Slums are becoming a focal point of the Covid-19 outbreak

Punit Paranjpe/AFP via Getty Images

For the 1.2 billion people around the world who live in densely populated slums, crowded conditions and scarce public services threaten to make the Covid-19 pandemic especially devastating.

An April study from Brookings India shows that these communities are already becoming a focal point of the pandemic. Researchers analyzed the “containment zones” that the Indian government set up in areas with Covid outbreaks, and overlaid that data with maps of slum communities. Their findings demonstrate that Covid-19 outbreaks in Mumbai, one of the world’s largest cities, are based in or near slum communities.

“The fact of the matter is that slums are being disproportionately impacted,” says Shaonlee Patranabis, research assistant at Brookings India and one of the authors of the study. “No containment zone’s epicenter was further than 800 metres from the nearest slum.”

Many residents of these neighbourhoods already face interlocking health crises. Slums are often located in areas of intense air pollution, a problem that can be exacerbated by indoor cooking with biomass fuels in windowless homes. Lung diseases such as tuberculosis are already prevalent, and in some areas – especially in South Africa – higher rates of HIV/AIDS could compound the severity of Covid-19. Limited access to fresh water and toilets is a grave problem in the best of times, and it’s only more dire amidst a pandemic.

“Social distancing is impossible in these conditions,” Patranabis says. “In a lot of slums, the water supply is one tap for 200 households. They have to queue up for the water that they need.”

Mumbai is the financial capital of India, but 42% of the population lives in communities with little access to basic services like fresh water, toilets, or health care. Residents are mostly employed in the informal economy, and depend on their daily wages for food, making the economic shutdown hellishly difficult to navigate.

As the pandemic blazed across the globe, policymakers in Mumbai decided to establish containment zones as a means to stymie the spread of the disease. Residents within a zone’s boundaries are placed in quarantine and under police surveillance. They are then tested for Covid-19, and those who prove to be positive are subject to contact tracing. On 31 March, there were 141 containment zones in the greater Mumbai area, increasing to 243 by 5 April and 490 by 14 April.

“We are a resource strapped country only able to do lockdowns and trace contacts,” said Patranabis. “There are cases where a single house is a containment zone, and where an entire lane is a containment zone.”

There have been successes with the containment zone model. Another outbreak in the Kasaragod district of Kerala – a coastal state with a long history of progressive governance and public health investment – was rapidly and successfully brought under control.

But in slums, the approach will be challenging to implement.

In many cases, residents have no legal property rights. Dwellings are usually densely populated and built from an eclectic array of materials. Patranabis describes units in Mumbai’s Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, where five people live in four-foot-by-eight-foot dwellings, sleeping in shifts to manage the space constraints.

Conditions in these sections of Mumbai are mirrored in similar communities elsewhere, from the favelas of Brazil to the shanty towns of South Africa. Outbreaks have already been documented in Pakistan’s Orangi Town and Brazil’s Rocinha.

“Many of these communities don’t have real clean water sources, but one of the most important safety measures is to wash your hands frequently,” said Lee Riley, a professor of infectious diseases and vaccinology at the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health. 

“This virus can shed in stool, [so with limited access to toilets] it could spread in these communities not just through respiratory routes but fecal contamination of water and food.”

An April 24 paper published in the Journal of Urban Health, which Riley contributed to, argues that an array of government interventions are required, from eviction moratorium to direct income support and food distribution.

Some governments have begun pursuing these policies. Brazil and India have issued income support for their poorest residents. Some jurisdictions in India have banned evictions during the pandemic. The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai is installing additional fresh water pumps in its slum neighbourhoods, Patranabis reports.

But residents and observers of these neighbourhoods fear that Covid will devastate the slum communities that house many of the world's poorest people. The history of government interventions in such areas is mixed, at best.

“Informal settlements are essentially abandoned by urban elites, which means they rarely receive the care and attention they need,” writes Robert Muggah, research director of the Brazilian think tank the Igarapé Institute. “Governments must be sensitive to the fact that there may be low levels of trust in informal settlements, as well as alternate systems of power and influence – including criminal groups.”

And although Covid spread across the globe on airplanes and cruise ships, borne by the wealthiest residents of the world, experts like UC Berkeley’s Riley say it is likely to harrow the world’s poorest for far longer.

“All respiratory pathogens are very successful in crowded, densely populated environments,” Riley says. “The trajectory of a lot of these diseases is that they end up in the slum communities of the world and then they linger.” 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer for CityMetric.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.