This article was originally published by The New Times. The views expressed in this article are of the writer and not attributable to SHLC.

In the previous article I discussed how Covid-19 has changed our co-existence in housing. Based on the reactions from readers it is important to have a second reflection specifically focused on informal settlements, which cover a significant percentage of housing in Kigali city.

These settlements may not have access to the gardens, porches, dining tables, home offices or amenities such as Wi-Fi, and yet they remain more susceptible to the Covid-19 pandemic.

One comment that struck my attention was from a reader who is based in Musoma, Tanzania. This is the English version of their comment which was translated from Swahili:

“Good, you have said the real truth regarding our common house plans and landscapes. We never expected to have classrooms in our houses or playgrounds on balconies. And what about those who live in rental houses of single rooms. I mean the real life of many Africans who live as many families in one house of L and U like structure where many families shares [sic] a single house?”

Although the entire population is vulnerable, when it comes to any pandemic, people living in informal settlements still face the greater risk of exposure, for the precise reasons that in such settlements, practices of hygiene, confinement, and physical distance recommendations are more difficult, if not impossible, to carry out.

Vulnerability in informal settlements, Kigali, Rwanda. Credit: Irfan Shakil, Khulna University, Bangladesh.
Vulnerability in informal settlements, Kigali, Rwanda. Credit: Irfan Shakil, Khulna University, Bangladesh.

Such areas are overcrowded and yet have no access to adequate water and proper sanitation, and more importantly, a majority of the populations living in such areas rely on daily informal jobs that require contact with others.

In the event of a lockdown, such residents in informal settlements get grounded to their small houses, without income and have to depend on distribution of food and essential services and/or cash transfer, until they can resume their work again.

Globally, informal settlements are emerging as hotspots for coronavirus transmission. This is so because they are largely characterized by high population and housing densities that favour rapid spread of infections and transmissions, and the overcrowding itself further renders practices of social distancing rather difficult.

In such areas, a pandemic such as Covid-19 comes as an additional burden to already existing health risks such as chronic diseases and conditions.

In such situations, any new outbreaks spread faster and containment is always a lot more difficult than in other housing clusters in the city with proper infrastructure and amenities.

Away from the narratives of housing that may have been rightly criticized as speaking to middle and high income residents, for the low income, the aspect of social protection (specifically food and hygiene) may be a fitting summary of the narrative today. Considering that isolation may be an impossibility in such contexts, it all narrows down to better coordination and monitoring of social protection, a noble call to all stakeholders, you and I included.

In Rwanda, there is no doubt that mobilising of social protection to the vulnerable members of the population has a strong historic base, built on trust and care for each other.

Distribution of food and essentials to vulnerable households in informal settlements has been going on way before the pandemic, and is done in a transparent manner and hence has gained support from many across the country. Neighbourhoods continue to raise funds through social media such as WhatsApp groups to support the needy, even during these hard times.

National and local government authorities have partnered with civil society organisations, community groups, religious organisations and the private sector, to get social protection firmly on its feet.

In order to ensure smooth and tailored coordination of emergency response measures, several multi-sector agencies continue to work around the clock to map the needy, to deliver healthcare (targeted testing and therapy) and nutritional care to especially the needy.

Portable hand washing stations were initially introduced at bus stages, restaurants, banks, offices and shops. With time, these have trickled down into the grassroots levels, at the doorstep of every small vegetable shop in our neighbourhoods.

Armed with reflective jackets, volunteers especially the Rwandan Youth have stepped up to do a fantastic job; Standing at the entrances of markets and shopping centres, at bus stops, at social hotspots, to ensure proper hand washing, proper mask use, and social distancing.

This is not an easy job at all, not many would contemplate doing it in a pandemic!

Have we been respecting these volunteers and are we bold enough to carry along this care to our own families, friends and vulnerable communities adjacent to our homes?

Have we been kind enough to show our children how to wash hands or don a mask and have we been patient enough with our care, even as simple as answering the questions and anxieties of our children, family members

This reflection could and should inspire us to join in this noble course, from our various capacities as well as geographical bases, in the best way we can. Knowing that we all have an opportunity to build stronger communities and hence higher resilience for future unforeseen shocks.