Tackling inequalities a must to fight COVID-19: WRI

Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia, has been trying to cope up with its rising COVID-19 cases. Image is representational. Image credit: By Kounosu - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5300649

Though an essential step, with the COVID-19 figures nearing the 25,000-mark in India, the lockdown imposed by the Indian government – the largest and most stringent in the world, has been difficult for everyone. For many of us, the lockdown has meant staying indoors, except for venturing out to buy essentials, while managing work, childcare and household work and following the social distance and personal hygiene norms set by the government and health care professionals. However, for the billions of the urban poor in India and elsewhere in the global south that is struggling to meet basic daily needs, the times have been even more punishing.

As per a blog post on tackling inequalities during COVID-19, by the World Resources Institute, social distancing norms which are critical to contain the pandemic, could prove to be impossible to follow for a large number of the urban poor across cities in Asia, Africa and Latin America, which lack the space, services and adequate safety net to survive such an order. Amidst lockdowns imposed by Governments, millions of the poorest residents in cities such as Bangkok, Lagos, New Delhi, Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro, have found their lives disrupted with little support and protection.

According to Dr Robin King Director, Knowledge Capture and Collaboration WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities and co-author of the blog, even cities that were previously cited as early successes, such as Singapore, have fallen short, and are witnessing worsening situations. “This is because of insufficient attention to the migrant worker dorms that share some of the same challenges as slums – cramped spaces that make social/physical distancing impossible, insufficient water for frequent hand washing, insufficient and insufficiently clean toilets, and a lack of accurate and sufficient information and time to address the additional burdens of dealing with responsible civic actions of frequent hand and space washing and keeping physical distances.”

India: Severe inequality

In India, nearly 1.3 billion people have been impacted by the lockdown imposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to slow down the spread of the virus. With nearly 152-216 million people living in densely populated informal settlements, social distancing remains a distant dream for most. WRI cites the example of a slum in Bengaluru which is 12 times denser than the city average – housing 1,40,000 people per square kilometre.

At a time when hygiene practices such as washing hands with soap and water at regular intervals could prove to be the difference between staying healthy or falling ill, water scarcity remains a huge problem - more than 160 million people do not have access to clean water in the country – at 19 per cent of the world’s population, that is the highest in the world.

Further, as per a UNICEF report, 20 per cent of urban Indians, which is around 91 million people, lack handwashing facilities at home. This then forces them to rely on water from other sources such as drains and canals, which often harbour more dangerous pathogens. Further, for many of the urban poor living in the crowded slums, hand washing could mean going to a shared tap or drawing from limited supply, hence making isolation and social distancing prove impossible to achieve.

In India, thousands of migrant labourers have been stuck without work and without being able to return to their hometowns, in different states across the country. In the absence of work, food or proper shelter, as more people from the informal sector flee to their homes, the risk of spreading the virus into the rural hinterlands is high.

The informal sector is also deeply affected by the lockdown – the post cites a survey conducted in Bengaluru where over 70 per cent of workers are from the informal sector. Despite being worried over contracting COVID-19, most workers feel compelled to continue working, due to fear of losing their jobs and not being able to feed their families. As per reports, the country’s informal sector would need at least 1.5 trillion relief package to be able to survive the lockdown.

While the death rate in India may be lower than a number of the more advanced nations - it is very early to talk about success in the country, given the exponential growth nature of the impact of this virus, feels King. “While some of the policies undertaken are helping slow the expansion, some of them have also exacerbated other problems (the most obvious being food insecurity and hunger).”

Bridging the gap:

While long term measures such as large-scale investments in infrastructure for water, sanitation, housing and healthcare are essential to ensure that the world’s growing population has access to essential services, short-term strategies are also needed to help cities respond now. According to WRI, these include providing access to water and sanitation facilities for free, fiscal transfer to states/cities, stepping up efforts to access emergency services in cities’ most under-served areas and working closely with community leaders and NGOs that work in informal settlements and other at-risk communities.

Dharavi, which has a population of nearly 10 lakh people, has seen 200 COVID cases and 13 deaths, so far. King shares that these measures are even more critical for a place like Dharavi, or any such place that combines lack of adequate sanitation facilities with high population and/or economic density. 

 A number of measures will be required to tackle the situation - while the provision of masks and access to health services are important, in the shortage of water, hand sanitising stations can be set up. A good example is Kerala, which has set up hand washing stations equipped with sanitisers or soaps at bus stations and other public places in the state.

“The fiscal transfers for immediate cash assistance need to be proactive (not retroactive, and insufficient, like we are seeing in the US) and creative to help ensure that resources get to all community members - this includes the provision of food,” she explains.

Communication of accurate information is essential and public officials should be receptive to information flowing to them from the community as well. Community leaders can also help the two-way flow of information in the short term, and creation of networks of trust that will help in the long run during the next crisis.  In a place like Dharavi, for instance, alternative methods of provision of accurate information (radio, sound trucks, mobile apps, community placards, videos, etc.) and multiple languages will be essential.

Hopeful case studies:

Amidst the worries of an ever-growing pandemic, are glimpses of hope that certain case studies have shown us. In India, individual state successes in containing the virus can be looked at. Kerala has been lauded for its efforts in trying to flatten the curve and is being portrayed as an international best practice of handling the virus.

“The more balanced big successes within India are state-level, with success built of responses to past disasters (past diseases in Kerala, and weather and climate-related disasters in Odisha). Policies undertaken in the past have helped prepare for the responses now: testing, health coverage, thinking about food distribution and planning for dealing with sudden challenges. Kerala is even more impressive in that it has lots of interaction with foreign travellers – migrants going back and forth between the Gulf, and tourists from around the world – that have proven to be the vectors of transmission,” King explains.

Cities such as Taipei, Seoul, and the cities in New Zealand are also positive case studies. They, along with Hong Kong, developed practices, products, and institutions in response to past epidemics (SARS, for example) that served as effective bases for rapid response to this pandemic. “This allowed them to spring into action faster, rather than having to realise the problem, come up with solutions, develop them, finance them, and roll them out to the public,” King states.

The need of the hour is to provide targeted emergency assistance that can create better preparedness for the future, WRI states. It is also necessary to close the urban services divide so that cities can become more equitable to survive the next crisis.