University of Texas Press

In this essay, we focus on how (im)mobility reflects wider socio-spatial and health inequalities in a highly segregated city: Santiago de Chile. Such immobility is relevant because it challenges common understandings of mobility in at least three ways: it reconfigures the relationship between mobility and health; it shows that inequality becomes visible not only when considering if a person can move, but also when examining the ability of a person to not move; and it shows how the immobility of some people is made possible by the hypermobility of others.


mobility, immobility, health, pandemic, Santiago de Chile


Mobility is one of many significant issues that the Covid-19 pandemic raises for the understanding of society and space. On a global scale, a dense network of air connections facilitated the fast spreading of the disease from China to the rest of the world. At a local level, decision-makers and scholars are already considering how traditional forms of mobility will change due to the need (and the desire) for physical distancing between people. However, the exceptional re-organisation of urban life that defines the pandemic changes the significance that mobility has on the urban scale. In this essay, we focus on how mobility reflects wider socio-spatial inequalities and how the pandemic challenges the usually positive meaning attached to it, discussing the negotiation of (im)mobility and health in a highly unequal city: Santiago de Chile.

This pandemic has generated significant impacts on public health and economies all over the world, challenging and changing the traditional ways in which people access their activities and essential services. The way people manage the fulfillment of everyday needs through mobility has been changing due to social distancing and quarantines recommended in order to avoid contagion. For example, in Chile, trips to grocery stores and pharmacies in April 2020 had declined by an average of 39 percent when compared to January and February of the same year (Google, 2020). At the same time, on-demand delivery services have emerged as an essential alternative for the supply of food and other primary goods during the pandemic. Online purchases allow the client to receive their products without risking exposure in supermarkets or restaurants. [End Page 240]

In a society highly dependent on mobility, immobility becomes a valuable asset to avoid the risks of the pandemic. Importantly, this kind of immobility is disproportionately available to higher-income people who can work from home, thus reducing their exposure. Such immobility is relevant because it questions the common understanding of mobility in at least three ways: first, it reconfigures the relationship between mobility and health; second, it shows that inequality becomes visible not only when considering if a person can move, but also when examining the ability of a person to not move; and third, it shows how the immobility of some people is made possible by the hypermobility of others. Thus, we are able to observe an ironic reversal of usual mobility patterns: even if Latin American cities reveal that many factors linked with poverty are associated with immobility (Motte-Baumvol & Nassi, 2012), these days some of the most disadvantaged people are forced to become hypermobile in order to subsist economically.

mobility and health in an unequal city

Mobility and health are two fields in which inequality is highly visible in Latin America, especially at the urban level. On the one hand, mobility comes as a consequence of the segregated structure of Latin American cities. While essential opportunities such as jobs tend to be concentrated in small areas of a city, middle- and low-income groups usually live in pericentral and peripheral areas and so they have to travel long distances in order to reach such opportunities. Consequently, urban mobility is central to more equitable cities, as a growing stream of research demon strates (Vecchio et al., 2020). On the other hand, there are significant health inequalities across the region, with differences that are often associated with gender, socioeconomic status, and place of residence. Life expectancy is a crucial indicator in this sense, as the emblematic case of Santiago shows: spatial and socioeconomic differences determine a lower life expectancy for people from lower compared to upper socio economic statuses, with a difference of 8.9 years for men and of 17.7 years for women (Bilal et al., 2019).

While the interplay of mobility and health is an emerging field of interest in Latin America, current research generally does not consider the role that immobility might play. It tends to consider the manifold impacts that mobility can have on health and also examines eventual implications of inequality by referring to the exposure to road accidents, the risk of harassment and gender violence, and the stress generated by different forms of travel (Sagaris et al., 2020). In general, gender, age, and ethnicity can contribute to exacerbating these issues. Likewise, these adverse effects on health become more evident in public transport, bicycling, and walking, which are the available forms of mobility especially to medium- and low-income groups.

However, the ability to move is usually associated with positive effects on health and wellbeing. The very act of moving can be beneficial for one's health, at least when moving by walking, cycling, or using public transport (Passi-Solar et al., 2020). In addition, moving allows access to significant opportunities not only for one's subsistence, such as jobs, but also for one's physical and [End Page 241] mental wellbeing, as is the case with green spaces. Immobility appears thus as a missing element that nonetheless deserves more attention in the future. In this sense, studying both marginalized and privileged groups in Santiago can provide valuable insights for understanding and rethinking the relationship between (im)mobility and health.

(im)mobility and health among marginalized groups

The negotiation of (im)mobility and health becomes particularly visible in the case of marginalized groups, for whom both moving and staying home can be harmful to their health. In the first weeks of the pandemic, the Chilean government implemented partial quarantines involving only some boroughs of Santiago. Even so, many workers still had to reach their workplaces, among them informal workers active in the city streets, formal workers without the ability to work from home, or public servants who had to go back to work due to the government's call for "new normality." Such commuting directly increased the risk of exposure to the contagion, a risk that affects mainly low-income groups in Santiago (Tirachini et al., 2020). Moreover, Santiago has an unbalanced urban structure characterized by a center of activities that keeps moving towards the affluent eastern zone of the city (Suazo-Vecino et al., 2020). For low-income groups who live in pericentral and peripheral areas of the city, this implies long travels by public transport. The two lowest income quintiles of the population, in fact, move mainly by public transport to cover long distances, while one out of two trips of the top quintile is by car (Iglesias et al, 2019). The need to travel and the dependence on public transport exposes people to long trips in spaces where it is often not possible to guarantee physical distancing.

However, even the ability to be physically immobile comes with potential issues. The first problem concerns the experience of staying home. In Santiago, tacit collusion in the housing market (Vargas, 2016) has led to new residential development characterised by high prices, high densities, and shrinking spaces. Its most emblematic examples are probably the "vertical ghettos," with densities of 800 to 1,000 inhabitants per block, and "micro-apartments" of less than twenty square metres (about 215 square feet) (López Morales & Herrera Castillo, 2018). These housing conditions raise important issues for health, such as the inability to self-isolate, the negative effects of small spaces on personal wellbeing, and even risks to personal safety due to higher exposure to domestic violence. Furthermore, it is often difficult to replace physical mobility with the virtual mobility required to participate in lessons or work activities; significant forms of inter-net exclusion affect marginal zones in Santiago, considered as "red zones" by companies unwilling to serve them (Valenzuela-Levi, 2020). Therefore, in the case of worst-off groups, the negotiation of immobility and health is especially tricky. Even when people can avoid movement throughout the city, staying home can generate additional risks for health and wellbeing.

immobility at the expense of others

Privileged groups show other relevant dimensions of immobility and health in times of [End Page 242]

Figure 1. Municipalities of Santiago where couriers work and reside (data based on a survey conducted by the authors among forty-one couriers during the first two weeks of Santiago's quarantine).
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 1.

Municipalities of Santiago where couriers work and reside (data based on a survey conducted by the authors among forty-one couriers during the first two weeks of Santiago's quarantine).

pandemic. We have simultaneously experienced an unprecedented interplay of physical and virtual mobility required to continue working activities and a marked increase in the reliance on other subjects to accomplish necessary tasks such as the provisioning of food and other primary goods. In terms of immobility, the first case shows the apparently easy replacement of physical displacement with virtual forms of overcoming distance, thanks to the ubiquitous presence of internet connectivity and digital technology. Nonetheless, the avoidance of home-to-office commuting is not necessarily positive, given higher workloads due to household and caring tasks or considering that an international survey has revealed that cyclists, pedestrians, and (to a lesser extent) public transport users might actually miss commuting (Rubin et al., 2020).

The spreading of on-demand delivery services in times of pandemic shows another [End Page 243] significant tension between mobility, immobility, and health. The immobility of clients is made possible by the hypermobility of couriers—usually low-income and informal workers—working for on-demand delivery services (see Figure 1). The increased demand makes the delivery job more profitable but also more dangerous: the high risk of contagion adds to the usual risks of this job, such as road accidents, weather conditions, and assaults. Couriers already deal with the precariousness of their job: most of them are young adults who are more and more involved in the rise of the gig economy but who also experience the insecurity of a flexible business model that maximizes profit thanks to low remunerations, exploitation, and lack of rights (MacDonald & Giazitzoglu, 2019).

As Ustek-Spilda et al. (2020) state, for these gig workers, self-isolation is frequently an unaffordable luxury. Furthermore, many couriers in Santiago have experienced diminished demand for their services, and thus diminished income, during the pandemic due to both an increase of couriers and the official 10 pm to 5 am curfew—peak hours for online food orders. Simply staying at home is not a feasible option for many couriers. Even if they can choose how much to work, their economic survival depends on putting themselves and their families at risk. Moreover, if anything happens, most of them do not have a formal contract or health insurance—a lack of protection that shows the fragility of their work. As one courier stated in a recent news report, "I die either of hunger or coronavirus" (Ríos & Cifuentes, 2020). The disadvantaged gig workers thus need to engage in more intense and risky forms of mobility, which highlight how the pandemic has paradoxically reversed the value usually attached to mobility—an activity that privileged groups now try to avoid, being immobile at the expense of indispensable others.

final reflections

The Covid-19 pandemic raises the need for a more nuanced understanding of mobility and immobility, especially when considering their relationship with health. The most novel element in this sense is the privilege and resilience of immobility (Ferreira et al., 2017). Through (im)mobility the Covid-19 crisis makes visible existing and emerging forms of urban inequality, especially related to commuting, quarantine, and the hyper-mobile gig economy. However, both mobility and immobility emerge as conditional resources whose value depends on the experience and conditions of both movement and a person's ability to just stay home.

The interdependence of mobility and immobility is another significant element the Covid-19 pandemic has made clear. Mobility is rarely an exclusively individual activity; it requires an inevitable interdependence with other subjects. Some people can access places, goods, and services thanks to others who accompany them or move on their behalf, highlighting the relevance of the mobility of care (Sánchez de Madariaga & Zucchini, 2019) that is often overshadowed by commuting. The pandemic shows how this form of interdependence can also rely on strangers such as couriers. However, the relational features of mobility require more attention in the future, not only in research [End Page 244] but also in planning and policy approaches intended to address a crucial urban issue such as access to basic opportunities during both crisis-ridden and normal times.

Finally, the complex negotiation of (im) mobility and health in Santiago de Chile during the Covid-19 pandemic raises several significant issues related to urban justice, a theme directly relevant in many other settings in urban Latin America. These issues of justice resound with the need for a mobility justice that encompasses "these many different vectors of class, racial, gender and other injustices across entangled scales" (Sheller, 2018, p. 14). In the mentioned cases, issues of health, job and housing precariousness, mobility, and risk interact and define new and complex forms of everyday inequality. The emergency related to the pandemic exacerbates these imbalances but also provides an unprecedented occasion to tackle them.

Giovanni Vecchio
Instituto de Estudios Urbanos y Territoriales, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile
Ignacio Tiznado-Aitken
Departamento de Ingeniería de Transporte y Logística, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile


Bilal, U., Alazraqui, M., Caiaffa, W. T., Lopez-Olmedo, N., Martinez-Folgar, K., Miranda, J. J., Rodriguez, D.A., Vives, A., & Diez-Roux, A. V. (2019). Inequalities in life expectancy in six large Latin American cities from the SALURBAL study: an ecological analysis. The Lancet Planetary Health, 3(12), 503-510.
Ferreira, A., Bertolini, L., & Næss, P. (2017). Immotility as resilience? A key consideration for transport policy and research. Applied Mobilities, 2(1), 16-31.
Google. (2020). COVID-19 Community Mobility Report for Chile.
Iglesias, V., Giraldez, F., Tiznado-Aitken, I., & Muñoz, J. C. (2019). How uneven is the urban mobility playing field? Inequalities among socioeconomic groups in Santiago De Chile. Transportation Research Record.
López Morales, E., & Herrera Castillo, N. (2018, July 25). Arriendos por las nubes: efecto de la creciente concentración de la propiedad. Ciper Chile.
MacDonald, R., & Giazitzoglu, A. (2019). Youth, enterprise and precarity: or, what is, and what is wrong with, the 'gig economy'? Journal of Sociology, 55(4), 724-740.
Motte-Baumvol, B., & Nassi, C. D. (2012). Immobility in Rio de Janeiro, beyond poverty. Journal of Transport Geography, 24, 67-76.
Passi-Solar, Á., Margozzini, P., Cortinez-O'Ryan, A., Muñoz, J. C., & Mindell, J. S. (2020). Nutritional and metabolic benefits associated with active and public transport: Results from the Chilean National Health Survey, ENS 2016–2017. Journal of Transport & Health, 17.
Ríos, C., & Cifuentes, L. (2020, April 7). El relato de los trabajadores de delivery que viven la pandemia sin acceso a baños ni elementos de protección. Ciper Chile.
Rubin, O., Nikolaeva, A., Nello-Deakin, S., & te Brömmelstroet, M., (2020). What can we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic about how people experience working from home and commuting?. Centre for Urban Studies, University of Amsterdam.
Sagaris, L., Barros, P., Slovic, A. D., & Vecino-Ortiz, A. I. (2020). Introduction special issue transport & health in Latin America. Journal of Transport & Health.
Sánchez de Madariaga, I., & Zucchini, E. (2019). Measuring Mobilities of Care, a Challenge for Transport Agendas. In C. L. Scholten, & T. Joelsson(Eds.), Integrating Gender into Transport Planning (pp. 145-173). Palgrave Macmillan.
Sheller, M. (2018). Mobility justice: The politics of movement in an age of extremes. Verso Books.
Suazo-Vecino, G., Muñoz, J. C., & Fuentes Arce, L. (2020). The Displacement of Santiago de Chile's Downtown during 1990–2015: Travel Time Effects on Eradicated Population. Sustainability, 12(1), 289.
Tirachini, A., Guevara, A., Munizaga, M., Carrasco, J. A., Astroza, S., & Hurtubia, R. (2020). Coronavirus y el estrés de la pobreza. Medium.
Ustek-Spilda, F., Graham, M., Bertolini, A., Katta, S., Ferrari, F., Badger, A., Howson, K., & Neerukonda, M. (2020). The politics of Covid-19: Gig work in the coronavirus crisis. Red Peper.
Valenzuela-Levi, N. (2020). The written and unwritten rules of internet exclusion: inequality, institutions and network disadvantage in cities of the Global South. Information, Communication & Society, 1-18.
Vargas, M. (2016). Tacit collusion in housing markets: the case of Santiago, Chile. Applied Economics, 48(54), 5257-5275.
Vecchio, G., Tiznado-Aitken, I., & Hurtubia, R. (2020). Transport and equity in Latin America: a critical review of socially oriented accessibility assessments. Transport Reviews, 1-28.

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.