Inspired by the Council’s Rachel Tanur Memorial Prize for Visual Sociology, we ask prominent scholars to select a visual artifact of this time that will help future researchers understand the Covid-19 crisis. In this installment, Loren B. Landau (professor and South African Research Chair on Migration and the Politics of Difference, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg) spoke with Jonathan Hack (program officer, SSRC Anxieties of Democracy program) about how Covid-19 has allowed governments—particularly the South African government—to use brutal and heavy-handed practices that severely compromise lives, predominantly poor lives, in the name of saving them.

21 April 2020. A metro policeman arrests a community member during an eviction in Lakeview Informal Settlement near Lawley, South of Johannesburg. Photo: James Oatway.

Jonathan Hack (JH): Could you describe why you selected this image and what commentary it offers to future researchers about Covid-19?

Loren Landau (LL): Much of the research has focused on how racial inequality has translated into severe consequences, measured largely in terms of deaths. The image captures two additional components. One is the spatial component. It is not simply about being poor or being black or a minority; it is also about being in certain types of places. Millions, possibly billions, of people live in places like that seen in the image—informal settlements where social distancing is impossible. Lives in places like these are so precarious that not working is akin to being denied life. 

That said, Covid-19 is not simply robbing people of livelihoods in the short term—it is also enabling a set of practices that have a very real capacity to shape people’s lives negatively in the future. This is the second component.

We have states and governments because we need them. They help solve collective-action problems. But there are reasons to be frightened. The Covid-19 pandemic opens the door for brutal and heavy-handed government-sanctioned practices that severely compromise lives in the name of saving them. 

JH: Crises can bring out both the best and the worst in society. As you point out, they can enable oppressive practices. In the US, Covid-19 has highlighted tensions arising from decades of growing ideological polarization. From your perspective, what are the fissures and fault lines that Covid-19 has exacerbated in South Africa, and globally?

LL: Covid-19 acts as a heuristic, which reveals deep but often hidden divisions and connections. Who do we as a society prioritize? Who are we willing to let die? Who must we save? Across South Africa, across African cities, and across much of the global South, Covid-19 reveals the effects of class intersected in complex ways with race, ethnicity, and global, neo-imperial hierarchies.  

For example, in a place like South Africa, which has an extraordinary constitution and an official commitment to social justice, Covid-19 reveals the strong anti-poor impulses among police and politicians. We see how those vested with power are inclined toward authoritarianism. But this is not simply autocratic rule or technocracy. We are seeing the rise of “autocrats in lab coats,” using medicine to justify or enable interventions aimed at the most vulnerable populations. There are millions of these “surplus people” across cities and communities in the world. They present a potentially destabilizing presence. Covid-19 offers the powerful new opportunities to “manage” them. Whether it is a South African slum dweller or undocumented migrant laborers in Italy suddenly allowed to stay and work under unhealthy conditions, these are populations that can be exploited or sacrificed. We see starkly who has a stake in our future politics. 

JH: Do you think the opportunity to use medical insights to scapegoat will create bigger rifts between social classes? Will this increased stratification lead to some of the things South Africa has seen in its past or worse, civil war?

LL: I see violent uprisings. Some may be armed. In Kenya with al-Shabab or in West Africa with Boko Haram, there may be infrastructure for violent armed conflict. They are organized and armed and can mobilize the marginalized. Elsewhere I expect we will see widespread protest, petty violence, and a range of millenarian movements. I do not foresee a singular armed movement to tackle authoritarian-inclined governments. Instead, it is more likely that we will see massive forms of protest that, depending on their organization and sustainability, might help produce a coherent ideology or perspective that can affect change. It is, after all, the margins that ultimately define the center. 

JH: Poorer populations living in informal settlements are at a higher risk for Covid-19. Do you see an urgency on the part of government, elites, or even the middle class to bring infrastructure to these places or change the lives of these vulnerable populations—even if motivated by self-preservation? 

LL: The infrastructures that they’re likely to bring in will be infrastructures of security and control, rather than infrastructures of support. We’ve already seen across much of Africa and parts of Latin America and elsewhere that the impulse is toward separation. We see it now in Qatar, where the government has instituted a cordon sanitaire [quarantine area] around migrant workers. Singapore has taken similar measures. 

The impulse, in times of crisis, is to speak to people’s base instincts, and this is to view the lower classes as the source of the virus—or if not the cause of the pandemic, the hotbed that will rapidly spread the disease. I suspect there will be infrastructure put in place to keep these vulnerable populations alive in as much as it protects and keeps wealthier people safe. But this will happen under very constrained conditions with increased surveillance and police control, all with the surrounding discourse that blames the poor for being poor and spreading disease, which then feeds into other justifications for exclusion.

JH: Do you see a bright light coming out of any of this?

LL: Many hope that by laying bare inequalities and callousness, we may engender new forms of progressive politics. For those in the US, it is more evident now than ever that we need public health care. It is evident that when millions live without water, sanitation, and space, we are all at risk. We also see how the wealthy depend on the poor and marginalized to work so that we may stay home. I hold out hope, but the powerful retain an extraordinary capacity to overlook our entangled futures. Many of these populations have been under such extraordinary duress for the last ten, twenty, thirty years, without any change, so why see a change now?

I do not see increased democracy or a renewed social contract coming from this. Instead, I see greater stratification and greater isolation at multiple scales. New technologies of surveillance. Novel or repurposed modes of segregation. Millenarian movements offering false hopes and misdirection. I don’t like being wrong, but I hope in this case I am. 

This conversation was conducted on May 8, 2020. It has been edited for length and clarity.