WHAT DOES COVID-19 AND CLIMATE CHANGE HAVE IN COMMON WITHIN SLUMS?
Lecturer, Department of Architecture, Federal University of Technology, Akure email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org
As soon as COVID-19 infection found its way into African countries, many scholars started expressing their concerns about urban settlements. Low-income, informal, overcrowded areas have a high risk of rapid transmission within urban settlements and are probably the sector least prepared for the pandemic.
As feared, the pandemic presented significant challenges within the informal forms of habitation in slums, shanty settlements and deprived housing across some African cities. Within a few months, clusters of diseases were identified within slums in some cities. For example, in the third week of May, up to a quarter of infections in Nairobi were recorded in Kibera, the largest slum in the Kenyan capital city[i]. Within South Africa’s Cape Town, Khayelitsha township which contains informal shack dwellings, was designated as a hotspot of COVID-19 infections[ii].
While COVID-19 gained ground speedily, climate action in response to global climate change has been an issue for some time and remained a long-term concern. The impacts in slums and low-income communities are being recognized and voiced for the attention of city leaders locally and globally. How heat stress, windstorms, flooding, sea level rise and other extreme weather events affect lives, livelihood, health and the environment in slums have been profound. Impacts predicted for future weather events are also dire, deserving improved attention.
Given that both issues (climate action and COVID-19 responses) have significant relevance within informal settlements, it is fitting to explore what they have in common. These, as lessons from successes or failures and emerging questions on density, data and messaging (communication), are explored for a sustainable and resilient post-COVID era in the growing informal urban settlements in Africa.
Debates on the good and/or bad sides of density for cities came to the fore as the pandemic unfolded. Before now, compact city proponents have argued for its advantages in terms of climate mitigation and environmental sustainability – reducing greenhouse emissions associated with intra-urban transport and infrastructure as well as effective land use which preserves agricultural land and environmental resources. The arguments had been well received across cities globally with many developing densification plans for climate-responsiveness.
Suddenly, density became a bad thing for health. Arguments about the downsides became pronounced in relation to overcrowded informal settlements with serious concerns in terms of reducing community transmission through social distancing. A South African study which used satellite imaging and GIS to trace dwelling outlines for informal settlements in Cape Town shows thateffective social distancing at 2 meters will be challenging[iii]. This must have informed why the South African government proposed de-densification of the overcrowded informal settlements, although this was not well received by actors in civil society and some residents themselves.
The emerging puzzle, and that which is to be engaged going forward, is how to reconcile the benefits of density for environmentally sustainable settlements with the threat of density for public health in challenging situations such as a pandemic. Here, conceptualizations of density must go beyond ‘absolute physical space’ to that interwoven with sociality – extensiveness and intensity of internal relations between residents, households, economic activities and social institutions in everyday life.
Arising from concerns on those considered vulnerable to lockdowns measures announced, many countries provided palliatives to urban residents. Data, its availability or absence, made and marred this. In Congo, with support of the World Bank data-based technologies through drones and GIS were deployed for ‘highly detailed’ neighborhood risks, geolocating potential outbreaks and conveying critical information to at-risk populations.
Getting the right message to the right people at the right time is a communication task that has its place within informal settlements. Some communication strides were made in response to the pandemic.
Putting the earth and health at the heart of slum upgrading
[iii] Gibson L, Rush D. Novel Coronavirus in Cape Town Informal Settlements: Feasibility of Using Informal Dwelling Outlines to Identify High Risk Areas for COVID-19 Transmission From A Social Distancing Perspective. JMIR Public Health Surveill. 2020;6(2):e18844. Published 2020 Apr 6. doi:10.2196/18844
[vii] See a current profile of my work here: https://www.aasciences.africa/grantees-profile?id=190
No 2 - This blog article is written under the auspices of the British Academy supported Critical Thinking and Writing Workshop for Urban Studies Researchers in Nigeria.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development or the University of Lagos, Nigeria.