Problems with Social Distancing amidst Covid19 in Slums of India

Social distancing is not just for the sick, but for each and every person, including you and even your family,” Modi said in a nationwide address last week.


That might work for India’s middle and upper classes, who can hunker down in their condos and houses, preen their terrace gardens, eat from their well-stocked pantries and even work from home, using modern technology. But the chaos unfolding across India in recent days has spelled out that for the 74 million people — one sixth of the urban population — who live cheek by jowl in the country’s slums, social distancing is going to be physically and economically impossible.




Water is one of the biggest reasons India’s poor need to leave home every day.


Sia, a slum dweller and migrant construction worker in Gurugram, near New Delhi, wakes up at 5 a.m. and defies Modi’s call to stay indoors. The reason? She needs to walk 100 meters (328 feet) to a water tank that serves her slum of 70 migrant construction workers. She is not the only one. Most women from the construction site slum wash together there every morning and collect water for the day. With no showers or bathrooms in their homes, this communal tap is their only water source.


The government’s Clean India Mission, launched in 2014 to improve infrastructure and eliminate open defecation, claims that 100% of Indian households now have access to toilets. But Puneet Srivastava, manager of policy at NGO WaterAid India, said the focus of the Clean India Mission has largely been on building household toilets, and a considerable number of slum-like regions have not been included.


In Dharavi in Mumbai, for example, there is only one toilet per 1,440 residents, according to a recent CFS study — and 78% of community toilets in Mumbai’s slums lack a water supply, according to 2019 Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation survey.


On Sunday, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs Secretary Durga Shanker Mishra said: “There is 100% toilet coverage in India, whether people have access to personal toilets in slums or not doesn’t matter. They can use communal toilets.”Sania Ashraf, an epidemiologist who works on water, sanitation, hygiene and respiratory illness, said the Clean India Mission had increased private toilets as well as community or pay-per-use public toilet coverage — but during a pandemic, having access to a shared toilet means little if it is not clean. Furthermore, poor ventilation can trap contaminated aerosols and “facilitate transmission of the virus,” said Ashraf.
That is especially worrying in light of evidence that patients shed the virus through feces, raising the possibility of transmission in communal toilets and places where there is still open defecation.




The next reason slum-dwellers cannot isolate is simple: they need to work.


Daily wage migrant workers generally live hand-to-mouth, earning between 138-449 Indian rupees ($1.84-$5.97) per day, according to the International Labour Organization. “They belong to the unorganized sector, they don’t get paid the day they don’t go to work,” says economist Arun Kumar. “It’s not just the past few days since the lockdown started, but the momentum towards it has been building up for the past 20 days.


“Supply chains have shut down. Employment is lost. They have no money to purchase essentials. And unlike the rich, they cannot afford to stock up. They buy on a daily basis but now the shelves are empty.” Sonia Manikraj, a 21-year-old teacher who lives in the Dharavi slum, said: “I have to step out to buy food and since grocery shops here are open only from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and the roads are quite narrow, there is always a crowd.” Consequently, workers are faced with an agonizing dilemma: go out to work and risk infection, or stay home and face extreme hunger. Some workers have no choice. Cleaners, for example, are considered to provide an essential service, and are therefore exempted from the lockdown. “They are required to go to work every day,” said Milind Ranade, the founder of Kachra Vahatuk Shramik Sangh, a Mumbai-based organization focused on labor issues. “Some even collect hospital waste and then come back and live in these crowded chawls (slums).”


They are not given any protective gear, such as masks or gloves, said Ranade, and there has not been an awareness campaign to educate them of the dangers of coronavirus transmission. “What will happen when they fall sick?” Ranade added.


The government’s $22.5 billion economic stimulus package includes medical insurance cover of 5 million rupees ($66,451) per person for front-line workers such as nurses, doctors, paramedics and cleaners in government hospitals.


“It may cover the sanitation worker but what about all the others who live around him in the slum and who are equally at risk of contracting the disease from him?” said Raju Kagada, a union leader of sanitation workers in Mumbai.

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