Can marginalised urban communities face Covid-19 without state support?

Dominant amongst the narratives of the Covid-19 pandemic in African cities is worry about the devastating impact it may have on societies with majority populations of poor citizens who maintain minimal access to health infrastructure and public services.

Concurrent with the preceding familiar story of poverty, insecurity, and lack, is the narrative of how, in the face of these significant challenges, urban Africans draw on long-honed knowledge and expertise to meet these challenges in a resource poor setting.

In these accounts, the residents of African cities are making and creatively refashioning their own masks, manufacturing their own alcohol-based hand sanitisers, repairing the few ventilators their hospitals possess, and mobilising social networks of support to feed the hungry.

While these kinds of do-it-yourself (DIY) approaches are widely reported across the globe in wealthier and less resourced countries, DIY has been the default set up for the residents of many African countries to deal with the devastation wrought by structural adjustment policies that have led to protracted austerity, and diminished the role and capacity of the state.

The assemblage of tactics and strategies suggested by DIY boils down to the idea that it produces “private solutions to public problems”, in the words of a participant at a workshop on The Practice and Politics of Do-It-Yourself Urbanism in African Cities.

In December 2017, social scientists, policymakers, and practitioners met in Abuja (Nigeria) to discuss how urban residents navigate pervasive conditions of socio-economic, spatial, infrastructural, and resource precarities, in areas where the state is unable or unwilling to provide substantial support.

In these contexts, DIY becomes a matter of survival for marginalised urban populations. This is the reality of many urban Africans, one whose capacity for inventiveness in the face of crisis is well described in the works of urban scholars such as AbdouMaliq Simone, Edgar Pieterse, and Filip de Boeck.

They conceive of African and other Global South city residents almost as magicians, conjuring up, or in some cases, “divining”, provisional infrastructures and services where there appears to be none. In the current pandemic, there is no doubt that these skills are pushed to the extreme, as the lack of state health provision is much more conspicuous than usual.

Meanwhile, in the Global North, the answers to the question “how do you survive disaster?” tend to take two routes. On the one hand, and especially in the United States, militia groups, separatists, and doomsday preppers stockpile weapons and provisions in remote locations. They prepare for the alleged implosion of "civilisation", believed to be imminent and portrayed in apocalyptic scenarios ranging from full-on racialised warfare to a violent fascist take-over of the state.

One-percenters, meanwhile, prepare for coming climate disaster by building ornate, hi-tech bunkers staffed with private security and state-of-the-art facilities. Today, some choose to ride out the pandemic in isolation on ocean-faring luxury super yachts, in a way that reminds of European aristocrats withdrawing to remote posh rural mansions during the Black Death in the 14th century.

Africa is no different. Luxury enclaved green urban developments such as Lagos’ Eko Atlantic, and Lusaka’s Foxdale Forest, are popping up across the continent. These practices of the privileged are also a form of DIY so to speak, albeit one carried out with far more resources than their low-income counterparts. Sociologist Martin Murray describes these trends as an "urbanism of exception", where the wealthy increasingly set themselves apart in privatised spaces.

Outside these zones of privilege, the DIY practices of the urban poor are not driven by cataclysmic events as in the case of preppers, but by the slow-moving, grinding, minute disasters pervading most aspects of everyday life. In Lusaka and Detroit – locations in which we have done fieldwork – draconian austerity policies have pushed many residents to make a living outside formal structures, organise new forms of associational life, maintain and even create makeshift infrastructures to compensate for absence of public services.

In Detroit, for example, these efforts have produced a patchwork network of urban agriculture collectives to compensate for the unavailability of healthy food. In Lusaka, it encompasses almost the entire spectrum of societal organisation, under the ubiquitous heading of the ‘informal sector’, or as we would prefer to describe it, DIY urbanism. Here the processes of fending for yourself to cater for food, energy, water, and health needs have been adopted by the rich and poor alike.

A key difference here is that for the rich and wealthy, DIY practices function as a means of self-extraction away from the spaces of public goods and collective action. But for those occupying the most precarious socio-economic strata, DIY becomes a form of endurance, necessary, but insufficient, to scrape by day-to-day.

The fact that the Covid-19 pandemic kills socio-economically vulnerable populations at a disproportionate rate highlights these disparities. In Midwestern cities of the US, such as Milwaukee, Chicago and Detroit, the virus effects African American populations at a rate 6 to 7 times that of whites. In Michigan, for example, African Americans constitute 14% of the population, but comprise 33% of Covid-19 cases and 41% of the deaths.

So can marginaliseed urban communities cope with health and livelihoods threats such as those posed by Covid-19?

How southern African cities have dealt since the 1980s with the twin disasters of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and structural adjustment can throw some light on the question. People faced widespread job losses, and drastic cuts to public services including health care, compounded with HIV/AIDS.

In the absence of adequate numbers of paid health professionals and medication, the sphere of care was expanded to rely on a majority of voluntary, unpaid community and family caregivers. Only the few city residents with more resources can access privatised care, or travel to medical tourist destinations – the majority cannot. DIY practices might have helped to care for the sick and dying, providing dignity and decency in the midst of tragedy, but has not protected them from widespread suffering and millions of deaths. The situation has improved in the last two decades, but largely thanks to large-scale coordinated centralised roll out of antiretrovirals.

The limits of DIY are thus apparent. Stressed communities cannot produce the thousands of ventilators required to save people’s lives from Covid-19. Nor can they train the needed numbers of health professionals, or roll out the physical infrastructures to isolate large numbers of people testing positive from the rest of the population.

This reality requires us to revisit the role of state and its ability to act. This is not however a substitute for community action. What is the possibility to scale-up local, community-led initiatives so that they might one day become the scaffolding for a more inclusive and equitable society?

Before the current corona crisis, we might have gone as far as saying that the Global North can and must learn from the DIY tactics and strategies deployed by citizens across Africa’s cities. Such a shift would have required a substantial rethinking of what expertise is, and who possesses it.

The diminished presence of the state via continued austerity policies, combined with an ever-worsening climate crisis, created a sense of urgency to grapple with the possibility that the Global North could not continue to presume that present conditions of relative state functionality would continue into the future. Under this scenario, DIY would become increasingly important, offering, at best, the possible deployment of low-tech solutions to solve hi-tech problems, or simply to cope in a crisis. This change remains necessary.

But the present moment demonstrates that DIY alone is woefully insufficient in the long term – even as it allows for a quick response in the short term – without capable and empathetic state welfare institutions operating in the broad public interest. How to build them, or rebuild them with the available resources and economic and bureaucratic capacity is still up for grabs. If, though, the Corona crisis offers a path forward to rethinking and remaking a more inclusive and equitable society, the skills, resources, and tactics of DIY experts offers a source of inspiration from which to draw.

Stephen Marr is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Global Political Studies at Malmö University, Sweden. His current research considers DIY urbanism practices, and climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Patience Mususa is Senior Researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala. She has a background in anthropology and architecture, and is interested in the processes and politics of urbanisation and mining.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

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