A representative from a grassroots federation in Mumbai describes how the community is self-organising for an effective COVID-19 response. This text is drawn from an interview with Selvi Manivanan Devandra conducted by Sharmila Gimonkarpril. Selvi is a community leader with Mahila Milan, a federation of women’s savings groups, active in housing and basic service issues. Indian Oil is the name of their cluster of tenements. Sharmila has been working with Sparc for the past 30 years.
My name is Selvi. For four years I have lived in Indian Oil building No. 8/C, room No. 304. Most residents of Indian Oil are people who were displaced by city and state government projects, including many pavement dwellers. Previously, I was staying in slums near Kokari Agar.
I have three children. One daughter is married, and my other two children are college students. My husband works as a security guard. I have been working with Sparc and Mahila Milan (MM) for the last 9 years.
Coordinating and communicating through WhatsApp
With the outbreak of COVID-19, all MM leaders took on responsibility for planning relief work in the area and to coordinate with Shekar from the National Slum Dwellers Federation and local politicians (Aktar Khureshi and Abbu Azmi). Most buildings have an MM leader, and each leader is in touch with a central committee. Previously, we were not involved with the central committee since we didn’t like the way they worked, and we worked to our own guidelines. But now with the challenge of COVID-19, we all agreed to come together and work for the people. We created a communal WhatsApp group, and whatever the committee decides, we come to know about it.
First we set about helping the many people who hang around because they don’t have any work. When the police visit our area, all these people run into the various tenement buildings. We decided to open the building gates at given times i.e. 8.00 to 11.30 in the morning and 6.00 to 8.00 in the evening. Now, with permission to enter buildings at certain times these people avoid running into trouble with police who are monitoring the area.
Supporting the vulnerable to self-isolate
Next we set about helping families in greatest need. This includes families that have been unable to pay maintenance charges for the last two months or so, those who are handicapped, medically unfit and senior citizens. Also those who share accommodation and have small children, and to such people and families, we give preference. Through the WhatsApp groups, we sent the list of these families to Shekar sir and the local councillor so the families can be registered as needing help. To minimise the chance of virus transmission we asked people, using WhatsApp, to stay in their houses and explained we would bring goods to their doorstep. The building president also takes responsibility for sharing all the information.
Approximately 10,000 families reside in Indian Oil, making up a huge population of around 25,000 people. The councillor provides only 200 packets per day; this is distributed to those families on the list provided by the society leaders. My son has been given an ID card (required to access subsidized food rations) and goes to Shivaji Nagar to get cooked food packets in the afternoon and at night. It is mostly families that live here. Of course, there were many men who used to stay alone here but now they have gone home, back to their families.
Shutting the local market was a priority: people were gathering around the shops or vegetable vendors and so risking the virus spreading. We asked the city government and police department to help us to shift the market to an open space nearby. It would open at specific times and the MM leaders would help check that people are maintaining a safe distance between each other.
A local politician (corporator) arranged for masks and for cooked food to be provided. And for food packets for 300 families including rice, dal (two types), sugar, wheat, oil and bottles of sanitizer. The corporator has also given equipment to sanitize our area, since the city government lacks this.
Trusted by the inhabitants and the authorities
Previously police would not allow us to leave our houses to check on families or bring food to their doors. We explained that if we didn’t, families wouldn’t get food, and that if we could deliver food to their doorsteps, they wouldn’t need to come out and risk virus infection. The police began to understand that we leaders have an important role. Now we help them maintain the law and deal with crime in the area. They regularly visit our areas which prevents people hanging around.
The MM leaders build lists of how many families are in crisis, what kind of job the head of the family does, and of how many family members. We have been working in this area for 4 or 5 years so are familiar with most of the families in our building and our neighbouring buildings. We open our office at certain times so all leaders can come and submit their lists. Then we sit with Shekar sir and decide how and when we can provide them with food grains.
Shekar sir informs us leaders of the time to come to the office and collect the food. With this crisis, we have started collecting names of those families who don’t have a ration card and those families who have ration card but are not linked an Aadhaar card [identity card] which means that they are unable to get food grains from the ration shops. The crisis has made us aware which families in our area who don’t have an earning member in their house, and so don’t have easy access to food.
Alert to the dangers of fake news
Many news items are running around on the TV channels, but some news is fake. Some say that by taking certain tablets then we won’t be affected by the virus. My neighbour, who works in the housekeeping department of a hospital bought me some tablets, telling me if I took them, I wouldn’t fall sick. I urged him not to give the tablets to anybody, explaining that they could be dangerous, particularly for people with diabetes, heart problems or asthma etc. I told him no tablet can cure this disease and to take simple precautions: only drink hot water, take a hot water steam every day and gargle twice or thrice with hot water and salt. Wash your hands regularly, don’t touch your face and stay away from others. This is only practical advice, not medication, but it is possible for us to do this at home.
Selvi Manivanan Devandra is a community leader with Mahila Milan, a federation of women’s savings groups active in housing and basic service issues.
With thanks to Slum Dwellers International (SDI) for their support in developing this blog. Please keep following SDI as we highlight the initiatives of SDI affiliates across Africa, Asia & Latin America in the fight against COVID-19 to support the most vulnerable throughout this pandemic.
In the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic the Namibian Alliance (Shack Dwellers Federation of Namibia and Namibia Housing Action Group (NHAG)) alongside the National Alliance for Informal Settlement Upgrading, have been able to pivot the partnership through facilitating open communication through various channels for communities to receive pertinent updates from local & central government. The Namibian Alliance is positioned as critical to the response plan from the Ministry of Health for community mobilisation and peer to peer learning enabling improved directed health messaging.
Edith Mbanga, Federation leader in Namibia speaks about the community-led responses taken. “As SDFN when COVID-19 came to our ears we look at it as a serious issue that needs to be addressed to make sure our communities understand. With support from NHAG we requested a training from the Ministry of Health & Social Services. Twenty members were trained to educate communities about COVID-19 symptoms and how they can protect themselves from the virus. We are working together with MoH & SS as Federation teams, with homeless people that were living near the river and under the bridges.”
Active cities include the Khomas region, Erongo region, and the Oshana region, with the following priority areas and needs identified: PPE, soaps, hand sanitizers, masks, gloves, buckets and the installation of tippy taps. Food parcels for the households where their source of income has been heavily affected are crucial during lockdown, and for the foreseeable future. Federation have also participated in training in proper hygiene protocols under COVID-19, developing pamphlets and fact sheets being distributed in various languages. The Federation also joined the Psycho-Social Support group led by Ministry of Health & SS to train and deploy volunteers to assist in relocation of street dwellers in Windhoek.
Edith Mbanga reflects on the economic threat to livelihoods of those in the informal economy as Namibia remains in lockdown until the 4th May 2020. “Because of lockdown, communities who are selling at the markets lost their income – that launched in Namibia this year by Namibian Alliance. We fought for the market to be open with locations for cleaning and sanitizing with authorities at the markets. A team of more than 20 members will educate the informal workers to make the markets clean every morning. They will work at the market 3 days per week. We can use this as an opportunity for us to talk to the people, and hear from them what their plans after lockdown because this is a temporary thing, there is a lot that we are doing.”
The Standard Bank of Namibia through the Buy-a-Brick initiative with the Namibian Alliance has donated water tanks and hand sanitizers to NHAG for distribution to communities living in informal settlements. The general public is encouraged to make donations into the Standard Buy-a-Brick account for further support in the fight against the spread of COVID-19 in the informal settlements.
Namibia Housing Action Group is a Namibian Service Organisation that aims to support and add value to the activities and processes of the Shack Dwellers Federation of Namibia in achieving their mission. It strives to facilitate change in the livelihoods of urban and rural poor through pioneering pro-poor development approaches. Community mobilisation, project management & delivery, lobbying & advocacy, financial resilience & asset building, and data & mapping are the core competencies of the Namibian Alliance that they have been developing for over twenty years.
Please keep following SDI as we highlight the initiatives of SDI affiliates across Africa, Asia & Latin America in the fight against COVID-19 to support the most vulnerable throughout this pandemic.
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.