Calvin King Lam Chung, Jiang Xu, Mengmeng Zhang. Asian Geographer. Volume 37, Issue 2, 2020.
While recent decades have witnessed a series of global public health challenges brought by widespread viral infections—the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003, the Ebola virus pandemic from 2014 to 2016, and the Zika virus epidemic from 2015 to 2016, to name but a few—none of them are comparable in their geographical reach and socioeconomic impacts of Covid-19 (coronavirus disease 2019). Official speeches and media reports have been flooded with superlatives in their characterization of this plague of a novel coronavirus, which was declared by the World Health Organisation a pandemic in March 2020. Extraordinary measures of social distancing, mobility control and resource mobilization have been introduced in many parts of the world, all in a bid to short-circuit the chain of transmission of a disease which we still know little about.
Written in April 2020 as we directly felt in Hong Kong, Beijing and Connecticut the tremendous biosocial shockwaves sent by the disease, this paper represents a preliminary attempt to cast a geographical light on the diverse and uneven immediate impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, and propose how geographers can contribute to a better understanding of the longer term effects of the plague. As a caveat, it should be noted that our discussion in this paper is unavoidably shaped and limited by our experience as ethnic Chinese, hence the more frequent reflection on and reference to our observations of Chinese communities.
We begin our discussion in the next section with a cursory examination of the spatio-temporal differences in the relationship between a country’s death toll due to Covid-19 and its capacities to avoid and address public health crises brought by infectious diseases. Then, building upon the literature on infectious diseases in geography and cognate fields, we develop a synopsis of the structural causes of the uneven contours of the impacts of Covid-19 based on a threefold framework of economic, governance and cultural variations across space. We subsequently follow the same framework to sketch out new questions of geographical transformations brought about by the pandemic which fellow geographers may want to address. Finally, we conclude this paper by way of a synthesis of our diverse observations and thoughts of the pandemic.
Relationship Between National Health Security Capacities and Covid-19 Mortalities
Our initial impetus to write this paper grew out of our curiosity about the geographically uneven human costs which Covid-19 has inflicted. We were surprised by how abruptly some Western European countries and the United States (US), in spite of their higher level of development, succumbed to the virus. To bring some clarity to this intriguing phenomenon, we analyzsed at the national level the relationship between health security capacities for controlling infectious disease outbreaks and public health impacts of Covid-19.
Our analysis focuses on 26 countries with a significant number of Covid-19 infections as of 29 April 2020, including those with the highest number of cases in Asia Pacific, Europe, and the Americas. For the measurement of a country’s health security capacities, we adopted as a proxy the Global Health Security (GHS) Index developed by the Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security (2019). It gauges the health security capacities of 195 countries in preventing, detecting, and responding to national and international outbreaks of infectious diseases—of which the Covid-19 pandemic is an example—with an emphasis on whether sound public health plans, policies and infrastructure are in place. The higher the GHS Index score a country is, the better prepared it is for these high-consequence events. As for the measurement of Covid-19’s public health impacts, we are aware of the bias introduced by differences in virus testing ability and enumeration criteria between countries on existing data on national Covid-19 casualties. Nonetheless, in the absence of alternative statistics, such data remain useful for a first-cut analysis on the variation of Covid-19’s impacts between countries. The indicator we adopted for this purpose is Covid-19 mortality rate, calculated by dividing a country’s Covid-19 death counts by its total population. Data on Covid-19 deaths and population were retrieved on 29 April 2020 from the websites of Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center (https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/) and the United Nations Population Division, respectively. Since Covid-19 hit different countries at different times, our cross-national comparison of mortality rates focuses on the period since—as a threshold of Covid-19 outbreak adopted by this paper—the 10th death caused by Covid-19 was reported in a country.
With the aid of a time-series plot, we discerned that Covid-19 mortality rates vary considerably across the 26 countries under study. The mortality rates of most Western countries, including Belgium, Spain, the United Kingdom (UK), Italy, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and the US, were on the high side and often had experienced a steep rise. On the contrary, Asia Pacific countries, such as India, Japan, Pakistan, China, South Korea, Philippines, Malaysia and Australia, tended to have lower mortality rates which either grew slowly or have stabilized. As the Covid-19 pandemic persists, the divergence between countries in mortality rates due to the novel coronavirus becomes apparent.
Seeking an explanation why Covid-19 mortality rates differ so significantly among countries, we turned to investigate the relationship between health security capacities and Covid-19 mortalities. We applied the natural breaks classification method to categorize the 26 countries in two ways. The first way is by GHS Index scores: countries with a score below 50 are identified as possessing low health security capacities, while those with a score above 65 are identified as possessing high capacities. The second way is by Covid-19 mortality rates: countries with less than 25 deaths per million population belong to the “low” category, while those with more than 100 deaths per million population belong to the “high” category. Combining these two forms of categorization, we can distinguish four categories of countries: category A with low health security capacities and low mortality rate, category B with high health security capacities and low mortality rate, category C with high health security capacities and high mortality rate, and category D with low health security capacities and high mortality rate. On the assumption that higher health security capacities can lead to a more successful response to the Covid-19 outbreak and hence a lower mortality rate, we expected that more countries would fall within categories B and D (where health security capacities and mortalities are negatively related) rather than categories A and C (where health security capacities and mortalities are positively related).
However, the reality tends towards an opposed pattern. Comparing the situation of the countries on the 10th day of their domestic Covid-19 outbreaks, we noticed that several countries with high GHS Index scores, such as Spain, the Netherlands and the UK, had higher mortality rate than their lowering scoring counterparts. Since at this juncture the spread of Covid-19 was only in its early stage, all countries belonged to the low mortality categories A and B. As countries reached their 20th day of domestic outbreaks, it became more evident that higher GHS Index scores were associated with higher mortality rates. Mortality rates of countries with high GHS Index scores escalated between their 10th and 20th days of outbreaks. Only five countries still belong to category B as on the 10th day, while Spain was the first country to reach a high level of mortality rate and shift to category C. Conversely, the mortality rates of countries with low GHS Index scores were still low. None of them shifted from category A to D during this period. More recently, between the 20th and 30th days of their domestic outbreaks, the mortality rates of countries with high GHS Index scores continued to increase rapidly. Only South Korea and Australia still belonged to category B. Five more countries, all from Europe, moved from category B to C. However, the mortality rates of countries with low GHS Index scores remained low. As a result, during this period, no countries shifted from category A to D.
The above pattern suggests that the Covid-19 mortality rate of a country is not simply a function of its health security capacities. Instead, it is also about, we contend, whether such capacities can be effectively mobilized. This gap between potential and realized capacities is likely to be mediated by a range of geographically situated contextual factors beyond, but influential to, the public health domain, including a country’s economic links with other territories, the government’s ability in resource deployment and policy implementation, and compliance of citizens to disease control measures. To be sure, the masterminds of the GHS Index were not oblivious to this gap. Some of these contextual factors were measured by sub-indicators in the GHS Index, notably under the “Overall Risk Environment” category (Bang 2020). However, the default weights of such sub-indicators were perhaps too light to make a significant difference to the overall national scores in the GHS Index, which then primarily reflects the health security capacities a country could potentially exercise. It is to the significance of three types of contextual factors—located in the realms of the economy, governance and culture—which our discussion now turns.
Beyond Capacities on Paper: The Differences that Context Makes
Economic Globalization as a Public Health Time Bomb
Many challenges in containing the rampant spread of Covid-19 can be traced to new spatial patterns of biosocial interactions in a globalizing economy. The transcontinental diffusion of the SARS virus from China to Canada in only a matter of weeks in February 2003 by a handful of international travelers testifies to the spatial interlocking of the fates of local health security produced by the new global geography of capital and human flows (Ali and Keil 2006). The risk posed by lax health regulations in a locality can now easily and rapidly scale up into a global health crisis as erstwhile geographically disparate communities are brought into close contact by an expanding, intensifying and accelerating network of transport infrastructure (Connolly, Keil, and Ali 2020).
Specifically, global cities are arguably the weakest link in public health security of their respective countries as their high airline network accessibility facilitates the inflow of as much wealth as pathogens into their territories (Ali and Keil 2006). In the ongoing pandemic, London and New York took on a disproportionate share of infections in the UK and the US, respectively. After initial success in limiting the spread of the coronavirus from mainland China, Hong Kong suffered from a second—and bigger—wave of new cases brought by its large number of returning residents, many of whom beat a hasty retreat from Europe and North America where the pandemic rages. Meanwhile, such inquiries of the relationality of cities as nodes of a global network must not be divorced from the territorial arrangements in which they are situated (McCann and Ward 2010), particularly the scaling of health governance. While local states are at the forefront in the battle against the spread of pathogens through international transport gateways in their jurisdictions, their responses are often constrained by the concentration of powers of public health policy at the national level (Ali and Keil 2009). For example, the local government may hesitate to disclose a virus outbreak because it may be legally obliged to wait for central-level authorization, or to adhere to the national state’s demand for lifting mobility restrictions when local transmission risk is perceived to be still high. The fast translocal flow of virus is throwing the limits of the national state in health governance into sharp relief.
Another aspect of economic globalization which adds injury to the containment of Covid-19 pandemic is the demand and supply of medical supplies. While a rich body of spatially-attuned studies of health have drawn attention to the causes and impacts of uneven access to health services (Rosenberg 2014), much less has been investigated about the geography of the production of medical supplies which provide the material basis for the delivery of healthcare. Being home to the world’s largest medical device enterprises (Torsekar 2018) did not better equip the medical sector in the West for the pandemic as these enterprises have offshored their manufacturing functions to the developing world. As Covid-19 spread across Europe and North America, many countries there quickly ran out of personal protective equipment such as surgical masks and gowns because logistics disruptions and export bans prevent them from sourcing these medical supplies as usual from abroad. Since then, we have witnessed significant reconfigurations of the global geography of medical supplies. On the production front, many governments have rapidly built autarky in their supply chain of medical devices by enrolling domestic industrial, technological and engineering firms, some of which have little experience in the medical sector, into the manufacturing of personal protective equipment and ventilators. On the consumption front, reaching out to their friends and strangers around the world, a large number of individuals are forging a dispersed network of procurement of masks and sanitizers, facilitated by online marketplaces to match buyers and consumers from all corners of the world. The question lying ahead is whether and which of the foregoing new nodes and connections of the medical supply chain will be consolidated into permanent ones as governments weight the public health vulnerabilities of their territories against the costs of maintaining domestic production capacities for essential medical supplies.
The Significance of State Involvement in Health Governance
Pandemics such as the Covid-19 outbreak constitute critical stress tests of a county’s capacities to rapidly respond to health crises brought by infectious diseases. The GHS Index measures a country’s rapid response capacities based on whether a country maintains a national public health emergency response plan for communicable diseases and constantly updates it. However, while many governments may have such plans in place, it is a different story on whether they can implement them well. This line of thought may explain why the US and the UK were both hard hit by the virus, despite achieving the highest scores in the “Rapid Response” category in the GHS Index (and in fact the highest overall scores as well).
In particular, the prevalence of a neoliberal paradigm of governance is likely to have hindered the Western states in preventing the worse effects of Covid-19 in two ways. First, insofar as economic growth comes first, a country’s responsiveness to the virus may be less determined by how early the government realizes the emergent health risks than how much it wishes to postpone public health interventions which place a curb on the circulation of people and goods. The “toggle between disease control and the economy” may have costed more lives (Wallace et al. 2020). Second, market forces have undermined the accessibility of healthcare in these countries, preventing the infected from receiving timely treatment. In the US, the main problem is healthcare affordability. In the absence of universal health coverage, Americans have to take out private insurance to secure access to a healthcare system dominated by private service providers and marked by high charges. Millions of people who are too poor to have themselves insured are especially vulnerable to the current pandemic because, while the US government has offered to cover the Covid-19 testing cost since March 2020, they are unlikely to afford the hospital bills running into tens of thousands of dollars if they are tested positive (Abrams 2020). As for western European countries, the main problem is healthcare capacities. A combination of tax cuts and budgetary retrenchment in recent decades, driven by neoliberal governments and the European Union, has left their predominantly public-funded healthcare systems increasingly under-resourced (Hermann 2010). Owing to post-eurozone crisis austerity, public funding for Italy’s national healthcare service was slashed by more than €37 billion during 2010–19, prompting closures of over 300 hospitals (Belano 2020). The exponential growth of casualties in these countries has set their healthcare systems, where austere measures are likely to have eliminated their surplus capacities for coping with emergencies (Harvey 2020), on a fast track of collapse. While countries may have good response plans for a pandemic, a lack of facilities capacities and manpower in the healthcare system would severely limit their actual responsiveness.
On the contrary, China, while only ranked 47 for rapid response in the GHS Index, was relatively successful in flattening its curve of Covid-19 casualties. To some extent, the Chinese state has managed to make up for its initial response deficiencies with extraordinary measures to contain domestic transmission. It took advantage of its immense power of mobilization to concentrate medical resources at where it was most needed. While Wuhan received volunteer support from across China as the national epicenter of the outbreak, its surrounding cities in Hubei province did not receive equal attention. In February and March 2020, the Chinese government initiated a “pair assistance programme”, which mandated one or more provincial governments to provide medical support to a city or prefecture in Hubei. Nineteen provinces were involved. This kind of redistribution program is not new to China: it was also organized in the aftermath of several recent major earthquakes, such as the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, to expedite the reconstruction of poor disaster-hit areas by leveraging resource and expertise of the economically more well-off provinces (Shao and Xu 2017; Xu and Shao 2020). Moreover, state capacities in regulating population flow and sustaining daily supplies have proven critical to implement lockdown measures. Launched in recent years, the “grid governance” scheme, which involves partitioning the city into various small grids assigned with personnel from the levels of district, street office and residential community for meticulous monitoring of public demands and sentiments (Tang 2020), was adapted as a mechanism to maintain the lifeline of people in lockdown Chinese cities. The personnel responsible for each grid played a crucial role in making collective purchases and delivery of food and groceries for residents in their grid as no one was allowed to leave his/her neighborhoods. The everyday penetration of the state through this kind of grid governance may be draconian, but it has contributed to a functional response in extraordinary circumstances such as when the plague is increasingly running out of control.
Public Health Crisis Response as a Function of Culture
Geographies of health and disease have a strong cultural component (Gesler 1991; Gesler and Kearns 2005). Spatial variations in culture, inscribed not only as different medical practices but also different physical landscapes, social relations and behavioral traits, opens up some conduits of pathogens while closing off others. Following this view, we suggest that a situated understanding of the spread of Covid-19 in different contexts needs to take into account culture as an important determinant of the causation of disease transmission. For example, as evidence pointed to contact with wildlife sold as game meat in a seafood wholesale market as the cause of infection of some of the earliest confirmed Covid-19 cases in Wuhan (Li et al. 2020), debates sparked by the recent Ebola epidemic about the risks of infectious outbreaks in areas where game consumption is part of the culture (Bonwitt et al. 2018) are revived. In the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, the Chinese state has rolled out a game meat ban to suppress the risk of another public health crisis brought by a zoonotic spillover, but its implementation is easier said than done. Several indigenous cultural factors, such as historically perceived medicinal effects of game meat and the social prestige associated with its consumption, may continue to fuel a niche market of game consumption in China and the development of wildlife farm businesses as an economic pillar of some local communities in the country.
Also being widely discussed in the control of Covid-19 is the geographically varied attitudes towards wearing masks. In parts of East Asia, such as Japan and Hong Kong, people are no strangers to mask as an everyday prophylactic means. Apart from being a generally accepted personal risk ritual, mask-wearing is hardwired as a communal response to recurring outbreaks of influenza and other airborne diseases in these societies by a consciousness of collective responsibility (Baehr 2008; Horii 2014). As the risk of Covid-19 became apparent, people in Hong Kong, where mask-wearing was popularized during the outbreak of SARS in 2003, quickly started to scramble for masks in as early as the first week of January 2020, with those failing to wear one in public fear being criticized as irresponsible to the health of others. In contrast, given the prominent display of masked Asian (particularly Chinese) visage in Western media coverage of the SARS epidemic in 2003, “the mask, in essence, became a type of universal stigma symbol—a “mark”—that conveyed a “spoiled identity” by suggesting the association of that individual (in whatever capacity) with SARS” (Ali 2008, 49). The media’s punning on the mask on the Chinese state’s transparency in handling the SARS outbreak—as seen in news reports proclaiming to “unmask” the health crisis—further entrench a symbolic link between the mask and foreign threats among the Western public (Sin 2016).
Meanwhile, the focus on social distancing as a means to short-circuit the spread of Covid-19 also is accompanied by more utilization of social networks. This trend is notable among overseas Chinese, who organize themselves around existing ethnic-territorial organizations, such as the hometown associations (tongxianghui) and Chinese chambers of commerce in the city they are based, as well as ad hoc groups on messaging applications, for mutual support in the pandemic, from group buying of masks to sharing of pandemic-related news. It is pertinent to ask how such groupings may have been given rise by more than survivalism but a range of cultural factors, such as the emphasis on group identity and social cohesion in Chinese culture.
Questions Ahead: The Differences that Covid-19 Makes
Changes and Continuities of Globalization
Apart from the contagion of Covid-19, global economic interdependence has expedited the spread of pandemic-driven economic shocks across borders. Much attention has been paid to the supply chain havoc wrecked by widespread lockdown and logistics disruptions. Although supply shocks occur every now and then with natural disasters (e.g. the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011) and political conflicts (e.g. trade wars initiated by the US government since 2019) in different parts of the world, few are comparable with the spatial and temporal scale of repercussions brought by Covid-19. In many countries, businesses fell victim of the virus because they ran out of stock their parts and goods produced in China, where production and transport were grounded to a nearly complete halt at the height of the domestic outbreak in February and March 2020 (Ewing, Boudette, and Abdul 2020). This drastic domino effect from the world’s factory to the rest of the world raises the alarm over the Achilles’ heel of the hitherto popular practices of “just-in-time” inventory systems, the global division of labor and far-flung sourcing networks, and the ensuing vulnerabilities of individual firms and national economies.
As efforts to restart the economic engine begin to sprout, geographers will be challenged in the years to come to track and analyze how the Covid-19 pandemic provokes states and firms to reappraise and rework their engagements in the global economy, leading to another round of “redrawing of the global economic map” (Dicken 2015, 24). A key locus of inquiry would be how tensions between the globalizing tendencies in production and trade in recent decades and the resurgence of economic nationalism in the post-pandemic period are played out. From the perspectives of national governments, proposals from top officials in Washington and Tokyo since the outbreak of Covid-19 to provide financial support for American and Japanese firms respectively to relocate their production back home from China, whose reliability as a supplier has been thrown into doubt, may signal an emergent U-turn in globalization. The law of comparative advantage seems to lose its charm among the developed economies to a survivalist imperative for stable medical supplies from domestic manufacturers and a keen interest in reshoring production as a means for domestic firms to achieve greater supply chain resilience.
However, firms do not necessarily respond positively to state incentives for renationalisation of their supply chains, for at least three possible reasons. First, the Covid-19 pandemic has yet to fundamentally reshape the political-economic conditions (e.g. high labor and operational costs, and limited market opportunities) which have driven the manufacturing sector away from the developed economies. The interest of firms to securitize their supply chain by reshoring may be offset by the prohibitive costs of domestic production and procurement. Second, path dependence and enormous complexity in the relationships between firms and their sources matter. Some firms may have outsourced their production to a number of producers and may find it hard to identify alternative sources. Contemporary supply chains can become so complicated and extensive that many companies find it hard to fully comprehend their own supply networks even though they are aware of the need for such understanding as a risk-mitigation strategy. As an example, it took a team of 100 people of a Japanese semiconductor manufacturer more than a year to “map the company’s supply networks deep into the sub-tiers” following the Great East Japan Earthquake (Choi, Rogers, and Vakil 2020). Such complexity makes the delink from existing supplier network impossible in a short timeframe. Third, let us not forget that firms also make decisions based on their sales. Unless a firm is serving a single market, the return to spatially concentrated production may only shift its business risk from supply chain fracture to distribution network rupture. Moreover, the continuation of less favorable treatments to imports from non-members by trade blocs in such regions as Europe, North America and Southeast Asia are likely to organize their production networks in a distributed, regionalized manner to avoid incurring additional costs in cross-region production (Dicken 2015). Given these possibilities, globalization does not necessarily come to an end but will take a different form, featuring new spatial patterns of (dis)connections. What exactly such a form looks like will depend on how firms strike a balance between profitability and efficiency on the one hand, and supply stability and redundancy on the other hand, a decision which will vary with firms of different scales and from different industries.
Promises and Perils of Data-Driven Health Governance
The novelty of the Covid-19 pandemic is not only defined by our ignorance of the virus, but also the centrality of digital technologies in public health response. As digital devices from surveillance cameras to smartphones become ubiquitous, it has become possible for data to be collected in a continuous, distributed and exhaustive manner in various socio-spatial aspects to support disease control. Mobile phone location data are harnessed by governments for contact tracing. General observational data on pedestrian and traffic flows are also repurposed as a means to monitor the implementation of social distancing measures (Das and James 2020). These contributions of digital technologies to public health regulation will no doubt add to the optimism of the ideas of “smart city” and “big data governance”, which promise more efficient and sophisticated governance with the collection of more data (Kitchin 2014). There are opportunities to be seized by geographers in develop what is hopefully a more holistic understanding of biosocial processes from a growing body of fine-grained data on people’s everyday lives. This promise from data is reflected by the initial responses from geographers to the Covid-19 outbreak in the form of epidemic mapping (Zhou et al. 2020) and reflections in city planning practices based on a quantitative understanding of the interaction between health risks and physical settings (Florida 2020).
Without denying these benefits to public health quality, emerging critical engagements of digital geographies have reminded us that the current digital turn is as much a technical as a political project which involves “redefining and reconfiguring relations within and between people, their community, government and the […] environment” (Ho 2017, 3103). This is no exception to the digital approach to pandemic control, whose socio-spatial implications are more than improving real-time and geographically refined surveillance of infectious diseases. In this regard, two issues merit further attention from geographers. First is the politics of data collection and analysis underwriting who govern socio-spatial relations and how they do so. Concerns are mounting that Covid-19 has created a moment of “extraordinary politics” (Balcerowicz 1995) in which, in the name of public health security, governments can roll out panoptic modes of governance based on centralized “dataveillance” (Kitchin 2014)—a move contravening the norms of state-society relations in many contexts valuing privacy and autonomy. However, a decentralized data infrastructure outside of the state can also promote collective responsibility to health. In the UK and the US, citizen science has contributed to disease surveillance as the tech-savvy community and the academics develop a myriad of online platforms and mobile applications for people to report whether they have symptoms while learning about infection risks around one’s vicinity, all under anonymity (Fishwick 2020). How state and non-state actors will come to terms of data as a lynchpin of power struggle reinforced by the Covid-19 crisis is worthwhile for further scrutiny.
Second is the socio-spatial impacts of data-driven health governance. The quotidian use of digital technologies in the battle against Covid-19 is a vivid illustration of data as an instrument of power in reshaping “how we perceive ourselves, others, the environment and act in it” (Ho 2017, 3103). Intentional or not, the mushrooming of dashboards and mobile applications of virus epidemiology has arguably lent support in the realm of health to a neoliberal form of smart citizenship’ (Cardullo and Kitchin 2019), under which people are expected to take care of their own health by producing and consuming health-related data at individual and population scales, for instance, reducing one’s infection risk by avoiding crowded areas identified by real-time online maps. Further investigation is required on how this digitalized and individualized mode of health governance may have an uneven impact on people’s wellbeing (Glied and Lleras-Muney 2008)—the difficulties for elderly people in China to move around because they do not have a smartphone to obtain a QR code classifying them to be healthy is telling of the potential intertwining of technological inequalities with social inequalities. Moreover, the privileging of digital sensors and coded knowledge in the problematisation of public health challenges risks propagating a “solutionism” (Morozov 2013), stressing the need of individual adaptations to disease outbreaks while diverting critical attention away from the debilitating effects of structural factors like the rise of neoliberalisation on official public health responses.
Challenges to the Homeless and the Homebound
Covid-19 has furthermore transformed the significance of home, a key research site in cultural geography (Blunt and Varley 2004), as a direct and indirect consequence of health regulation. The first change is related to the significance of home in healthcare. Home is attributed with particular significance in today’s pandemic amidst repeated official appeals for people to “stay home, save lives”. Home is simultaneously portrayed as a private sanctuary from the deadly virus circulating in public spaces (thus saving one’s own life), and an extension of the space of public regulation and responsibility where people are quarantined for suspected infection or confined due to territory-wide lockdown (thus saving other’s lives). Either way, these measures have somewhat taken for granted that everyone has a home and can retreat into it during the pandemic as their pivotal, if not their last, “infrastructure of care” (Ortiz and Boano 2020). However, this is not the case for many: those experiencing homelessness who lose their refuge in 24-hour restaurants closed under official lockdown orders, those working overseas who are staying in dormitories or homes of someone else, and those evicted by their landlords due to rental default or pandemic-linked discrimination to medical professionals and foreigners. Apart from the variegated changes in the experience of being at home, a holistic understanding of the everyday geographies of Covid-19 ought to examine how these people have led a life in the locality they are based in this pandemic time amidst their social, spatial and emotional disembeddedness from where they call home. These questions point to the importance of the home as another scale, other than the city (Rydin et al. 2012) and the neighborhood (Bernard et al. 2007), which mediates the (re)production of health inequalities.
The second change relates to the functional diversification of household space. The pandemic has sent much of the world into an unprecedented large social experiment of the work-from-home arrangement. Many researchers have examined this arrangement with the various time–space changes it brought about in such aspects as residential locations and commuting patterns (Budnitz, Tranos, and Chapman 2020). As for its cultural impacts, while much attention has been paid to the development of a new work culture, marked by the challenges of coordinating dispersed workers and planning new workflows as face-to-face interaction is replaced by virtual ones, we argue that equal attention should be given to the new circumstances produced by working and living under the same roof. For many others who used to keeping work and family in different spaces, the work-from-home arrangement means a collapse of the boundaries between them. The sudden thrown togetherness of work and family relations in the household space is creating new tensions (van der Lippe and Lippényi 2018). While previous studies have celebrated the opportunity of work-from-home arrangements to allow some workers to remain economically active while being home-bounded for family obligations, those who have retreated to work at home may not expect themselves to take up more domestic labor. Of interest is how such changes have intersected with the entrenched spatial gender division of labor between “men in workplace” and “women at home” (Abbott, Wallace, and Tyler 2005). On the one hand, this division may be challenged when men are brought to par with their home-staying women in terms of their everyday space. However, such division may also be reinforced by the renewed influence of feminine domesticity on working women now staying at home when they are expected by their families to take up the disproportionate share of additional childcare and elderly care responsibilities during closures of schools and day-care facilities. Only time can tell whether and how such experience may have a lasting imprint on one’s gender-mediated relations with his/her home and with others in the same household space.
Coda: Three Final Reflections on Covid-19 and Geography
The Covid-19 pandemic uproots many aspects of our lives. The current period of misery and uncertainty simultaneously represents a precious moment for us to reflect on our research and knowledge as geographers. We have written this paper as a critical commentary with the hope to promote subsequent debates on how we can identify and address the many chronic vulnerabilities and emerging challenges brought by viral diseases to public health and other aspects of life at multiple geographical scales. We admit the impossibility for our discussion here to cover all possible areas or directions that geographers can work on. Neither do we plan to do so. At the risk of being a bit naïve, yet based on our observations over the past months, we wish to conclude this paper by sharing with fellow geographers three reflections about the how space and virus shape each other.
First, we suggest that national practices in their battle against Covid-19 are path-dependent and context-specific. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Although some common exercises of social distancing and lockdowns can certainly flatten the curve of rising confirmed cases and mortality rates, it is the local specificities of many other kinds, such as economic structures, governance paradigms and cultural preferences, that dictate the success of disease-combating efforts. This is not least in that some countries ranked high in the GHS Index have been facing tremendous disease burden in the current pandemic.
Second, we agree with Francis Fukuyama (2020) that the primary dividing line in effective crisis response is not a country’s political system. In the fight against Covid-19 so far, there are some good performing authoritarian regimes and bad performing democratic countries, but the other way round is also true. Instead, the crucial determinant is how state capacities and competencies, as well as pressures and incentives, both enable and constrain efforts of combating Covid-19. In so arguing, we are not disputing the necessity for an open and transparent state system for effective disease control. What we simply want to stress here is the need to pay close attention to the critical role of the state and the politicized nature of risk management. Tasks such as seeking international collaboration, allocating medical resources, and taking measures to limit the human cost and economic disruption all require quick inputs of the state, whose political capacities to mobilize various socioeconomic resources cannot be matched by other agents. However, more importantly, prevention is always better than cure—it is more important for every state to support a financially robust and socially responsible regime of health policy and provision which gives its people the best chance to avert a devasting crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic. We can never be complacent of any ‘triumph of containment’ when so many lives have already been lost in the first place.
Third, one of the most prominent phenomena observed during the Covid-19 outbreak is a strong and growing focus on individuals and firms as sites and objects of governance. Individuals have been caught up in various degree of lockdowns and digital surveillance. Firms are increasingly under pressure imposed by the state to reshuffle their operations and conducts. These trends are (re)shaping state-market-society relationship in an unprecedented manner. It is in this sense that, perhaps more than any other period in recently recorded history, the realm of state-market-society ties has become profoundly heterogeneous and contested. Indeed, we view the present pandemic era to feature a complex intertwining of state, market and society at all levels of the world, from the global to the regional and the local, with no single party able to stay out of the crisis and with causality running in virtually all directions. It is the geographically uneven transformations of the intricacies of state-market-society relationships that demand more research attention.