Unilag Housing Centre


Fighting Disease Pandemic with Planning: Exploring African COVID-19 Experiences

Fighting Disease Pandemic with Planning: Exploring African COVID-19 Experiences


Ayobami Abayomi Popoola

Department of Town and Regional Planning, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa





Since the Bubonic plague of 1924 in Lagos, Nigeria, and more recent epidemics of tuberculosis and HIV/AIDs in South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia, as well as malaria in DR Congo, Uganda, Mozambique and Niger, concerns have been raised about the capacity of African cities to respond effectively to health crisis.


There is a well established nexus between uncontrolled urbanisation, rapid population growth, spatial inequality and the state of African vulnerability to health related crises. The prepositions have mentioned that urban Africa remains a breeding ground for infectious disease, while its residents have found ways to spread such diseases to neighboring towns during outbreaks. The beat-up position is that critical factors that influence health outcomes in Africa cities include socio-economic inequalities, global environmental change and urbanization, exacerbated by weak urban planning practices. Africa is the fastest urbanizing continent with feelers estimating unprecedented migration to cities such as Dar es Salaam, Accra, Lagos, Cape Town, Johannesburg. Incidentally, these cities are often the landing point and epicentres of epidemics.


While city life has many advantages, accelerated urbanization also poses many health threats to city dwellers. In this article, I identify three underlying factors limiting the effective management of the COVID-19 pandemic in African cities.



Access to Water  


One of every three person in Africa is water insecure. It is estimated that that 27% of city dwellers in the developing world are without access to piped water while slum dwellers in places like Nairobi often pay more (over five to seven times) than an average North American citizen. The experience shows that many of the vulnerable urban poor depends on open streams, seasonally available rain harvested from roofs, purchase of water, and water from unringed wells. It is important to identify that the key to securing a good livelihood, adequate sanitation and hygiene in Africa is water security.


Ndaw (2020) mentioned that 63% of people in urban Sub-Saharan Africa which represents of the main cluster of the virus cannot wash their hands regularly due to lack access to water services. Despite the importance of water, access to and availability of potable water among urban poor remains limited. This pre-Coronavirus experience has generated a lot of reactionary measures from the government. Examples include the emergency water provision (in water tankers) by central governments and donor agencies to urban poor communities in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg, South Africa, Accra in Ghana, Bouaké in Côte d’Ivoire, and Nairobi Kenya. However, the sustainability of this intervention is still uncertain, as it is short term. The focus should be on providing sustainable water planning and provision for these regions and people post-COVID.



Unplanned Settlements and theDisease Tracking Dilemma


Rapid unplanned urbanisation results in sprawl and the emergence of informal settlements. This is a major limitation to a healthy city. Urban regeneration projects/programmes purposively targeted at squatter zones, slums, informal settlements and city corridors are insufficient to addressing the community spread of disease because slum dwellers tend to be transient in nature, and many low income communities are located along the urban corridors and city core.

Therefore emergency management must be incorporated into urban planning and management frameworks. The relevance of well coordinated development planning for urban areas remains the potent solution for disease tracking and contact tracing. Regeneration of slums – especially through insitu upgrading – must also take into consideration health indicators and other factors that promote the good health, accessibility to sustainable urban services and mobility. Within communities, adequate setbacks must be incorporated into neighbourhood design as it aligns with the social  distancing recommended for COVID-19 management.



Market, Informality and Unorganized spaces


Most local markets in African cities operate in informal and unorganized public spaces, which increases the risk of contacting and spreading the coronavirus.  Many of the urban markets are daily in nature but almost all are without sheds. The ones that are planned are often overcrowedge, thus limiting the coordinated space management. The need for coordinated social distancing in markets, schools, public spaces, etc. as practiced in Nakasero market in Kampala Uganda (where markets were reorganized in a way that traders stands both in market stalls/shed and open spaces were arranged 2meters apart, and market traders and buyers nose guard) needs to be imbibed in market in cities like Lagos, Zimbabwe and Ghana. Integrating urban mall design (gated, controlled access and variety of sales points) into conventional African markets will assist in coordination into market areas. The preposition to exploring market design that is social distanced remains a futuristic dimension to solving the lockdown of markets such that the informal workers are absorbed from the shocks of poverty.


This articles highlights the fac that the driving factor of the spread disease in Africa are spatial inequality in access to services (especially water), livelihood shocks, and weak planning mechanisms (Dodman et al., 2017). There is need to sustainably include urban poor and peri-urban water provision as well as spatial and land-use planning improvements for coordinated settlements and markets. Planning cities must integrate disease control and healthy city indicators



Dodman, D., Leck, H., Rusca, M., & Colenbrander, S. (2017). African urbanisation and urbanism: Implications for risk accumulation and reduction. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction26, 7-15.


Ndaw, F. 2020. COVID-19: Solving Africa’s water crisis is more urgent than ever. Available at: https://blogs.worldbank.org/nasikiliza/covid-19-solving-africas-water-crisis-more-urgent-ever [Accessed 23 May 2020]


United Nations. 2018. Water and Urbanisation. Available at: https://www.unwater.org/water-facts/urbanization/ [Accessed 23 May 2020]


The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development or the University of Lagos, Nigeria.