WHAT DOES COVID-19 AND CLIMATE CHANGE HAVE IN COMMON WITHIN SLUMS?
Lecturer, Department of Architecture, Federal University of Technology, Akure firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com
As soon as COVID-19 infection found its way into African countries, many scholars started expressing their concerns about urban settlements. Low-income, informal, overcrowded areas have a high risk of rapid transmission within urban settlements and are probably the sector least prepared for the pandemic.
As feared, the pandemic presented significant challenges within the informal forms of habitation in slums, shanty settlements and deprived housing across some African cities. Within a few months, clusters of diseases were identified within slums in some cities. For example, in the third week of May, up to a quarter of infections in Nairobi were recorded in Kibera, the largest slum in the Kenyan capital city[i]. Within South Africa’s Cape Town, Khayelitsha township which contains informal shack dwellings, was designated as a hotspot of COVID-19 infections[ii].
While COVID-19 gained ground speedily, climate action in response to global climate change has been an issue for some time and remained a long-term concern. The impacts in slums and low-income communities are being recognized and voiced for the attention of city leaders locally and globally. How heat stress, windstorms, flooding, sea level rise and other extreme weather events affect lives, livelihood, health and the environment in slums have been profound. Impacts predicted for future weather events are also dire, deserving improved attention.
Given that both issues (climate action and COVID-19 responses) have significant relevance within informal settlements, it is fitting to explore what they have in common. These, as lessons from successes or failures and emerging questions on density, data and messaging (communication), are explored for a sustainable and resilient post-COVID era in the growing informal urban settlements in Africa.
Debates on the good and/or bad sides of density for cities came to the fore as the pandemic unfolded. Before now, compact city proponents have argued for its advantages in terms of climate mitigation and environmental sustainability – reducing greenhouse emissions associated with intra-urban transport and infrastructure as well as effective land use which preserves agricultural land and environmental resources. The arguments had been well received across cities globally with many developing densification plans for climate-responsiveness.
Suddenly, density became a bad thing for health. Arguments about the downsides became pronounced in relation to overcrowded informal settlements with serious concerns in terms of reducing community transmission through social distancing. A South African study which used satellite imaging and GIS to trace dwelling outlines for informal settlements in Cape Town shows thateffective social distancing at 2 meters will be challenging[iii]. This must have informed why the South African government proposed de-densification of the overcrowded informal settlements, although this was not well received by actors in civil society and some residents themselves.
The emerging puzzle, and that which is to be engaged going forward, is how to reconcile the benefits of density for environmentally sustainable settlements with the threat of density for public health in challenging situations such as a pandemic. Here, conceptualizations of density must go beyond ‘absolute physical space’ to that interwoven with sociality – extensiveness and intensity of internal relations between residents, households, economic activities and social institutions in everyday life.
Arising from concerns on those considered vulnerable to lockdowns measures announced, many countries provided palliatives to urban residents. Data, its availability or absence, made and marred this. In Congo, with support of the World Bank data-based technologies through drones and GIS were deployed for ‘highly detailed’ neighborhood risks, geolocating potential outbreaks and conveying critical information to at-risk populations.
In Nigeria, data deficiencies came to the fore when the Humanitarian Ministry deployed the National Social Register of Poor and Vulnerable Households[iv]. The 11 million people on the register, much smaller than the entire 82 million poor Nigerians, significantly excludes urban households in informal areas. The directive to populate the register with additional 1 million people used Bank Verification Number (BVN) – which many slums dwellers and informal sector workers don’t have because they are unbanked.
The lack of data highlights the need for enumeration in slums and informal settlements. Enumeration, through participatory processes, will provide robust information about individual and household vulnerabilities which inform how to address risks in a pandemic situation or disaster. The Lagos state governor reflected that ‘it is what happens to us post COVID-19 that determines who we are as a people…You can make mistakes in times of crisis but you must learn from them. We have realised that as a State, we need data in order to plan and proffer solutions’[v].
Getting the right message to the right people at the right time is a communication task that has its place within informal settlements. Some communication strides were made in response to the pandemic. Different songs, skits, comedies, performances, infographics, announcements, comics etc innovatively used to provide information, create awareness and debunk myths for behavioral change across the diverse demography within low-income communities are notable[vi].
These kind of communication thrusts are much needed for effective climate action. For example, my on-going research[vii] in a Lagos informal settlement reveals that some myths still shape the urban poor’s worldview and response to environmental issues. Innovations in communication for environmental education and dissemination of information is therefore important. To be effective, apart from obstructing means by which rumors take off and gain traction, this must take into consideration people’s fears, curiosities and world-views.
Putting the earth and health at the heart of slum upgrading
The dual challenge of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic again brings to fore the need for slum upgrading. It is now palpable that upgrading must pay attention to public health as well as climate concerns. It is important to simultaneously improve quality of life (health and other aspects) and environmental quality. State attention to the realities of vulnerabilities to and impacts of extreme weather events within slums is therefore important. It should harness local resources through community-based approaches for incremental, non-disruptive, improvements. Social networks and local knowledge of the third sector working with vulnerable urban communities are crucial to achieving this desire for safe and sustainable urban settlements.
[iii] Gibson L, Rush D. Novel Coronavirus in Cape Town Informal Settlements: Feasibility of Using Informal Dwelling Outlines to Identify High Risk Areas for COVID-19 Transmission From A Social Distancing Perspective. JMIR Public Health Surveill. 2020;6(2):e18844. Published 2020 Apr 6. doi:10.2196/18844
[vii] See a current profile of my work here: https://www.aasciences.africa/grantees-profile?id=190
No 2 – This blog article is written under the auspices of the British Academy supported Critical Thinking and Writing Workshop for Urban Studies Researchers in Nigeria.
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.