How alarming is COVID-19 if it were to hit informal settlements?
Let us paint a picture
India, Bangladesh, Brazil, Kenya, and South Africa are amongst the countries with a number of individuals in informal settlements in their countries. Research carried out by Habitat for Humanity estimates that at least a quarter of the population live in informal settlements in urban areas. In Kenya, Kibera hosts at least 700, 000 individuals, In India Dharavi, hosts at least one million individuals, Mexico has similar numbers in Neza and the same applies for Khatyelitsha in South Africa. Study shows that informal settlements are characterized by inadequate access to safe water and sanitation, insecure residential areas, poor housing and overcrowding. Due to the economies of scale involved, informal settlements are here to stay- or at least for the time being.
A majority of people living in informal settlements are challenged by these extreme conditions live in, and to add on, employment is often scarce. Manual and casual labor or blue collar jobs are common amongst the people. These jobs, such as the Jua Kali industry, and casual jobs such as washing and cleaning, in Kenya, often dictate the level of sustainability of a person on a daily basis because their nature forces for meager earnings. These meager earnings are not guaranteed, they are also dependent on the availability of clients or people in need of casual laborers. With the increase in prices of local goods and other essential needs such as paraffin, the few earned coins are often divided to buy food, essentials, pay rent amongst other bills, and clearly, the funds are never enough to sustain. The challenge extends to accessing social amenities such as hospitals and schools where one has an option of private expensive education and healthcare that at least guarantees quality, or public facilities that are often understaffed, lack equipment and resources and are often at a threat of workers laying down their tools for lack of pay. Aside from crime, violence, the informal settlements also record high cases of police brutality and extra judicial killings that often go unresolved. In layman terms, the people do not dictate their way of life, their life dictates their living.
2020 saw us witness the spread of COVID-19, a situation that has now been declared a pandemic. Developed countries with adequate health care have witnessed massive deaths due to the Corona virus. A majority of countries are on lock down and there is no movement. This is an attempt to control and contain the spread of the virus. The main objective of all nations is to flatten the curve of the yet to be well understood virus. However, even with the control measures, countries are still counting deaths, and infections. What at least brings hope is the fact that we have witnessed a higher number of recoveries. To help the situation, countries have put in place response teams that are aiding in giving free food and essentials to the vulnerable, they are providing masks for their citizens and there is a controlled and visible organizational pattern top to bottom. There are clear directives that are inclusive of all groups whether rich or poor. It is an inclusive fight against COVID-19
In Kenya, with a slow but steady rise in infections. We have witnessed deaths, and we have recorded recoveries. The health care system especially for informal settlements and rural areas is still lacking in terms of enough beds, and availability of ICU units. If the infections were to rise rapidly, there would be excessive strain on the healthcare system. It is unclear how priority will be given to infected persons who need ventilators when the country is short of ICU units and functional ventilators. There have been complaints over the absurd charges at the isolation centers with clearly minimal supervision from the government which in turn puts the isolated individuals at risk of exposure. Worse still, people from informal settlements, if put in isolation will not afford the highly priced rooms.
Aside from that, some of the directives include a 7pm curfew, social distancing and wearing of masks. Masks have hiked in prices- the common mwananchi may not be able to afford purchasing masks. Most are opting for cloth masks that are not proven to prevent viruses. Surgical masks and N-95 are simply not affordable for most people who live under a dollar a day. Social distancing in over crowded areas is a challenge because most casual laborers would rather risk Corona virus than risk hunger. Food insecurity is a problem to an extent that during the recently witnessed scrambling for relief food in Kibera, two people lost their lives.
One of the government responses to these issues is to implore. To implore landlords to reduce or waive rent, to implore people selling masks to reduce prices, to implore people selling food to regulate prices and to implore police to use more civil means to implement the curfew directive. But this has not stopped the beating and killing of people who were caught out a few minutes after the curfew, it has not stopped prices from being hiked. With no one directly watching or putting in place measures that are inclusive of all groups, we continue to see people in informal settlements and other areas experiencing a pinch because of mistakes that are not their own.
The picture above is just a sample of how life is in informal settlements with COVID-19 in the country. That picture can easily get ugly if COVID-19 cases were to increase in informal settlements. Let us strive to increase access to justice, food, and healthcare for people in informal settlements. Make it possible for them to respond to the measures given, without having to strain.