Bracing informal communities for COVID-19

Here are measures that may guide local governments working with slums to protect the families from COVID-19.

by Ragene Palma

The onset of COVID-19 is a worldwide threat, posing risks to many communities. It is worth noting how we prepare and empower some of the biggest conurbations that crowd around urban centres: Slums. 

Slums, favelas, squatter areas, kampungs, floaters, katchi abadi — we term them differently, but they share socio-economic and physical similarities. Slums are unplanned, their houses extending storeys with unsafe structures. Families are crowded, with micro-living spaces, shared with other families. Water, sanitation, and waste management are all challenges. And the capacity to survive near a sufficient livelihood is what keeps dwellers in the area. 

The basic protective measures from COVID-19 — physical distancing and washing of hands — are difficult to implement in areas without water, and where packed, high densities are given. The following spatial measures may guide local governments and communities working with slums to protect vulnerable families from the disease:

While slums may seem chaotic to many, there is still a certain spatial organisation to the community.  Entrances and exits, and connecting narrow alleys will have the highest foot traffic, making these optimal spaces for hand washing stations and placement of signage that provide information on hygiene and safe practices. 

Communities will also tend to have a “common area,” which can be the form of a small square, a makeshift sports court, or a parking area for local public transport. These common areas can be used by local governments to set up alternative temporary shelters, which can decrease the number of families within a building, which in turn encourages physical distancing. 

Other tactical ways to protect families in informal settlements include the use of drums and portable hand washing stations for water storage and catchment, to improve sanitation, and the use of plastic or acetate walls to encourage distancing.

Below are examples of how these have been used: 

Food security is also anticipated to be a challenge for many informal communities, given that many countries are enforcing lockdowns. This particularly strains developing areas.

Encouraging the planting of fast-growing edible crops and plants in unused, micro spaces in informal areas, can somewhat address this problem, and be a good practice in the long run. Local governments can empower communities by distributing the necessary gardening tools to jumpstart this practice. 


Photo and sketch credits: TNOC, Fr. Gilbert Billena, Ian Borja, and Twitter user @Munyai_R_Gundo, Aljanh/Pinterest

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