Space Matters featured image - photograph of street in Johannesburg with market stalls visible in the background.

Space Matters

Image from Johannesburg. Sandy ground and blue skies, with a red van in the middle ground.
Blue sky, packed earth, and a red van. Credit: Sumayya Mohamed.

It is January 22nd, 2020. President Trump is giving a press conference and insisting on the eminent manageability of the novel coronavirus, which is “totally under control” (Mangan, 2020). You think of your employment status, your health insurance packet. Perhaps, you wonder idly about your plans to travel to Mexico early in the summer. The thought comes and goes. The President is insistent. Everything is under control.

Two months later, it is March 19th and the stay-at-home orders roll out. Non-essential businesses close and a work-from-home mandate is put in place. The virus is here and it is spreading. Maybe it’s a little like the flu, maybe it’s worse. Either way, the spread is fast and it’s too deadly to ignore.

Your life grinds to a halt.

The lives of Kihato et al’s (2021) interlocutors in Ivory Park, Johannesburg, on the other hand, barrel on. Here too the spread is fast and deadly, here too governments attempt to enforce stay-at-home orders and social distancing. And when the residents of Ivory Park fail to comply, it is all too easy to call them irresponsible. Kihato et al (ibid.), however, suggest that they are constrained in ways you are not, that they are unable to follow restriction due to a larger system of spatial injustice.

‘City spaces that are deprived… produce and reproduce poor socioeconomic outcomes.’

Kihato et al. (2021)
Image of interlocutor from Ivory Park. She is wearing a blue shirt and red hat, standing beside piles of the things she has collected on her rounds.
Ivory Park resident. Credit: Sarah Villiers

In their study, the authors examine the experience of choice and responsibility through an urban justice lens. It is a common enough observation that ‘city spaces that are deprived… produce and reproduce poor socioeconomic outcomes’ (ibid. 179). Herein the authors push this observation further to expose how pre-existing infrastructural deprivation left communities vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19 specifically.

Although, the World Health Organisation grants some flexibility in the application of its pandemic guidance, the organisation insists “washing hands, maintaining distance, staying home if unwell with symptoms of COVID” are universal guidelines (WHO website, July 17, 2020). In Ivory Park, the study’s interlocutors live in five-square metre rental rooms with communal bathing facilities. As waste pickers and domestic workers, their livelihoods take them out of the house and across the city. These conditions preclude the possibility of following even these apparently basic guidelines—not out of ignorance but necessity.

Over the last thirteen months, many have seen and made comparisons between the pandemic and climate breakdown (Hirsch, 2021; Sengupta, 2021). It seems there are few things that bind us together as a species quite like the realisation that we all share a planet and an immune system. At the beginning, some liked to talk about how the virus would ‘level the playing field’—just as we were promised ecological collapse would. Picture the photo series: “Climate Change Doesn’t Care…” The suggestion is that climate change doesn’t discriminate, it will burn through your fields and flood your shores and poison your rains wherever and whoever you are.

As with climate breakdown so with the pandemic, it didn’t take long for others to point out that the playing field only became steeper. Injustice, in the form of infrastructural deprivation and poverty, constructs a landscape of sharp inequality made only worse by the pandemic.

For you, rather than an hours drive away, work now takes place a foot away from the bed. Nestled in a veritable forest of houseplants, your work station is equipped with a laptop, monitor, and lumbar support office chair. For your company-mandated breaks, you move to the kitchen or living room or garden.

Trips to the supermarket become less frequent. You go once a week if you can manage it, since meal planning allows you to anticipate a weeks worth of needs. Occasionally, you go the extra mile and have your groceries delivered. There is, after all, no need to go out and risk contracting or spreading the virus. You think of those more vulnerable than yourself, of your ageing parents and immunocompromised sibling.

Before you know it, your life is turned over to Zoom calls instead of in-person meetings; emails and google docs; time spent with houseplants and pets instead of congestion and break room banter; your favourite aloe sanitiser and a hat rack of face masks. It’s a little lonely, you’ll grant, but doable. Survivable.

Doing the right thing is not so hard, you think.

It is easy to forget the playing field was never levelled at all. Though we are all in the most basic sense as susceptible as each other to the novel coronavirus (the elderly and immunocompromised notwithstanding), we are not all equally likely to catch it or to die from it. What Kihato et al. calls spatial inequality, prevents many from making the above transition to a post-covid lifestyle of WFH and grocery deliveries.

A global pandemic, it was said, needed a global response. The global response, however, neglected the economic, political, socio-cultural and in this instance, infrastructural differences that could (and would) prevent guidance from being effectively implemented. Public health guidance that seemed to many perfectly reasonable, fell on the baffled ears of states unwilling and individuals incapable of following it.

Whose responsibility is it to protect public health? And whose choice?

Image from waste processing centre, Johannesburg. Mountains of cans spill over a concrete floor, a man stands in the background.
Waste processing centre, Johannesburg. Credit: Sarah Villiers

The injustice lies in the criminalisation of everyday acts of survival—working, fetching water, going to the toilet. As if in ignorance of poverty and overcrowding and inadequate sanitation, responsibility for public health has been laid at the feet of individuals without also providing the infrastructure required for them to live safely. They face a “double disadvantage” (Kihato, et al., 2021:181), the virus itself on one side and overzealous policing on the other.

We know that the science supports public health guidance; frequent hand washing, social distancing, and isolating the sick prevent or slow the spread of COVID-19. Unfortunately, messaging that uncritically promotes this guidance takes the world as it would like it to be, not as it is. In that world, everyone is both willing and able to make decisions for the good of their neighbours. There is something to be said for this kind of storytelling, of course. There will always be some base assumptions to be made. However, these base assumptions are made at the detriment of those already most vulnerable. It is our position that an approach centring the vulnerable, exposing and taking seriously the injustice baked into our cities’ infrastructure draws attention to solutions centred on inclusion, sustainability, and justness.

Insensitive to those most vulnerable among us, the ‘level playing field’ rhetoric and its attendant public health approaches underestimate the endurance of injustice. Nothing will do the work of dismantling it for us. To push the needle on spatial justice and begin building, we must tell empathic stories that avoid the dangers of singular narratives.


Hirsch, S., (2021), A Year After “Nature Is Healing Memes,” the Links Between COVID and Climate Change Are Clearer Than Ever, Green Matters, Available from: [Accessed 10/05/21]

Kihato, C. W., de Villiers, S., Mohamed, S., & Mohulatsi, B. (2021). Spatial Injustice in Johannesburg in the Time of COVID-19. Current History, 120(826), 178-182.

Mangan, D. (March 17, 2020), Trump Dissed Coronavirus Pandemic Worry Now Claims He Warned About It, CNBC Politics, Available from: [Accessed 21/04/21]

Sengupta, S. (May 4, 2021), Global Vaccine Crisis Sends Ominous Signal For Fighting Climate Change, New York Times, Available from: [Accessed 03/05/21]

WHO, (July 17, 2020), A Guide to WHO’s guidance on COVID-19, WHO site, Available from: [Accessed 26/04/21]Wong, V. (2015), Surreal Stormchasing Portraits, Von Wong Blog, Available from: [Accessed 27/04/21]