Thinking about Black death and (im)mobilities during the Covid-19 pandemic

By Lioba Hirsch, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK

Racism is killing us. Sometimes slowly, sometimes fast. Right now, the coronavirus reveals the deep-seated inequalities that characterise Black living and dying in the presentStatistics in the UK and the US confirm that people of colour, and people of African descent especially, are disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Unfortunately (or fortunately, I have not made up my mind about this yet) this has drawn attention to the relation between racism and disease. This relation, especially with regards to antiblack racism, and its attendant geographies, has been at the heart of my academic work for some time, although my focus has been on global rather than national health. Covid-19 however, which I witness and survive in the UK, lays bare how strongly antiblackness shapes the material and imagined geographies of Black death and survival. Thinking through the pandemic geographically, can shed light on the pervasiveness of racism and antiblackness and their influence on Black and Brown health.

The enslaved and (post)colonial mobilities that characterise our past and present lead to heightened vulnerabilities and immobilise Black and Brown lives under Covid-19. The antiblack geographies that characterise this pandemic work their way from the global to the local level and into the home. Here I set out to challenge the imagined and describe the very real geographies, which govern how Blackness is perceived and lived during this pandemic. Specifically I suggest that by thinking through Covid-19 through the lens of Black geographies and attendant foci (antiblackness and its power to shape space as well as our understanding thereof), we reveal the racialised mobility injustice at the heart of this (and most other) pandemics and epidemics.

Number and percentage of COVID-19 deaths by ethnic group and source between 2 March and 10 April 2020.

Geographical differences in how the pandemic has played out, its varying mortality and recovery rates, can, at least in part, be explained through differences in national responses and national preparedness, and the national level is largely how the pandemic has been thought and fought. One exception, at least in the British mediais Africa which, as is so often the case, is portrayed as a singular entity awaiting – and often ill prepared for – an oncoming storm. So far this storm has not come, prompting speculations in and outside of Africa around African immunity due to climate or Artemisia. None of these speculations give credit to African expertise and – at least in West Africa and the DRC – preparedness infrastructures and systems put in place and upscaled during recent Ebola outbreaks. African survival during this outbreak is sharply contrasted by the disproportionate toll Covid-19 is taking on people of African descent in the UK and North America however. Despite the fact that up until now, sub-Saharan Africa manifests lower caseloads and has seen lower predicted mortality rates, the high number of Black deaths in the UK has led to renewed speculations around the global (genetic and otherwise) homogeneity of Blackness. 

Generalised ideas around Black survival and death, apart from being unscientific and racist, distract from the very serious question we need to ask ourselves: How can we grapple with the fact that Black people, that is to say people of African descent, are more likely to die of Covid-19 in the UK and US than in the countries which they voluntarily left or from which they were forcefully removed? In this pandemic enslaved, colonial, and postcolonial mobilities, whether they be historical or contemporary, seem to heighten one’s susceptibility to die of Covid-19. I suggest that by thinking through and with these mobilities and by exploring the relation between Blackness and disease geographically, we focus attention on the very real and persistent postcolonial socio-economic factors, which, intersect with antiblackness and which shape the outcome of Covid-19 for people of African descent in the Global North. 

A Black Geography

In the UK, the coincidence between space, racism and disease manifests painfully in London, where Newham, Brent, Hackney and Tower Hamlets are the boroughs with the highest age-adjusted mortality rates in England. This is no coincidence, as these are also the UK’s most diverse boroughs. In Hackney, where I have lived for the past four years, the racial fault lines of the pandemic are painfully palpable, yet easy to overlook. This is a borough, which has been at the forefront of gentrification, while also being among the borough’s exhibiting the capital’s worst health inequalities. In certain areas of Hackney however, in the gentrified areas of London Fields, Broadway Market and along Regents Canal, the deadly reality of Covid-19 and its impact on Hackney’s population are almost invisible, as are the borough’s diverse residents. Hackney’s geographies then and the urban processes which have altered them in recent years, work to render both its Black population and the disproportionate effect the pandemic has on them, largely invisible to the white middle class population. This, as Black geographers, such as BledsoeWright, and McKittrick, have repeatedly argued, is how antiblackness operates. It makes Black lives and deaths invisible. 

In East London, leisure and work mobilities need to be politicised and analysed along racial and postcolonial lines, when those going for strolls and picnics are white and those who deliver our food and drive our buses and Ubers generally aren’t. These dynamics and the inequalities that characterise them also extend to the home. Those of us who can afford to live alone or with a partner face fewer risks going out in public than those of us who chose to, or are required to, live with extended, at times elderly family, or family members with pre-existing health conditions. Again, in the UK, statistically, the former are more likely to be white. How we move, where we move and how we live are all spatial matters that help us further understand the disproportionate death toll among Black and Brown people as socio-economic and racist issues, rather than biological ones. 

In order to contribute to building anti-racist futures and health equity, rendering these differentiated dynamics visible needs to exceed the repetition of numbers and statistics that proclaim Black death. Instead, as geographers we need to think about how we encounter Black death, and the illusion of its absence, in relation to the spaces and places we inhabit and the mobilities that sustain us during this pandemic. In the UK, Black and Brown Covid-related deaths are highly spatialised, exacerbating existing geographies of wilful socio-economic neglect. At a time like this it is important to remember that premature death is always political and in the case of Britain’s Black and Brown population is almost always structured by antiblack racism, both within and outside of the confines of Covid-19. The mobility injustice at the heart of the Covid-19 pandemic is triple. It manifests globallynationally, and locally, as do instances of Black survival and care. The latter are well tried and tested. They will withstand. Even though they should not have to.

About the author: Lioba Hirsch is a health geographer and research fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine where she works on the colonial history of the School. Her expertise lies in the relation between space, disease and antiblackness in global health and researching epidemic responses from a decolonial angle. 

The Cover photo is by “It’s No Game“, and is reproduced under a Creative Commons 2.0 licence. The original can be viewed here.

Suggested Further Reading

Hirsch, LA. (2019). In the wake: Interpreting care and global health through Black geographies. Area.

Bledsoe, A. (2019). The primacy of anti‐blackness.

Noxolo, P. (2020). Introduction: Towards a Black British Geography?. Transactions Institute of British Geographers (as well as the other papers in this Themed Intervention)


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