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Blog entry #8

Written by Carla Cortês. April 3rd, 2020.

2020.04.03 | Middle Class Urbanism

Unfolding the (in)visible

On March 22, Mozambique received the news that COVID-19 arrived in the country. In Maputo, to be more precise. Well, Mozambique! Because those who live in the capital are sure the country starts and ends there unless natural resources are part of the conversation. The motive laurentinos think so is that Maputo, City and Province, are responsible for a significant part of Mozambique's tax revenue. Since Maputo combines the industrial, financial, political and administrative hub, meaning that it is also home for the country's elite.

According to the Government spokeswoman, an over 70-year-old man imported the virus from London. The press added on referring the man attended the WaterAid Conference where Princes Charles and Albert of Monaco joined and later tested positive. Amid a strange mix of what many called expectation and fear for the announcement of the first case, Maputo witnessed the arrival of a supposed royal-virus.

The first positive case on COVID-19 represented not only the materialisation of global fear but unfolded several concerns in regards to social privileges and inequalities. Northern Mozambique rehearsed social media gags distancing itself from the privileged capital and its royal links.

The first time I recall noticing that this is indeed a class-related pandemic was when former colleagues in Brazil shared a map that tracks cases in Recife, Pernambuco. According to it, the epicentre shown in red is the wealthiest neighbourhoods of Boa Viagem and Espinheiro, and the poorest were still in a safe green. A few days later the number of infected grew exponentially to the vicinity of the more impoverished neighbourhoods. At that moment, I must agree with my fellow countrymen in isolating the capital.

The middle-class in Maputo longs for a call for quarantine and strict restrictions following the response of neighbouring countries, increasing the pressure towards Mozambican Government. However, what is at stake in a call for compulsory quarantine in a city of significant inequalities?

A couple of days before the announcement of the first positive case, the Government complied with the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation, aggravating the dispositions in the following days, and finally calling for an emergency as pressure rose. These dispositions, however, only targeted mobility and social gatherings in closed spaces such as schools, churches, offices and leisure spaces. Controlling the outer space seems unfruitful in a city characterised by agglomerations in informal places.

Despite the confidence implied to communicate public health data, the mistrust in governmental structures became tangible. The so-called expectation for the first confirmed case meant scepticisms that a fragile structure would be immune for so long, for many assumed the lack of means to track down the virus as the reason for successful reports. Anticipating strict state measures, an alleged letter from the General Secretary of Frelimo Party circulated in the social media addressing directly public servants, and in so doing, its probable members, with preventing measures. At the local level, traditional authorities also worked on public campaigns translating what state vocabulary cannot communicate.

Governmentality and trust are not the only subjects at stake in these particular times. A Pakistani article released this week places COVID-19 as an urban crisis by analysing, among others, what it takes to a household comply with the WHO recommendations. The article stresses water access and estimates the amount of water required for the prevention, unpacking an apocalyptical scenario in case of a pandemic.

In Mozambique, social distancing has risen discussions on economic disparities. Therefore, the ability ones have to move between the global north and south, and those financially limited as students and professionals living abroad ran from the global north isolation to find refuge at home. First, those living in China. And later the ones in Europe. On the other hand, quarantine uncovers technopolitical inequalities in public infrastructure. Ironically, access to running water is at the centre of Covid's prevention, as well as the first contamination case in Maputo. The claim that a 20 seconds hand wash while singing a funny song seems not to comply with Mozambican reality. The water here is a serious conversation!

The urge to comply with isolation continuously clashes with Maputo urban conditions: overpopulated informal settlements accessible by narrow streets; overcrowded public transportation, and a deficient water infrastructure required for prevention. Amid the middle-class, a possible loss of housemaids seems more frightening than the virus. Many adhere to volunteer quarantine neglecting the same privilege to the workers. For quarantine is a privilege.

The need to maintain a certain degree of normality has enacted different levels of precaution and solidarity. Formal and informal shops, food warehouses and public transportation provide local solutions for prevention: adapted water buckets with plastic taps and liquid soap are available on the front door. In Maputo's city centre, prevention comes in plastic sparges and dispensers with what we better believe is a reliable antibacterial gel while broadcasted campaigns cite ashes as a solution for the poorest.

From March 22, we experience spatial adjustments and mobility constraints, raising ancient questions in regards to urban planning, mobility and decentralisation. Social distancing enhances the character of Maputo city centre as the source of economic means required for everyday life, which means that limiting circulation is cutting off the umbilical cord that feeds the periphery.

COVID-19 uncovered state failure in providing the necessary infrastructure in the outskirts of Maputo City, making unfeasible a possible lockdown. Paradoxically, quarantine citizens in informal settlements is not a safety measure but rather a denial for public health. For the cause and the cure have a place, and it remains in the city centre where water runs.