REFLECTION ON COVID19 IN NIGERIA: HOUSING AS A GOVERNANCE RESPONSE TO POVERTY & DISEASE CONTROL
Tpl Lekwa Ezutah is President of the Nigerian Institute of Town Planners
If global leaders foresaw the sudden outbreak of a novel pandemic like COVID-19 five years ago, many of them would have assiduously worked to strengthen capacity of the various sectors in their countries. The impacts of COVID-19 have been far-reaching in many ways, even for the most developed countries. Without prior notice nor a cure, many countries have been forced to cope with a pandemic that has left the best health systems overstretched, religious, political and economic systems disrupted, and social life halted. These impacts have been more severe in Nigeria where over 65 percent of the population largely rely on the informal economy for employment and daily survival. The inequitable distribution of physical capital such as housing, basic infrastructure and services in the country has also made the impacts graver for many Nigeria households.
Though the three tiers of government in Nigeria have responded to the pandemic through various containment measures, one can’t help but notice the difficulties experienced by several urban residents during this period. Majority of them have been unable to adequately meet their essential necessities due to the disruption in their economic activities caused by the nationwide lockdown. More conspicuously, many individuals and households have struggled to cope with the physical and social distancing measures because they generally reside in precarious conditions without suitable rooms nor adequate provision of potable water sanitation facilities that could facilitate personal and environmental hygiene. This is particularly the reality of those in slum and informal settlements. Any country whose economy is largely dependent on the informal sector and have majority of her inhabitants residing in inadequate conditions will have a problem building a strong safety net that is capable of helping citizens sustainably cope with unexpected crises.
To the physical planner in Nigeria whose responsibility is to ensure effective space development and management, the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a number of questions: How do we design our settlements such that maximum land use compatibility is ensured and susceptibility to the spread of infectious diseases is minimized? How do we increase access to basic infrastructure and services, particularly during health pandemics? and more importantly, How do we plan and design our settlements in preparedness for impending crises?. These mind-boggling issues point to the need to redefine current physical planning strategies that will promote more equitable distribution of resources. More importantly, they call for new housing interventions that will ensure more individuals and households are effectively and sustainably pulled out of their housing poverty situation.
The first thing we should do is to go back to planning so that we are able to locate activities, places of employment, schools, offices as appropriate in relation to where people live, bearing in mind their level of income. We also need to plan for the future, re-plan existing places so as to ensure we have the basic facilities at the appropriate locations. This is very important as it would influence the affordability of houses. If I’m staying in a place where I don’t spend so much going to work, my disposable income immediately increases.
Mixed land use mix in Umuahia
In redefining our physical planning strategies, the Nigerian government needs to strengthen efforts in the slums and informal settlements which are dominant in many cities. These settlements are natural enclaves of poverty, crime and communicable diseases due to the way they are designed. As such, they need to be re-planned first, then upgraded so that material deprivation can be reduced among the households and better opportunities for achieving life chances are available. Consequently, poverty will be gradually alleviated and diseases can be better controlled. However, good governance is critical for this intervention to be successful.
While we know housing is the core of our personal, family and community life, it is vital for the government to understand that home ownership is not for everyone. At the moment, more than half of Nigerian population reside in rental accommodation albeit in inadequate conditions. Residents of these type of accommodation are largely low-income groups and the urban poor who couldn’t afford other alternatives. Therefore, in redefining planning and housing strategies, affordable rental accommodation and social housing options with adequate infrastructure, facilities and services especially for these groups need to be introduced.
If Nigeria is to fight poverty and remain resilient to various shocks and stresses like health pandemics, the government will need to begin seeing housing beyond an economic good. A new approach that will make adequate housing available for everyone, irrespective of their socio-economic group needs to be deployed. Comprehensive development planning with emphasis on sustainable human settlements is the best option. The participation of physical planners in this equation holds the key to achieving it.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development or the University of Lagos, Nigeria.