On behalf of the Zambian Federation and People’s Process on Housing and Poverty in Zambia (PPHPZ) – SDI presents the work to fight COVID-19 across Zambia.The following is an account directly from the SDI affiliate in Zambia, alongside updates on the current work of the Zambian Federation & PPHPZ.
Approximately 40% (6 million) Zambians live in urban areas and 70% (4.2 million) of those living in urban areas live in the slums known as “compounds.” The spread of COVID-19 across the globe has been through human to human transmission of individuals traveling from country to country, thus, the misconception is that it is a disease that affects the ‘rich and privileged’. On the contrary, comparatively informal settlement dwellers face a much greater risk to Covid-19. Life in the slums (compounds) is characterized by poor quality housing and inadequate access to clean water and sanitation. If water is available, its either intermittent or of compromised quality. Streets are characterized by overcrowding, and poor planning, with electricity intermittently provided. Another obstacle is limited access to household and public sanitation – this service is crucial in combating the spread of disease such as COVID-19 pandemic. The absence of public toilets curtails and hinders efforts of fighting pandemics as fecal matter can spread diseases in the community.
In Zambia, cases of cholera outbreaks in informal settlements have ceased in the headlines with seasonal outbreaks on yearly basis becoming the norm. During epidemics, slum residents are more vulnerable to respiratory infections owing to the fact that people are overcrowded and congested in their communities & houses without proper ventilation fueling mass spreading of COVID-19. Poverty levels are exceptionally with cases of malnutrition exacerbating chronic infections despite widespread vaccinations and social sensitization programmes. The number of infections in these communities are always double than those in planned, affluent suburbs.
COVID-19 is an exceptionally dangerous due to the fact that it is highly infectious even in asymptomatic patients with no current vaccine or cure. While current statistics demonstrate that confirmed cases are low, with none confirmed cases in the compounds, the ravaging effect the virus would have in the slums would be devastating.
The global community of health experts have recommended three simple yet fundamental effective tools to combat the spread of the virus and these strategies need to be critically examined to check their efficacy. The Zambian government, in line with the advice from both local and international health experts have recommended the following:
Hand Washing and Sanitizing:
In the context of slums, hand washing can significantly reduce the spread of COVID-19; however, under the current circumstances, this tool will not work unless access to affordable or free water is provided in the informal settlements. In most settlements like Kanyama, the biggest settlement in Zambia, water is still intermittent, inadequate and expensive for the average employed resident. Currently a 20 litre container is pegged at 50 ngwee and on average a family needs at least 200 litres translating to 5 kwacha every day or 150 kwacha per month, a figure which is unaffordable by most residents, where water is also rationed. In George compound, water kiosks are opened at 6.00 – 10.00 and 17.00 to 18.00. To avoid any escalation, taps need to be opened at all times until the virus is defeated.
The situation is worsened by electricity cuts due to maintenance and load shedding and will further deteriorate due to loss of supply from independent suppliers for the next two weeks. Electricity is needed to pump water by water trusts who are charged with the supply of water as well as private borehole owners in most settlements. Without water, curbing the spread of the COVID-19 through hand washing is impossible. It is time that the Zambian government provides free water in each and every compound.
This strategy will save our government millions of kwachas while saving many lives. It is a travesty that utility companies like Lusaka Water & Sewerage have not yet been directed or capacitated to provide this essential service to the most vulnerable settlements. In the absence of free or affordable clean water, communities will either resort to shallow wells that are heavily contaminated or will opt to use water sparingly thereby not washing hands frequently.
Coupled with provision of free water, should be the provision of hand-washing stations at all public toilets, bus stations, and markets in congested homesteads. The biggest markets like Old Soweto in Lusaka, Masala Market in Ndola, and Chisokone Market in Kitwe should be immediately provided with hand washing facilities and sanitizing agents. Distribution of hand washing stations, sanitisers, soaps needs to be broad based and not simply through locally recognized structures like the Councilor’s Office and the Ward Development Committees. The challenge is bigger than these local structures, grassroots community associations, and savings schemes the likes of the Zambia Homeless and Poor People‘s, but the responsibility of the state. Federations and Cooperatives need to be engaged – involving grassroots associations and savings schemes at the local level is crucial.
Hand washing has been a privilege of medium to high income residents. To exacerbate the exclusion of the poor, almost every shop has quadrupled the price of hand sanitizers owing to the huge demand by those who can afford them. Efforts should be targeted at subsidizing the prices through the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission. There is an opportunity to start working with community-based groups to make homemade sanitizers supporting livelihood initiatives in these troubled times.
Social distancing i.e. staying at home, closing schools, isolating the sick, keeping at least 1 meter apart, and avoiding hugging and shaking hands:
Social distancing is currently the least expensive and the most affordable tool to each and every individual; however, in mostly densely populated communities, it is almost unavoidable. Closing the markets and the shops could trigger serious financial security issues as people are likely to starve due to food shortages. Most residents cannot afford to buy food in advance, as they live hand to mouth. A lock down without the possibility of working will cause serious resistance from these vulnerable communities. This demands that people should continue trading but alongside serious protective mechanisms.
Wearing Protective Gear:
Face masks can assist in reducing infection rates of COVID-19 if they are available and affordable. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19, face masks have significantly increased in price with poor people have been cut out off completely in accessing masks. An opportunity exists to work with grassroots community groups, savings schemes and cooperatives in the mass production of masks produced with chitenge materials. Government and cooperating partners should channel support to the grassroots to produce masks, as this will inevitably drastically reduce and eliminate the exaggerated prices currently prevailing in the market. A chitenge made mask can be washed and disinfected everyday ensuring that they are accessible to the masses, while providing a sustainable solution.
Overall, it can be seen that efforts to combat the virus should be broad based and all inclusive; organized grassroots associations & savings schemes ought to be at the center of fighting the pandemic, not just health workers or government alone. Any solution being proffered has to be within the reach of the most vulnerable. Water, as a matter of urgency needs to be provided for free by state, private sector and individuals who have their own boreholes. Let’s not make a mistake mistake of making community members mere beneficiaries and health workers and government are seen as the only actors in the fight.
Currently the Zambian Federation & PPHPZ is working closely with the Lusaka City Council & Ministry of Health. They have mobilised sed youth teams in creating COVID-19 related content (videos, posters, jingles, etc.) translated into local languages circulated on social media platforms, local radio stations to sensitize communities. Federation savings & youth members have been trained as hygiene stewards to champion community-led initiatives to educate and distribute hand sanitizers, masks, gloves and liquid soap. PPHPZ has identified local schools, churches and community halls as potential warehouses, distribution centers and spaces to accommodate infected people. The Lusaka Federation will use its Resource Centre in George Township for warehousing food and other essential materials.