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.


The future is here: Register now for Barcelona’s New Economy Week

Barcelona New Economy Week (BNEW) starts this Tuesday with the goal of turning the Catalan city into the "global capital of the new economy".

BNEW runs from 6 to 9 October, with registration remaining open throughout the event, offering insight from 350 speakers on how businesses can bounce back from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. It will feature top speakers from the business sectors of real estate, logistics, digital industry, e-commerce and economic zones.

The hybrid, business-to-business event – which is taking place in physical and virtual forms – is organised by Consorci de la Zona Franca (CZFB) and will showcase the way in which Barcelona is preparing for the post-Covid world and the "new economy". It is the city’s first big business event of the year and aims to help revitalise and restart the local economy.

“BNEW will be the first great event for the economy’s global recovery that will allow the redesigning of the productive fabric,” says Pere Navarro, state special delegate at CZFB. “It is an honour to have the participation of renowned professionals and attendees from all around the world.

“As we are not in a position to do a proper ‘in person’ fair, we decided to adapt by creating a disruptive and useful event in this way to relaunch the economy.”

The conference will encompass five interconnected events incorporating real estate, logistics, digital industry, e-commerce and economic zones. More than 8,000 professionals from 91 countries from all over the globe will take part virtually. A further 1,000 delegates are expected to attend the five events in person. Over 200 speakers will take part physically, while the rest will give their talks via a digital platform especially created for the unique event. An advanced digital networking platform – using artificial intelligence – will cross-reference the data of all those registered to offer a large number of contacts and directly connect supply with demand.

The conference will also be simultaneously broadcast in high-quality streaming on six channels, one for each of the five interconnected events and an additional stream showcasing Barcelona’s culture and gastronomy.

BNEW will take place in three venues in the city: Estació de França, Casa Seat and Movistar Centre. All are open, digital spaces committed to the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda. Estació de França will host the BNEW Logistics, BNEW E-commerce and BNEW Real Estate events, while Casa Seat will be home to the BNEW Economic Zones event, and the Movistar Centre will host the BNEW Digital Industry.

Some 36 companies are sponsoring BNEW, and 52 start-up companies will take part and present their highly innovative products and services. A further 128 firms will participate in BVillage, a kind of virtual stand where they can show their products and schedule meetings with potential clients.

Highlight sessions will include: "the era of humankind toward the fifth industrial revolution," by Marc Vidal, a digital transformation expert; "rational optimism," by Luca Lazzarini, a commercial communications specialist; and "future smart cities’ challenges and opportunities," by Alicia Asín, a leading voice on artificial intelligence. Sandra Pina will also talk about how sustainability is transforming us, Jorge Alonso on the humane future of cities and Pilar Jericó on how to face changes in the post-Covid era.

BNEW is described as a new way of developing your know-how, expanding your networks and promoting innovation and talent.

“Networking is always one of the main attractions of the events, so to carry it out in this innovative way at BNEW – with the high international profile it boasts – is a great opportunity for companies,” says Blanca Sorigué, managing director of CZFB.

Readers can register for BNEW for free via this link using the discount code BNEWFREE.