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Pandemic urbanization: How South Africa’s history of labor and disease control creates its current disparities

CSS Publication Number
Full Publication Date
September 26, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the need for scholars to rethink how cities and urban spaces create and reproduce disproportionate social outcomes. The social, economic, and public health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa have been shaped by the country’s legacy of “pandemic urbanization.” Pandemic urbanization refers to the use of urban space as a mechanism to create social, economic, and racialized divides in the name of pandemic control. Illness and infectious disease are used as instruments for segregation, and as justification for segregation through spatial policies. Through a systematic review and synthesis of peer-reviewed literature, this paper argues that the early urbanization of pre-apartheid South Africa, which is intimately tied to the control of bubonic plague, tuberculosis, and Spanish influenza outbreaks in the early 20th century, is central to the country’s current inequalities, including those brought into stark relief by COVID-19. It shows that methods of labor and infectious disease control worked in tandem to structure South African spatial division. In doing so, this paper synthesizes important literature to tie the production of South African urban space to the active creation of categories of “race.” South Africa’s historical geography informs global discussions on racial capitalism, as the country’s past illustrates a process well beyond its borders. Given the centrality of urbanization and space within this history, a theorization highlighting spatial justice should be at the heart of pandemic and post-pandemic responses.

Research Areas
Urban Systems and Built Environment

Pandemic urbanization

urban inequality

racial segregation

spatial justice


Publication Type
Journal Article
Digital Object Identifier
Full Citation

Brandon Marc Finn (2023) Pandemic urbanization: How South Africa’s history of labor and disease control creates its current disparities, Journal of Urban Affairs, 45:3, 616-629. CSS22-57