Rural or Urban? Africa in the Time of Corona #Covid19

By Takura Zhangazha*

In the wake of the global Corona virus (Covid-19) pandemic, Reuters Africa recently reported that there are some Africans that are leaving the cities and going back to their rural homes.  Titled, ‘Fearing Corona Virus, African City Dwellers Flee to the Country Side’, the feature story outlines how urban based Africans are going back ‘home’ in the wake of Covid-19.

While the urban to rural migratory phenomenon may not be as prevalent, the story is all too familiar in our African contexts.  If the urban really fails economically or becomes life threatening in one form or the other, it is likely a lot of us would consider reverting to the rural social safety net. Even if with all our urban acquired trinkets to give new found status back home/kumusha/ekhaya.

Incidentally this was made more stark by a recently published book titled ‘Rethinking the Social Sciences with Sam Moyo” that I am currently reading. And distributed via the Sam Moyo African Institute for Agrarian Studies (SMAIAS).  The latter book outlines the organic Pan Africanist approach used by the late Sam Moyo in researching and outlining rural political economies and peasant struggles for economic justice.  Not just in Africa but also the global south.

In the wake of Covid-19, the rural and urban health divide cannot be more stark while also more ambiguous.  Especially in the immediate where it concerns  perceptions of where geographical safety or protection from any  pandemic can be acquired from.

In the previous outbreaks, at least in Africa, they would have been sourced from the rural and found their way via rural-urban migration in our densely populated cities.  In the case of Covid-19, it would not be mistaken to argue that the reverse is true.  Globalised cities and transportation systems would be the ones taking it to the rural.

In the Zimbabwean urban it would appear that because we already live in a global world, our urban challenges would be somewhat similar to other cities elsewhere.  Barring of course the nuances of nationalism, racial identity and ethnocentrism.  Hence on urban motivated social media platforms and lifestyles, what happens in New York could (sometimes inexplicably) be expected to happen in Harare.  Regardless of the differences in the demographics of the two cities.

And if one were to believe urban social media and its content, Covid-19 is essentially an urban communicable disease.

Partly because the rural is still incorrectly perceived in the urban as an ahistorical a backwater.  In still colonial era fashion, the rural remains the last consideration in relation to the urgency of public emergencies, general public health, access to water, education, transport and of course electricity.

This is why in the dominant discourse on Covid-19 the rural does not feature much.  Technically because of population density questions that emanate in the global north while being inescapable in cities in the global south.

But here in Zimbabwe, we would know that the majority of our and  a majority of other African countries’ populations are in the rural areas.  Hence the response to Covid-19 pandemic must have a very integrated approach. Of the urban and the rural.

While the communicability of the pandemic may be more prevalent in the urban, it does not make the rural any less important.  Instead it makes the rural more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the urban political economy. Hence stories such as the one by Reuters on some of us heading back to the rural must be taken seriously even if there is no panicky mass urban-rural migration as yet.

But then again this is the legacy of the colonial state. As argued by many an academic. The rural is perceived as retrogressive and of limited consequence to not only a national but also a global political economy.

The reality of the matter is that globalization has not been in favour of sustainable African political economies.  Whether by way of actual job and social security circumstances but also more significantly integrating assumptions of urban-rural development.

We will need to shift from what are now evidently dangerous assumptions of the efficiency of capitalism in urban contexts. Instead we should focus, in the African context,  toward an equitable development model that makes the rural and urban sustainable with regards to public health, social well-being and protection of the climate.

It’s a hard ask in these consumerist times.  Where lifestyles appear more to matter than shared responsibilities for all in the societies that we live in.  This is moreso the case for us in Africa who still have to contend with the colonial legacy of our rural and urban divide.  Where the latter is always looked upon, even by some of those in leadership positions, with the former settlers gaze of disdain.  Or a wrong assumption that the rural holds true to some sort of authenticity and therefore is never in urgent need of sustainable and climate friendly modernization.  Without being turned into geographical mimicry of the urban city.

So even in the global crisis that is Covid-19, context still matters.  All lives matter.  Be they urban or rural. And the required response, while technically different in relation to demographics such as population densities, sizes or infrastructural reach, must be an equitable one.  Both in the short and long term.  We cannot go back to the past.

*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)