Economically, covid-19 hit struggling city dwellers the hardest
WINNIE MUHONJA faced many difficulties in her life. The Covid-19 is only the latest. Growing up in Kibera, a huge slum of 300,000 people in the middle of Nairobi, she is used to the presence of disease and the lack of money. Ms. Muhonja, 25, has lived with her sister since she left school eight years ago. She has two jobs but cannot afford 1,000 shillings ($ 9.30) a month to rent a mud house for herself and her one-year-old son. “I just hope that one day I will have the chance to get out of Kibera,” Ms. Muhonja said.
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Nearly 4,000 kilometers from Madrid, another young woman dreams of fleeing her neighborhood. In Cañada Real, a slum of about 8,000 inhabitants, Douaa Akrikez is in his last year of school and studies a lot. Life in Europe’s largest slum is not as bleak as it is in Kibera, but it remains precarious. Power outages this winter left at least 4,500 people without heat for months, at a time when Spain was hit by record snowfall. Without lights and unable to charge laptops or cellphones, children struggled to learn online. “I want to finish my studies, start working and get out of here,” said the 17-year-old.
With so many other issues in their lives, neither Ms. Muhonja nor Ms. Akrikez have much time to worry about covid-19. But the pandemic means policymakers are worried about them. Globally, more than a billion people live in slums, in dilapidated houses without property rights or basic services such as running water or reliable electricity. Most of the world’s worst-off slum dwellers live in poor countries, but slums exist in the rich as well. Those who live there tend to have informal jobs: selling snacks, for example, or cleaning the homes of the wealthy. In rich countries, this means that they do not benefit from government aids such as leave schemes. In poor countries, they receive little support of any kind. In Nairobi, curfews have been imposed to slow the spread of covid-19. Those who broke them in their efforts to earn enough money to survive were beaten by the police.
Before the pandemic, policymakers were most concerned about poverty outside of cities (see graph). Rural areas often lack basic infrastructure such as roads and internet connections. But with an airborne virus in circulation, the risk of working outdoors tending to livestock or plowing fields is lower than cleaning homes. And even without money, subsistence farming keeps stomachs full.
It is city dwellers who have been hit hardest by covid-19, both economically and in terms of health. In May, more than a third of those polled in Kenyan cities told the World Bank that they had skipped at least one meal the week before, compared to 27% of those in the countryside. Among city dwellers, 15% reported being unemployed, which is almost certainly a bigger shock for urban areas. By the end of this year, the bank predicts the pandemic will have pushed 150 million more people into extreme poverty, defined as living on less than $ 1.90 a day. The new poor are more likely to be in metropolitan areas than before.
Covid-19 has forced municipal authorities to recognize the slums, both for the sake of their residents and their neighbors. The disease spreads quickly when people live nearby. A study from Mumbai between June and July last year, before India’s second wave hit, found that 54% of the city’s slum dwellers had antibodies to covid-19, up from 16% those of formal establishments. It is quickly spreading to other neighborhoods. The students of Cañada Real crowd into the buses to get to schools in the capital and surrounding areas. Kibera is nestled between the upscale residential areas of Nairobi, where many slum dwellers work.
Development specialists tend to focus on the urban poor, like Ms. Muhonja, rather than the urban poor, like Ms. Akrikez. It makes sense. The former are much poorer. Kibera is the kind of slum depicted in charity fundraising letters: huts made of mud and corrugated iron; rubbish piled up in unpaved streets.
Extreme poverty makes it harder to stay healthy. Ms. Muhonja shares her one-room cabin with five other people. Social distancing is anything but impossible. They don’t have running water. Instead, they buy jerry cans of water for drinking and cooking and pay to use communal baths.
The residents of Kibera complain less about the risks of covid-19 to their health and more about its economic impact. When the hair salon where she works cut Ms. Muhonja’s hours, a friend hired her to take care of her mobile money stand. But the 6,000 shillings a month she earns there is not enough. And she is one of the lucky ones. Many of its neighbors are unemployed. Many residents rent their homes to private owners. According to Joe Muturi of Slum Dwellers International, a network of community groups, these landlords threaten tenants, removing doors and roofs as punishment for non-payment. “The threat of eviction is still there,” he said.
The people of Cañada Real are much better off. Many do not pay rent. The settlement sits on public land that was once an old motorable road for sheep. Residents include Roma (Gypsy) families, poor Spaniards, and North African migrants, many of whom worked in the construction industry before the global financial crisis of 2008. As a result, parts of the slum look just like no other. what another part of the Spanish capital, with solid roads lined with neat concrete houses. Only the tangle of wires above the utility poles indicates that this is an informal slum.
Ms. Akrikez lives with her parents and four siblings in a sturdy house with clean water and a flush toilet in Cañada Real. His father earns his living on the construction sites. They can afford to buy masks and new clothes.
The thief of joy
But the people of Cañada Real are poor compared to those around them. Relative poverty (that is, how the incomes of the poor compare to the national median) is painful. The stigma is worse. Most of the people Ms. Muhonja knows struggle like her to have enough food, shelter and clean water.
Ms Akrikez, on the other hand, only recently told her classmates where she lives. She had to give herself courage. Many believe that the people of Cañada Real are “different”, “delinquents” and “people who do not work,” she said. This humiliation, says Sabina Alkire, director of the Poverty and Human Development Initiative at the University of Oxford, can affect the brain in the same way as physical pain. “People feel excluded and it hurts,” she continues. Ms. Akrikez goes to school outside Cañada Real. Her friends hang out downtown on weekends. She has no way of doing it. Its only outings are organized by Caritas, a Catholic association. “It’s not a normal life,” she said.
When most madrilenians think of Cañada Real, they imagine not diligent teenagers but drugs. One area, Sector Six, is a hub for drug trafficking in Europe. In a local church, charities distribute clean food, water and needles. “It’s the back door of Madrid where people throw their garbage and don’t even look at it,” says María de las Mercedes González Fernández, senior official in Madrid’s central government and member of the Socialist Party, who accuses the right-wing government municipal wing for not helping.
The authorities responsible for Cañada Real have long known how difficult life is. They signed a pact four years ago pledging to move families from the most disadvantaged areas and improve the rest. But progress has been slow. Ms. Akrikez only knows one family that has been relocated.
Reliable public services and clear property rights are a long way off in slums around the world. In places like Cañada Real, where relative poverty is the problem, there are no quick fixes. Some residents have usernames and receive handouts from the government. But social exclusion persists.
Shift into high gear
In some of the world’s poorest countries, where extreme poverty is the problem, the pandemic is spurring governments to act. Some governments extend social protection programs, such as cash transfers, to urban areas. It is not easy. Local authorities do not have complete lists of who lives where or details of their income. Few of the slum dwellers have the necessary papers. But in recent months, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has used satellite imagery to identify the poorest neighborhoods based on housing density and flood risk to target its emergency cash transfer program. The government of Togo has enrolled a third of its adult population, 1.6 million people, in a new social assistance program using radio, television and social media to spread the word. Now he has to find more money for them.
Even such minor successes are too rare. Covid-19 has shone the spotlight on slums, but residents still miss most governments. As they did before the pandemic, charities are trying to bridge the gap. The people of Kibera joke that there is one for every household in the area. They set up hand washing facilities and education campaigns during the pandemic. But there’s not much volunteers can do. Overcrowded and unregulated colonies risk becoming a petri dish for newer covid-19 variants. So far, even this threat has not prompted governments to do much. ■
This article appeared in the international section of the print edition under the title “Rich slum, poor slum”