even most NHS workers.

But to see most clearly how societies allow the virus to discriminate, look not at London or Rome or New York but at Delhi and Johannesburg and Lagos. Here, ‘social distancing’ means something very different than it does to Europeans or Americans. It is less about the physical space between people than the social space between the rich and poor that means only the privileged can maintain any kind of social isolation.

In the Johannesburg township of Alexandra, somewhere between 180,000 and 750,000 people live in an estimated 20,000 shacks. Through it runs South Africa’s most polluted river, the Jukskei, whose water has tested positive for cholera and has run black from sewage. Makoko is often called Lagos’s ‘floating slum’ because a third of the shacks are built on stilts over a fetid lagoon. No one is sure how many people live there, but it could be up to 300,000. Dharavi, in Mumbai, is the word’s largest slum. Like Makoko and Alexandra, it nestles next to fabulously rich areas, but the million people estimated to live there are squashed intoless than a square mile of land that was once a rubbish tip.

In such neighbourhoods, what can social distancing mean? Extended families often live in one- or two-room shacks. The houses may be scrubbed and well kept but many don’t have lavatories, electricity or running water. Communal latrines and water points are often shared by thousands. Diseases from diarrhoea to typhoid stalked such neighbourhoods well before coronavirus.

South Africa, Nigeria and India have all imposed lockdowns.  Alexandra and Dharavi have both reported their first cases of coronavirus. But in these neighbourhoods, the idea of protecting oneself from coronavirus must seem as miraculous as clean water.

Last week, tens of thousands of Indian workers, suddenly deprived of the possibility of pay, and with most public transport having been shut down, decided to walk back to their home villages, often hundreds of miles away, in the greatestmass exodus since partition. Four out of five Indians work in the informal sector. Almost 140 million, more than a quarter of India’s working population, are migrants from elsewhere in the country. Yet their needs had barely figured in the thinking of policymakers, who seemed shocked by the actions of the workers.

India’s great exodus shows that ‘migration’ is not, as we imagine in the west, merely external migration, but internal migration, too. Internal migrants, whether in India, Nigeria or South Africa, are often treated as poorly as external ones and often for the same reason – they are not seen as ‘one of us’ and so denied basic rights and dignities. In one particularly shocking incident, hundreds of migrants returning to the town of Bareilly, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, were sprayed by officials with chemicals usually used to sanitise buses. They might as well have been vermin, not just metaphorically but physically, too.

All this should make us think harder about what we mean by ‘community’. In Britain, the pandemic has led to a flowering of social-mindedness and community solidarity. Where I live in south London, a mutual aid group has sprung up to help self-isolating older people. The food bank has gained a new throng of volunteers. Such welcome developments have been replicated in hundreds of places around the country.

But the idea of a community is neither as straightforward nor as straightforwardly good as we might imagine. When Donald Trump reportedly offers billions of dollars to a German company to create a vaccine to be used exclusively for Americans, when Germany blocks the export of medical equipment to Italy, when Britain, unlike Portugal, refuses to extend to asylum seekers the right to access benefits and healthcare during the coronavirus crisis, each does so in the name of protecting a particular community or nation.

The rhetoric of community and nation can become a means not just to discount those deemed not to belong but also to obscure divisions within. In India, Narendra Modi’s BJP government constantly plays to nationalist themes, eulogising Bhārat Mata, or Mother India. But it’s a nationalism that excludes many groups, from Muslims to the poor. In Dharavi and Alexandra and Makoko, and many similar places, it will not simply be coronavirus but also the willingness of the rich, both in poor countries and in wealthier nations, to ignore gross inequalities that will kill.

In Britain in recent weeks, there has been a welcome, belated recognition of the importance of low-paid workers. Yet in the decade before that, their needs were sacrificed to the demands of austerity, under the mantra of ‘we’re all in it together’. We need to beware of the same happening after the pandemic, too, of the rhetoric of community and nation being deployed to protect the interests of privileged groups. We need to beware, too, that in a world that many insist will be more nationalist, and less global, we don’t simply ignore what exists in places such as Alexandra and Makoko and Dharavi.

‘We’re all at risk from the virus’, observed Gove. That’s true. It is also true that societies, both nationally and globally, are structured in ways that ensure that some face far more risk than others – and not just from coronavirus.



The photo is of a shack in Cape Flats in Cape Town. I took in in 2015.


  1. damon

    “Chicago Mayor: ‘Breathtaking’ That African Americans Dying At Higher Rates”

    Those statistics are going to be much discussed for years to come.
    The African American community began moving to Chicago from the south a hundred years ago.
    And still there are these levels of disparity. Inside one country, amongst citizens.

    As for Africa and Asia’s problems – they are too many to even list fully.
    Though one simple statistic stands out. Today, Nigeria’s population is over 200 million; and it was half that just thirty years ago. So the country is not being managed properly on so many levels. Where’s all the oil money going?
    How can they be building exclusive Dubai style beach suburbs, while leaving places like Makoko to rot and sink?
    It’s because of government – and also the dislocation from the most dynamic parts of the world economy.
    But mostly government I would guess. If the Chinese Communist Party was running the country, they’d improve things in a decade.
    I’m not suggesting they do run it of course, but if it was run better, there could be fast improvements.
    Or if (theoretically) Nigeria accepted some assistance in running their government from technocratic European (or Asian) prudent experts. Like running the oil ministry for example and making sure that the money from that went into national infrastructure projects which benefited the people.
    That can’t happen of course, as it would be described as neo-colonialism.

    On the question of what European countries could do to help Africa – and the question of refugees and migrants comes up, I thought it might make it easier to think it through if certain African countries were “paired off” with particular European countries. Like Nigeria and the UK for example.
    Africa has twice the EU’s population, so each European country should be looking to “twin” with an African country or region about twice their size (or three times, like with Nigeria and the UK.)
    So if it was just the UK that was available to help alleviate Nigeria’s situation, how should we go about it?
    If the UK had open borders with Nigeria, how many would come? How much aid should we send Nigeria each year? Would we have to have some kind of economic union with them?
    Should the whole of Africa be brought into some kind of economic union with Europe?

  2. The stratification of communities, societies, nations and the world can only be remedied by equal pay for an hours work.

    Simultaneously, Western nations need to reduce their consumption, the amount being dependent on population levels.

    If we are to reduce stratification and live within planetary boundaries, then equalisation must occur from the bottom, not the middle or the top.

    This means setting an hourly wage for everybody that enables ecological debtor nations such as Britain to reduce consumption. This would, at a guess, be around £15-20 per hour.

    The question then, are the middle classes finally prepared to walk their talk by taking a significant reduction in their pay, via taxation, to achieve both societal equalisation and a Nation living within its safe operating space.

  3. freemind

    Unless we can use our modern monetary system to provide a ‘basic income’ rather than bailing out some ‘corps’ its only going to amplify the division and create sociopolitical disintegration.

  4. This was a really interesting read which reflected my thoughts perfectly. I guess with the likes of Prince Charles and Boris Johnson getting the coronovirus it might show that the virus does not discriminate but it also shows that the societal response the the virus does. Like you said, the rich and powerful are able to get tested and hospitalised straight away whilst nurses are left to face the virus head-on without sufficient equipment, and the average citizen denied care even when symptoms are severe. It’s almost ironic how migrants and others within the NHS and the supposed ‘low-skilled’ jobs are just now being viewed as essential. Even still there are little measures being put into place to ensure their safety and their pay remains the same- in some ways this is still the continuation of attitudes towards these individuals outside of current condition where there is little concern for their lives and their safety is sacrificed in a flash for comfort and health of those with wealth and power. The claps may be a nice gesture but they do nothing to change the conditions under which, as society dictates, these individuals have no choice but to work.

  5. damon

    “when Britain, unlike Portugal, refuses to extend to asylum seekers the right to access benefits and healthcare during the coronavirus crisis”
    Can you do that easily? Aren’t many of the offices closed? It sounds like a huge logistical procedure.
    In the linked article about Portugal it says: “Applicants including asylum seekers need only provide evidence of an ongoing request to qualify – granting them access to the national health service, welfare benefits, bank accounts, and work and rental contracts.”

    That sounds pretty radical. Even bank accounts? Getting a bank account is a pretty security and identity conscious procedure. You usually need all kinds of references. Can all those people who have recently smuggled themselves across the Channel be set up as regular residents so quickly?

    I thought Afua Hirsch and the other Guardian opinion writers would notice this aspect pretty fast:
    “If coronavirus doesn’t discriminate, how come black people are bearing the brunt?”

    And she’s not wrong about many of the things she says.
    Nesrine Malik has written a piece making similar points – particularly how much the NHS relies on black and minority ethnic people. People who don’t have the luxury to go and self-isolate in their country homes like many celebrities are doing.
    I do get the feeling though, that a lot of this new coverage about the virus, race and disadvantage is going to be rather narrow in the way it looks at the issue. I’m just waiting for David Lammy’s take on it.

    Just found another one:
    “It’s a racial justice issue’: Black Americans are dying in greater numbers from Covid-19”.

  6. Patrick S. O'Donnell

    This is one reason the talking heads in the mass and social media as well as political pundits and politicians should become better informed about social epidemiology (which can incorporate while transcending in a more relevant causal and explanatory sense, bio-statistical/medical epidemiology), an incipient form of which goes back to the mid-nineteenth century:

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