How Mumbai’s poorest neighbourhood is battling to keep coronavirus at bay



Aerial view of Shivaji Nagar.
Author provided

Ishita Chatterjee, University of Melbourne

Informal settlements are experiencing a greater surge in COVID-19 cases than other urban neighbourhoods in Mumbai, India. Their high density, narrow streets, tight internal spaces, poor access to water and sanitation leave residents highly vulnerable to the spread of coronavirus.

One of Mumbai’s poorest and most underdeveloped neighbourhoods, Shivaji Nagar, is one of three informal settlements I have been studying. More than a month before the Indian government imposed a national lockdown, Shivaji Nagar residents, supported by the NGO Apnalaya, adopted their own measures to counter the pandemic.

Satellite image of Shivaji Nagar and neighbouring areas.
Google Earth

Here, 600,000 people, 11.5% of Mumbai’s informal settlement population, are crowded into an area of 1.37 square kilometres next to Asia’s largest dumping ground. There is one toilet for every 145 people and 60% of residents have to buy water. There is a severe lack of health facilities.

Unsurprisingly, residents’ health suffers. The settlement is a tuberculosis hotspot. Respiratory illness makes COVID-19 even more threatening for residents.

Left: COVID-19 hotspots in Mumbai as of April 14 2020. Right: COVID-19 health facilities in Mumbai as of May 18 2020.
Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, Author provided

By April 13, Shivaji Nagar had 86 COVID-19 cases – an increase of 30 in two days – making it one of Mumbai’s hotspots. As the virus started spreading rapidly, COVID-19 data for individual areas became hard to get. The release of cumulative data for the entire city was much less useful for understanding the growth in cases.

Ward-level data was available until April 25 2020.
Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation

The lockdown begins

On March 24, the Indian government announced a national lockdown. Barricades were installed on Shivaji Nagar’s main streets to curb people’s movement. TV and radio broadcasts urged residents to stay at home, practise good hygiene and regularly sanitise shared toilets and main streets.

Once the first few COVID-19 cases were detected in Shivaji Nagar, the government shifted patients and their families to isolation facilities outside the settlement. Fever camps were set up in parts of the settlement to screen people with symptoms. While the lockdown allowed essential services to continue, vegetable markets were shut down as cases increased.

After facing a backlash for not considering the impacts on the poor, the government eventually announced a nationwide relief package. Residents could receive free food by producing their ration cards.

Some measures worked while others created new problems. Quarantining people outside the settlement was effective (since home quarantine was not possible), as was setting up fever camps. However, the stigma and fear of being COVID-19-positive stopped many people from coming forward.

The sudden lockdown and market closures left most residents without food, water and medicines. Some 35% of Shivaji Nagar residents didn’t have the ration cards needed to get free food. Enforcing social distancing and stopping people from venturing out of their homes, by beating them, didn’t work either.

NGO fills the gap

The lack of official figures on case numbers and testing rates made it hard to track the spread of the virus in Shivaji Nagar. Volunteers working for Apnalaya kept track on the ground.

As early as the second week of February, before India’s borders closed, Apnalaya had decided to drastically reduce contact between the residents and outsiders. The aim was to minimise residents’ risk of contracting the virus.

Apnalaya enrolled 40-50 volunteers from the neighbourhood to distribute relief supplies instead of bringing in staff. It arranged a year’s health insurance for all volunteers. Elderly and pregnant women were encouraged to stay home and contact the volunteers for help with their daily needs.

Even before the government announced its relief package, Apnalaya was providing food and essentials to residents. Distribution began within the containment zones, but later extended to the entire settlement.

Funds for these activities were raised in several ways: a crowdfunding campaign, an alliance between multiple organisations and collaboration with the government.

A dashboard was used to document, plan and monitor the distribution of relief supplies. As the government’s relief scheme excluded one in three residents, Apnalaya’s door-to-door relief delivery ensured no family was left behind.

Volunteers from the settlement distribute relief.
Apnalaya

Apnalaya’s permanent staff members were now managing everything from outside. The telephone became a medium to reach families who didn’t have a TV or a radio and to monitor the situation. Staff regularly phoned residents to give advice on hygiene and how to get essentials and contact doctors for other ailments.

Not everyone was in their database, but this didn’t matter. The residents played their part too.

Community comes together

As residents, the volunteers were committed to their community even when facing extreme hardships. Relief distribution was particularly tricky in areas where drains had overflowed on streets and foundations built on garbage had slipped. Yet these volunteers reached all residents, knowing they relied on their efforts.

Narrow internal lanes in the settlement.

The community even found a temporary way to deal with the water shortage. Parts of the settlement with piped water shared it with neighbours who previously had to buy water from private suppliers. One supplier, a resident of the settlement, now provided water free of charge.

Lessons from Shivaji Nagar

Shivaji Nagar’s story offers some important lessons. While the government acted pre-emptively, it failed to consider local conditions and needs. Apnalaya filled the gaps.

But the NGO’s reach was limited, too, and the resident volunteers became the missing link. Acting as community leaders, they took stock of the situation on the ground and reported back to the NGO’s office.

Some of the strategies that have worked have been tailored to local conditions and adapted to the evolving crisis. But the shortage of health facilities and lack of data transparency pose a great challenge.

Mumbai’s M East Ward, which includes Shivaji Nagar, now has the highest COVID-19 death rate in Mumbai. At 9.7%, it’s more than double the city’s overall rate. Can Shivaji Nagar withstand the storm?The Conversation

Ishita Chatterjee, PhD Candidate, Informal Urbanism (InfUr-) Hub, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

So coronavirus will change cities – will that include slums?



Aditya Kabir/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

David Sanderson, UNSW

Many commentators have speculated on how the coronavirus pandemic will alter cities and the ways they are planned and used. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has tweeted: “There is a density level in NYC that is destructive […] NYC must develop an immediate plan to reduce density.”

Articles about disease and cities have reported on how past pandemics led to civic improvements, such as public health pioneer John Snow’s use of cholera maps, an early form of health-data gathering, to combat cholera in 19th-century London.

But these stories relate to cities in richer countries, which have enough funding and the political will to make changes. It’s hard to see how the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to any better outcomes for the close to a billion or so people who live in fast-growing, low-income, informal settlements, or slums, that cram cities throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific. These settlements are some of the densest and most poorly serviced places on Earth.




Read more:
Coronavirus an ‘existential threat’ to Africa and her crowded slums


Density, the good and the bad

Despite Cuomo’s statement, density for cities is good on the whole. The world’s population is rocketing, with most of this growth happening in cities. Where else would we put all these people?

Density is good for innovation, socialising, economies of scale, fuel efficiency and economic growth. Density, though, is good only when managed and planned. New York’s governor may have a point if he was talking about de-densifying slums in Dhaka, Cali or Freetown. Slum density can be grim.

In these dense settlements, heat stifles, ventilation is rare, light is sparse and families share one room and basic services (thereby worsening the spread of respiratory disease). Density that prevents fire trucks reaching fires, or that lacks adequate drainage, sanitation or piped water supply, is not good.

Health services in cities across the world have ramped up in anticipation of the inundation of coronavirus patients. This has been based on modelling of health data across respective populations, much as Snow did for London. Combined with lockdown and other social distancing measures, there is evidence this has so far mostly worked well (though not a cause for relaxing).

Health risks in slums, however, have been awful for decades. We have little data on the health of slum dwellers, and health care is often out of reach for those who are sick. The paltry numbers of ventilators in African countries attest to the shortage of equipment and support – what chance if you’re poor?




Read more:
‘How will we eat’? India’s coronavirus lockdown threatens millions with severe hardship


Disasters come and go for slum dwellers

Will coronavirus have a lasting impact on urban planning and how we use cities? Perhaps.

Businesses might be asking why they spend so much on office space when employees have shown they can work from home. Many hitherto-polluted cities have enjoyed much cleaner air during lockdowns. Several European cities are considering lasting zoning regulations to reserve streets for cyclists.




Read more:
Physical distancing is here for a while – over 100 experts call for more safe walking and cycling space


But again, for people living in slums, it may well be business as usual. The coronavirus will be just one more tragedy for many who live in slums.

Take the Ebola outbreak of 2014-16, which killed over 11,000 people across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Dense, poorly serviced slums with people living cheek by jowl were particular hotspots. Ebola had devastating impacts on economies, lives and health-care systems.

Yet evidence of post-Ebola improvements in urban planning are hard to find. When three-quarters of a country’s urban population, such as Sierra Leone’s, live in slums and confront other pressing matters of poverty and recent conflict, de-densifying and replanning slums equates to nirvana, at least in the short term.

Residents of Freetown in Sierra Leone have no reason to believe this pandemic will lead to any more improvements than previous disasters did.
Slum Dwellers International/Flickr, CC BY



Read more:
A novel idea: integrating urban and rural safety nets in Africa during the pandemic


Skin in the game

As the coronavirus pandemic has shown, self-preservation is a great incentive to action. Lockdown requires individuals to consent for it to work.

Post-disease urban improvements also correlate to self-interest. London’s infamous “Great Stink” of 1858 of untreated sewage floating in the Thames led to the world’s largest sewer system. But it only happened once the smell reached the House of Commons. Something had to be done!

Unlike the Great Stink, which didn’t waft further than the capital, the coronavirus is a global concern. The world has shown it can mobilise resources as never before to tackle a threat.

Now is the time to add slum improvements to our post-pandemic agenda. The need is great – the number of people living in slums may double to 2 billion by 2050. Given the world community’s demonstrated indifference to such places, even the confronting experience of COVID-19 might not be enough to lead to improvements.The Conversation

David Sanderson, Professor and Inaugural Judith Neilson Chair in Architecture, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

BIBLE COLLEGE DESTROYED IN INDIA, STUDENTS GLAD TO BE ALIVE


March 26, a severe storm swept through Northeast India, wreaking havoc on a Bible college supported by Gospel for Asia, reports MNN.

The majority of buildings on-campus were destroyed, but all students and staff emerged safely. Students spent the first night in temporary shelters and will finish their semester at the end of this month. The college’s principal requested prayer for wisdom for those involved with the center’s reconstruction plans, and for people in the surrounding community whose homes sustained significant damage.

According to GFA, the storm struck Assam, India last week at around 6:30 p.m. and caused severe damage throughout the area. The college’s dormitories, chapel, kitchen and offices sustained the brunt of damage from the storm. Tin roofs were ripped off of buildings; many portions of the walls and building frames were blown apart. Although students were badly shaken, they were able to gather for a worship service later that night, “thanking God for sparing their lives.”

Students have cleaned up what they could and plan to work with GFA Compassion Services teams to help others living in the surrounding area. In desperate situations, these disaster teams bring food, water, medical care, clothing and occasionally, shelter.

Final exams were administered Monday, and students will finish out their semester this month. Prayer was requested for those involved in planning campus reconstruction, and your prayers will also be needed for the students and GFA Compassion teams serving people affected by this severe storm.

Aside from disaster relief, GFA Compassion Services teams minister on a continual basis in Asia slums, leper communities, and other forsaken people groups. You can find out more about those ministries by clicking here.

Gospel for Asia has established 67 major Bible colleges in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and the Bhutan border. Students are equipped to “reach the unreached” through an intensive three-year program, including on-the-job training through outreach ministry and preparation for missionary life.

Report from the Christian Telegraph