By Ruth Atim.
In March 2020, Covid-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization.
While the virus is a threat to all socio-economic groups, the poor and vulnerable segments of society, those living in urban slums are at risk of being disproportionately affected.
In the absence of any vaccine or cure or standard treatment protocol, Uganda resorted to precautionary measures comprising of travel restrictions, mandatory lockdowns, health hygiene, and social distancing to “flatten the curve”.
Many are unable to maintain the recommended precautionary guidelines due to their living conditions as most of them share space with several family members in one room and unable to purchase soap or masks for the entire family. One woman I spoke to reported using own cloths scarf to cover their face when going out of home.
Most of the residents in slums often lack access to drainage, electricity, National water and sewages, waste disposal, and health care. And the fact that they are closely packed together, the resulting crowding increases exposure to communicable diseases and in such cases, social distancing to avoid getting covi-19 cannot work.
Nakawunde Susan is a 35-year-old mother of 3 living in kinawataka slum in Kampala. Her husband is a daily wage earner and her family is solely dependent on his daily salary of 10,000 to 13,000. She says they live in a rented house and share toilets, bathroom and the kitchen with other residents so it’s not possible to maintain all the precautionary measures.
“I am not lying to you, we need to use these spaces. I know that social distancing is an effective way to prevent the spread of this monster disease, it is extremely difficult given our living conditions”. Nakawunde says.
“Living in one single rented room has made it next to impossible and if one person gets infected in this slum, then we will all get infected and die” she adds.
The residents of the slums are daily wage earners. Most of them sell food items at the road side, others are domestic help, day laborers, small tea stall vendors, street peddlers, beggars, and so forth. With movement restrictions enacted, the livelihoods of these slum dwellers were severely threatened.
Mr. Abdala is a 49-year-old man who lives in a rented house in Katanga, a slum in Kampala the capital city of Uganda. He is the only earning member of the family and has to feed 6 members. He has been residing in that area for the past 30 years. His small business of hawking fruits collapsed because the police confiscated his stock for violating the curfew rules which requires that no one should be on the road at 7:00pm.
“I know I was on the wrong, but instead of taking my stock to rot at the police station, they should have warned me because my family survives on the daily sales I make”
“These measures being implemented by the government to prevent infections have interrupted our work in the informal sector where many of us slum dwellers depend on for our daily wages. I have no garden to farm any edibles, life is just very hard” he adds.
Mr. Abdala is among the few reported cases of urban slum dwellers who are finding it hard to navigate through the covid situation.
For those in urban slums just like Mr. Abdala, the government policies such as curfews, lockdown, and working from home have overlooked their fate as they are left to choose between life and livelihood. According to a report from the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development, 49% to 64% of the total urban population live in slums and given the rate at which people are crowding Kampala today, the city is turning into one big slum.
Despite being a important portion of the population, urban slum dwellers have traditionally been disregarded in government economic and health policies, exposing them to more severe consequences in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The concern over the vulnerability of slum dwellers is not only limited to the spread of the virus, but also the negative direct effects such as anxiety, stress, trauma and depression that rise as a result of the uncertainty over their jobs and income.
The fear of death by being infected with Coronavirus has wreaked havoc on their lives, particularly given their high levels of insecurity with regard to the virus spreading quickly and also the fact that community infections have gone high.
Nakato a mother of one says in their community, they consider anyone with any coronavirus-like symptoms, such as fever or cough, as a suspected corona positive patient.
“We are in a total dilemma. First of all, we are so scared of death that we have resorted to locking ourselves in our rooms. We fear that we will become infected if we interact openly with other people in the slum. On the other hand, if we don’t go out there, how will we survive, we may starve to death because even the government free food didn’t even last a month”. Nakato adds.
Although Covid19 has had many negative impacts worldwide, it should serve as an eye-opener for the government of Uganda, particularly regarding the way people living in urban slums are treated. The government needs to ensure its preventive measures are effective and relevant to the challenges facing people from different socio-political and economic backgrounds. This will “balance the boat” like as most Ugandans prefer to say.