“All of us will get covid because we don’t have easy access to wash our hands”

said Nonceba Ndlebe, situated in an informal settlement in Khayelitsha, Cape Town (Lali et al 2020).

Estimates of the number of households that live in informal settlements differ, but one is that there are about 146,000 households in 437 areas in Cape Town- with 7% in informal backyard structures and 13,5% in informal settlements. Informal settlements do not provide legal security of tenure; comply with planning and building regulations and generally lack adequate services, such as piped water (Mistro and Hensher 2009; Place 2018).

Figure 1, shows the location of informal settlements on the Cape Flats, central Cape Town. Source Place 2018

A national lockdown in South Africa on the 23rd March followed after the virus reached almost every community in South Africa, transcending race and socio- economic barriers. In July, reports showed Cape Town had been the most affected south African city in terms of COVID-19 so far (figure 2). As of 6th July 2020, there had been 50,000 known cases, particularly in two districts with informal housing; Khayelitsha (6,721 cases out of 400,000 people) and Klipfontein (6,428 cases in 380,000 people). These districts’ prevalence rates were over 1,600 per 100,000 people compared to the city’s average of 1,174 cases per 100,000 people (Smit 2020).


Reasons for this include overcrowded conditions whereby many families live in one single room. “Population density is such a key factor. If you don’t have the ability to social distance, the virus spreads,” said the head of South Africa’s ministerial advisory team on COVID- 19. The Khayelitsha District Hospital was full to the brim of COVID cases July compared to hundreds of surfers in the affluent area of False Bay (Harding 2020).

Secondly, the WHO’s first recommended protective measure against COVID-19 is to wash hands frequently with soap. However, less than half of all South Africans have running water in their homes. Safe access to hand washing is still a luxury for many people. If COVID-19 had happened during the drought, the situation would be beyond control.

There was a large contrast in the surfers in False Bay compared to the Khayelitsha District Hospital, full to the brim of COVID cases (Harding 2020). An interview with a local principal handing out food said “the virus has exposed underlying issues. People were already unemployed here, lockdown or not,” (Harding 2020).

The response

5000 plastic bottle hand wash units were sourced across Cape Town’s informal settlements by the National Business Initiative in partnership with local NGOs and the City of Cape Town.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is screen-shot-2020-11-20-at-16.43.45.png
Figure 3, shows a recycled plastic bottle; water efficient and easy to install. Source Green Times

Other methods include mandatory masks at all times when leaving the home (Blumberg 2020).

Figure 4, masks handed out. Source BBC News 2020

Testing was concentrated in informal housing areas and other “hotspots”. Furthermore, in April 2020, the government announced plans to fast track the provision of temporary water into the settlements and relocate 3500 informal settlement dwellers to other sites (Smit 2020).

COVID-19 and UPE

The spread of COVID-19 shows evolving global peripheries are susceptible to diseases due to the vast interconnections between bodies gloablly (Connoly et al., 2020). Analysing the metabolisms between spread more geographically, the virus is shown to proliferate in extended forms or urbanisation and therefore a focus on social and spatial peripheries such as the townships is necessary (Biglieri et al., 2020) Moreover, research shows the potential for secondary transmission via wastewater which has been found in samples across the globe (Liu et al., 2020). Service provision should be prioritised.

The result

Rather than the UK headlines “stockpiling of loo roll”, “neighbourhood solidarity networks” appeared in Cape Town as vulnerable members were contacted and helped with groceries.

‘The WHO sounded alarms for the spread of coronavirus in Africa,’ however yet again external sources have merged the entire continent into one, just as the infamous Binyavanga Wainaina stated. Instead, an early lockdown and clear message about masks has attributed to far lower deaths than thought as South Africa’s first wave of infections was seven times lower than Britain’s. Out of the 650,000 confirmed cases in South Africa, only 15,641 died (Imray 2020). Even if deaths have been under reported here or this is due to the youthful population, the country has still performed well.

Overall, COVID-19 has further highlighted the importance of the flow of water through a city for sanitation and human health. In the context of metabolism, the spread of the virus shows the interconnections between spatial and economic areas which Cape Town has done well to manage.

Word count: 775


Biglieri, S., De Vidovich, L. and Keil, R. (2020). City as the core of contagion? Repositioning COVID-19 at the social and spatial periphery of urban society. Cities & Health, pp.1–3.

Blumberg, L., Mendelson, M. and Mehtar, S. (2020). African countries are moving to make masks mandatory: key questions answered. [online] The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/african-countries-are-moving-to-make-masks-mandatory-key-questions-answered-137516 [Accessed 20 Nov. 2020].

Connolly, C., Keil, R. and Ali, S.H. (2020). Extended urbanisation and the spatialities of infectious disease: Demographic change, infrastructure and governance. Urban Studies, p.004209802091087.

‌Harding, A. (2020a). Coronavirus in South Africa: Deciding who lives and dies in a Cape Town township. BBC News. [online] 2 Jul. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-53256879 [Accessed 20 Nov. 2020].

Imray, G. (2020). South Africa says 12 million “probably” had coronavirus. [online] AP NEWS. Available at: https://apnews.com/article/virus-outbreak-health-cape-town-africa-south-africa-cffcd4dfb1e3cbd810838fb9bde7a91d [Accessed 20 Nov. 2020].

Lali, V., Stent, J., Geffen, N. and Mbovane, T. (2020). South Africa: Covid-19 – Washing Hands Is Not Easy When You Have No Running Water. [online] allAfrica.com. Available at: https://allafrica.com/stories/202003120942.html [Accessed 20 Nov. 2020].

Liu, D., Thompson, J.R., Carducci, A. and Bi, X. (2020). Potential secondary transmission of SARS-CoV-2 via wastewater. Science of The Total Environment, 749, p.142358.

Mistro, R. and A. Hensher, D. (2009). Upgrading Informal Settlements in South Africa: Policy, Rhetoric and what Residents really Value. Housing Studies, 24(3), pp.333–354.

PLACE (2018). PLACE. [online] PLACE. Available at: http://www.thisisplace.org/maps/cape-towns-informal-settlements/?ref=true [Accessed 20 Nov. 2020].

Smit, W. (2020a). Tackling COVID-19 in informal settlements in Cape Town. [online] news.trust.org. Available at: https://news.trust.org/item/20200708104926-3gwm4/ [Accessed 30 Aug. 2020].

12 thoughts on ““All of us will get covid because we don’t have easy access to wash our hands”

  1. Hi Annie, this is a quality post! I really like how you structured this post as a time line from the beginning of the pandemic up until now. I don’t think you could’ve wrote something as important and relevant to now than COVID-19. I really like how the opened the post with a quote to bring me in and also your use of statistics really shows how bad the COVID pandemic has been in RSA. What solutions do you think an impoverished city like Cape Town could implement. Mass testing may seem difficult given the costs, and of course, social distancing may be hard in a densely populated city. What is the best course of action for Cape Town and RSA in general?


    1. Hi, thanks so much for your comment! I think that Cape Town has done well to prevent the spread of COVID-19 due to the strict rules such as everyone must wear a face mask once they leave the house and also the border restrictions for RSA, however, research has shown that the numbers may be so low due to the young population. Despite social distancing being difficult with the dwellings across Cape Town, the communal efforts to stick to the rules has been significant! I appreciate your discussion of the testing as it is unlikely RSA will receive vaccinations until 2022-23, therefore these communal efforts are vital!


  2. Hi Annie! As mentioned by Nasir, it is indeed timely to reflect on socio-environmental issues within the context of COVID-19, which has undoubtedly fleshed out local inequalities to water access.

    I am particularly intrigued by the dispensing of plastic bottles by local NGOs to facilitate handwashing in the informal settlements. While these swift actions are reassuring, what comes to mind is the stark contrast between the rich and poor Capetonians today, as exacerbated by its Apartheid history (as per your previous post). Admittedly, the dispensing of plastic water bottles is not a long-term solution. I was wondering what are your opinions on how the government can better collaborate with the NGOs (e.g. NBI, B4SA etc.) to provide a more sustainable water supply? If not, what might be alternative measures to improve equitable access to water for all Capetonians?


    1. Hi, thanks for your comment! You’re completely right that plastic sanitising stations isn’t a long term solution, which I think further highlights the problem of sanitation in Cape Town which needs to be addressed. As you mentioned, it’s sadly quite a complicated problem which involves many different actors and colonial histories. I think providing equitable access means starting with addressing the informal dwellings in Cape Town and instead providing many more pipes and sewage connections to decrease the stark divide in access. In this case I think physical, hard infrastructure is necessary.


  3. Hi, this post is really interesting and relevant in the current times! I like how you highlighted the interconnections between Cape Town’s physical water scarcity and unequal water access, with that of the Covid-19 pandemic. Evidently, water provision and public health are tightly linked, and this interdependency is illuminated during disease outbreaks like Covid-19.

    It is heartening to see the ground-up efforts by local NGOs and businesses to provide handwashing points via innovative and affordable solutions. This initiative reminded me of Simone’s (2004) notion of ‘people as infrastructure’ which emphasised the agency of individuals in rallying together to work around inadequacies of infrastructural provision by the state. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the potential of ground-up efforts in enabling access to clean water for Cape Town’s marginalised communities – would you feel that such initiatives will be better tailored to the needs of these communities? As Bing Yang highlighted, do you see potential for collaborations between the state and NGOs?


    1. Hiya, thanks so much for this comment! I agree that the communal efforts is a great example of Simone’s (2004) theory, particularly with the “makeshift connections” of people and the sanitising stations in Cape Town which is similar to his example of informal workers in Johannesburg. So far group up efforts of water access have been difficult since private companies own lease contracts- so far they have installed pre paid water meters which have caused many disturbances in communities. I do see collaborations between the state and NGOs being possible, but this would require a post- colonial narrative which participates communities to check they are comfortable with strategies such as pre paid meters before installing them. Overall, this is a difficult topic to give a straightforward answer to as there are many difficulties to ensuring the sustainability of water networks such as a preliminary understanding of community contexts and needs.


  4. Hi! Reflecting on this post as new outbreaks and lockdowns come into place, making me consider how different countries are dealing with the pandemic in such different ways. Your post highlighted some things to me regarding how some places deal with it well and how other countries are struggling, in spite of their resources. I think here, it comes down to the reaction of the community…while I agree that their government’s reaction was timely (early lockdown, clear message), I found it inspiring to see how there were solidarity networks setup instead of selfish actions and how innovation (plastic bottle hand wash) was used to repurpose the resources they have. Thanks for the good read! (-:


    1. Thank you for your amazing comment! I agree that the mixture of government actions and community response simultaneously created a cohesive reaction to stop the spread!


  5. Hi Annie, loved this post! The differences between the UK and South Africa in the handling of the Covid crisis are particularly shocking. Perhaps the water stresses in Cape Town meant that the situation was dealt with far more seriously. It’s interesting to see how something like the availability of water can have such cultural ramifications in terms of how the two countries responded to the crisis . Its almost like the presence of water, among other things like the NHS meant that we were comparatively slower to respond here, making the situation worse. A great example of how physical challenges can be transformed into social and cultural issues by the city. It would be really interesting to see how the situation in Cape Town was felt throughout the city by different demographics. Thanks for a great post!


    1. Yes, I completely agree that the water crisis promoted an insight into the importance of the flow of services in the city, therefore sanitation was immediately prioritised. It’s interesting to consider that perhaps in the UK we took too long to acknowledge COVID-19 and the ramifications, whereas Cape Town learnt to act immediately. Furthermore, the city has proved sticking to the social distancing rules is very effective which as we see in the news most days, the UK has failed to do so. Thank you for the advice, I certainly agree different demographics experiences would be very interesting- sadly I haven’t yet been able to find much on this!


  6. Hi, you chose a very compelling topic for your blog! I thought it well reflected the relationship between the COVID-19 distribution and areas of Cape Town, which are densely populated and suffering from water shortages. A clear logical presentation and well-thought out structure with great pictures also add to the overall experience!


    1. Hi! Thanks for the comment! Exploring the management strategies of COVID-19 in other countries has certainly been very interesting to read!


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