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6 October 2020

The Pandemic, Southern Urbanisms and Collective Life

Gautam Bhan, Teresa Caldeira, Kelly Gillespie and AbdouMaliq Simone

in the massifying cities of the global south, where most urban people in the world live, ‘social distancing’ as prescribed by northern health protocols is just about impossible. 

Pandemic conditions have occasioned wild imaginations — dystopic, utopian, utilitarian, planetary. In the face of such a global event, we notice the impulse to think in monumental terms, a willful thinking that is not merely compensatory for the disruptions occasioned but something of the order and scale of the pandemic itself. Totality, catastrophe, portal. While we recognize the desire at play in monumental analytic claims and certainties, we distrust their overreach, their romance, the rush to diagnose that inflames, encamps, and routes our imaginations.

We begin with a commitment to a different reading and a different order of speculation. We want to stop the rush of planning and forecasting, projecting and flattening, to look and see what is going on in Delhi, São Paulo, Jakarta and Johannesburg, the cities we have researched and engaged with for a long time, but also many others like Cairo, Manila, Lagos, Karachi. From ‘here’, the history of colonial and imperial global arrangements of extraction and wealth creation and the history of the formation of national elites have framed urban majorities that live with minimal resources, vulnerable to small changes in social and economic arrangements. We want to look at lifeworlds that cannot be so clearly divided into ‘before’ and ‘after’ the pandemic, and where ‘crisis’ and the ‘everyday’ are not so neatly separable. These are places where worlds have not been interrupted as much as continued in intensified contingencies, provoking rearrangements in massive processes of micro-speculations and compounding risks. Instead of the totalizing and singular narratives that the pandemic has produced, we urge a focus on quotidian formations of collective life, a way of understanding the pandemic and the world that is attuned to southern urban processes and experiences.

We offer collective life as an analytic that we believe keeps the focus where it must be: on the ways in which the urban majority is trying to survive and cope within structures of inequality that now bear both the new imprint of COVID-19 while equally holding the continuities of older forms of distancing and exclusion. Pandemic provisions exacerbate ongoing structural racisms, class inequalities, and gender and sexuality hierarchies upon which the massifying cities of the colonies, the third world, the global south, have been built.

There was No Lockdown

Any reporter who has worked a day during this lockdown will tell you that there is no lockdown. There is the Disney version of our infection rates, which look good on paper … And there’s the majority of South Africa’s people, who go about their day with a mask draped around their chin, sullenly loathing the restrictions that, in the end, will not keep them safe from anything – Richard Poplak, The Daily Maverick

For the majority in cities of the global south, where most urban people in the world live, ‘social distancing’ as prescribed by northern health protocols is just about impossible. It exists in an imaginary world, a projection, in which people have a home where they can be isolated and work from, where children can have classes via zoom, where savings exist on which to survive for lockdown days without new income, and where hands can be easily washed. Calls to “stay at home,” and “work from home,” as well as the design of mobility-constricting “lockdowns” as preventive epidemiological practices draw their imagination from the urban arrangements, built forms and economic lifeworlds of the North and of the elite neighborhoods that brought COVID into southern cities. COVID-19 was introduced in cities of the global south by members of the elites who had travelled to Europe and to China. It spread from upper-class neighborhoods to poor areas of the city, not uncommonly carried by domestic workers who contracted the virus from their rich employers. This directionality has created ways of seeing the virus and ways of shaping a response that tracks a northern and elite paradigm.

These elite paradigmatic imaginations have thin roots in cities where auto-construction, patchwork infrastructure and services, diverse and tacit local economies, as well as the unaffordability of housing, define the condition of life for the majority. Here, there has been a long unsettled relationship between the categories of “home” and “work”, between private and public space, even of who and what the family or the household is. Families and subletters, friends and strangers sleep in bathrooms and kitchens, share couches and beds, work in public space and other people’s homes, and live in homes themselves that are often always in the process of being built and remodeled, depending on the resources and materials that become available at different times. In urban India, 65% of households with more than three members live in less than two rooms. In Jakarta, huge mobile informal markets in small urban spaces provide food and economic infrastructure for the majority of the city’s residents. In Johannesburg, small township yards fill in with corrugated iron ‘backyard’ dwellings, sharing electricity and water points that disavow inherited models of ‘the household’. This in concert with the colonial history of black migrant work which fundamentally rearranged black Southern African households and families in movement across many structures and great distances, making the idea of a single household unit untenable.

In these cities, getting by means being able to move, every day, both alone but also in concert with others, to stay open to the trade, the skarrel, the hustle to arrange water, food, work, waste, childcare, data and identity for that day, that week, for just some more time. It is these arrangements that make everyday life possible in the southern urban and they lie at the heart of what we mean by collective life. We term them as such precisely because these are operations and arrangements that are something more than, yet inclusive of, the formal institutions, civic organizations and voluntary associations to which individuals belong. Urban collective life is a broad fabric of relations, initiatives, efforts, ways of paying attention, of joining forces, investing time and resources that take place both as matters of intentional organization, but more importantly as a series of practices that people engage in so as to manage their everyday existence within cities. With no access to private cars to get to food stores, no credit cards to order food delivery, and not enough money or transport space to buy anything in bulk or for the long haul, getting food involves many, many crossings. Borrowing cash from a friend down the road, who had to stand in a long line at the ATM to draw cash, handing over rickshaw or minibus fare, sometimes along a line of three or four other commuters until it gets to the driver, paying cash at the market at multiple stalls to get the best deals. Think of the number of hands that the notes and coins of small change must move through for people to be able to eat. The sheer velocity of exchange and circulation to provide the most basic of resources humbles the aspirations of lockdown regulations.

These arrangements produce particular kinds of urbanism. They are the spatial and material embodiment of lives that require a constant movement, adapting to micro and macro structural shifts, both of which are, in the end, felt equally. The pandemic has not, as is sometimes inferred in recent commentary, made residents newly vulnerable. The urban majority has always been vulnerable, a condition which has deepened over the past decades. What the pandemic has done is profoundly erode the arrangements they create and recreate, these ways of getting by, these forms of collective life, thereby leaving neighborhoods and individuals alike with the need to rapidly rearrange already tenuous and plural processes. What has hindered rather than helped them to do so are moves such as lockdowns that seek an impossible stasis and stillness, and that have few roots in the urbanisms of our cities. The design of lockdowns – as state and planning practice did before— misrecognize everyday urban life in cities of the south. In doing so, they deepen older faultlines of inequality. The concentration of older logics under pandemic conditions and the enforcement of impossible health directives have resulted in rising levels of criminalization of the urban majority during the pandemic as policing becomes the vector to try to force compliance; in epidemiological circuits that hold the weight of religious and racial prejudice, and in well intentioned efforts to help slipping on serious misreadings of urban life.


As the pandemic as well as state responses to it have shaped new structural conditions across our cities, residents have scrambled to arrange and re-arrange their lives in different ways that demand our attention. In Jakarta, some communities put emphasis on “announcing” themselves and their conditions, making themselves visible to states, NGOs, media as a way of accessing resources. Creating small publics on crowdfunding sites or circulating jpegs on WhatsApp and Facebook, bank details appearing in a rush of small collections. Others do the opposite. They rely upon networks of dispersed authority, opaque yet highly participatory decision-making, understated collaborations among actors and institutions with no official agreements, all in order to maintain flexible and diverse channels of resource acquisition open. Still others don’t even function as part of discernible communities; instead, focusing on coordinated circulations with friends, families and other contacts across wide expanses of urban territory, capitalizing on short-term opportunities here and there.

The reliance on local forms of resourcing and connection have been necessitated for both people and local governments in the shadow of sheer abandonment at national level. The language and idea of the pandemic is negotiated at the site of the national, yet national governments have been largely ineffectual in creating serious responses that protect the majority. The regional, the mayoral, and in particular the neighbourhood, often with no bureaucratic or practical connection to national governance, have been the sites of any meaningful response. In Brazil, Bolsonaro has denied the pandemic’s seriousness, showed no sympathy for thousands of deaths, and has undermined initiatives to control the contamination put forward by local and state governors. Residents in the densely populated urban peripheries have thus created all sorts of new alternatives to care for themselves. Some of their leaders articulate their sense of abandonment and urgency to resist and act by adopting the motto: “nós por nós!” (We are for ourselves!). In São Paulo, they mobilized to collect and distribute food; produced masks, gel, and soap to be distributed among neighbors; surveyed neighborhoods to identify and isolate the sick; found ways to pay collectively for doctors; followed curfew orders from organized crime. Meanwhile, they continued to work: their services needed everywhere for the cleaning and recycling services in the city, as health workers, policemen, private guards, and the army of mottoboys on call to deliver medicines, foods, take-outs, and everything bought online to those who could stay home.

This is echoed in Johannesburg, where with school feeding schemes in abeyance, it has been aunties and mothers in neighborhood kitchens, scraping together whatever funding they can from whatever networks become available to cook and distribute food, battling an expanded police deployment and national regulations which threatened to close their kitchens and criminalize the only kind of care work that is preventing a serious hunger crisis. National government announced a small COVID-19 means-tested cash grant, but has been unable to put it into effect. While relief efforts at national scale founder and stumble, the work of taking care of people falls, as always but more intensely so now, to networks of mutual aid and neighborly responsibility. In an informal settlement just outside of Johannesburg that is home to many African immigrants to the city, a network of NGO, business and community volunteers created an informal local distribution point for 8000 food parcels. Drone footage from a local security company captured on camera the three-kilometer-long queue of people that formed to try to access the parcels, waiting in the queue for the whole day without masks or PPE despite being unlikely to receive anything at all in the end.

In Indian cities, the most striking image of the pandemic is one of exit, of hundreds of thousands of people who sought to leave cities for fear of not being able to survive or just to give themselves a different set of odds elsewhere. With inter-state bus and rail travel forbidden, they set out on foot, walking hundreds of kilometers along highways and railway lines. The spectacle of mass walking dominated news headlines, laying bare the tenuousness of urban arrangements for so many. As governments were forced to acknowledge the exodus and run special trains to accommodate the desire to exit, they ignored or evaded their own lockdown restrictions, acknowledging the impossibility of following them.

Amidst much maladministration by governments, in different ways, with marked differences between local, provincial and central governments, there have been attempts made to feed, treat, and compensate for lost income. India, South Africa and Brazil have all seen attempts at small to large scale cash transfers, public food programmes, and the ramping of health facilities. The idea and gesture of welfare provision remain in place. Yet these acts of planning do not have purchase in any meaningful way in the lives of the urban majority. Where the arrangements of collective life before the lockdown were not the basis of government planning, governments find themselves struggling with how to enter into these lifeworlds now. How, for example, does government account for the missing water infrastructure in informal settlements that it recognizes only transversally under pandemic conditions but would not rectify under its normal watch? How does one extend cash transfers to workers not registered in any formal system, in part because of processes of casualization and outsourcing overseen by the same governments that now makes gestures to protect them? How does a government implement an effective public health programme when public health either was never designed or resourced to provide for the majority, or where privatization and underfunding have beleaguered health systems that were set up under more democratic eras? Here, the limits of our existing imaginations, data, institutions and practices are laid bare, and the need for a new way of paying attention becomes urgent.

Collective Life

Reading the pandemic through collective life means looking beyond formal actors and institutions, legible landscapes, neatly tabulated data, and linear economic rationalities. It is to acknowledge the reality and potential of the tacit ways in which people moved, acted and related with one another to produce urban outcomes “before”. The arrangements of auto-constructed homes, of multiple-generation and post-kin households, co-parenting outside of marriages and across distances and borders; work arrangements that are not remotely akin to formal unionized employment but somehow keep small change moving; land occupations and guerilla water and electricity connections; disinvestments in the rural countryside, the political party, the struggle; reinvestments in a politics of circulation, in new urban styles, in speculative evangelisms, nationalisms and emergent modes of self-protection. Reading the pandemic with these forms in mind is to ask what the pandemic has done to these relationalities, these arrangements, and to discover which have survived and which have been unable any longer to hold vulnerabilities or make new outcomes possible amid deep and abiding constraints. It is to ask what new forms, practices and agencies have emerged as rearrangements and what they may teach us about what is happening in and to our cities.

There will be no singular answer to such inquiries across or within cities, and indeed, there will be no neat map onto specific spatial or identity-marked communities. In the way we conceive it, the notion of collective life is distinct from the notion of community and does not imply any idea of consensus. Rather, we want to emphasize that the collective is plural and not necessarily agreed upon: it is just shared in its contradictions, ambiguities, multiplicities, and partialities. Diversity is in fact one of its central resources. As is density, not necessarily in the form of tightly packed residential and commercial operations, but in the interchange and circulation of bodies, materials, and sensibilities.

What would this reading of collective life, of density as sociality, say about the lockdown? When read from this lens, any pandemic response capable of working in the context of southern urban conditions would have to search for a relevant scale of isolation and a notion of ‘distancing’ that retained the existing arrangements of the urban majority. Homes, offices, firms and enterprises would not then be the vocabulary of a response. Instead, a wider geography and social imaginary would be at play – the street, the community kitchen, the taxi rank, the landfill, the market, the neighborhood watch, the queue for the collection of cash transfers and water supply. New arrangements would become visible and become usable as practices that can travel. Community quarantines, acupunctured into these landscapes by the same hands that built them in the first place, neighborhood watches by residents, isolation of vulnerable residents, such as the elderly, in collective spaces are ideas that emerge from listening to the forms of collective life that already exist and offer lessons in shaping the “afterwards” of COVID-19. Local institutions such as schools, mosques, churches, and community centers are able to repurpose themselves under pandemic conditions because they hold the capacity to read a wide range of local needs and aspirations and thus act as multifaceted nodes of intervention. Additionally, in some neighborhoods, residents are so attuned to the details of household arrangements, occupations, and mobility, so immersed in always paying attention to what everyone is doing, that it seems to make possible an intricate choreography that allows them to adapt to new conditions without explicit organization or deliberation. These examples point to the capacity to be able to move ideas and planning, resources and responses, along the planes of life and arrangement of those most often unthought, disavowed, even as those worlds and experiences form the majority. The fact that Dharavi, one of the densest built forms in the world, is emerging as an example of resilience rather than vulnerability is precisely such a choreography. This is also a kind of density – of inter-connection, of joint histories and ways of coping, of the instincts of collective life – that is a resource perhaps more enduring than monumental responses, technological fixes or large scale institutional action.

Collective life is what we use to think, name and reflect on these urban arrangements, describing formations that are always in the making; always changing, but can be identified and become objects of our thinking and our orientation. We understand it to be important to pay attention to these processes as they are transformed through the pandemic, and identify the new modes and forms of the collective life that that are emerging in its waves, in its wake. Doing so does not mean that one refuses the imperative to act and respond to the pandemic at “scale.” It instead affirms that policy measures, relief efforts, and response practices that will meaningfully sustain and enable the possibility of recovery will be those that are anchored on existing and emergent modes of collective life. Paying attention to these modes is then where we must begin, turning away from the lure of the monumental, and back to an urban realism of the majority.

Gautam Bhan teaches at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore.

Teresa Caldeira is Professor at the Department of City and Regional Planning, University of California, Berkeley.

Kelly Gillespie teaches at the Department of Anthropology at the University of the Western Cape, Cape Town.

AbdouMaliq Simone is Senior Professorial Fellow at the University of Sheffield.


Photo: Delivery mottoboys on strike. São Paulo, 1 July 2020. Author: Pedro Stropasolas/ Brasil de Fato.


The article was originally published in the digital magazine Society + Space.