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Opinion - The reality of social distancing in informal settlements

2020-06-25  Staff Reporter

Opinion - The reality of social distancing in informal settlements
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Noreen Sitali

Covid-19 has affected all forms of social and economic activity in and around the country. In response to the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, the government has been forced to implement the global standard measures to curb the contagion. These measures include social distancing, quarantine, partial or total lockdown, and other restrictive measures. 

However, differences in context are often ignored in applying these measures, when there ought to be some modification of certain measures in some places. In the case of Namibia’s informal settlements, in particular, there is a need to understand how communities perceive Covid-19, and how policy makers can adapt responses in order to address the context-specific challenges in our informal settlements such as Kuisebmund in Walvis Bay, the current Covid-19 epicenter in the country.

Just imagine five of you living in a shack where there is hardly any room to relax, only to sleep. Most times, people choose to eat outside their shacks. Living in dire social and economic conditions makes it difficult for people in informal settlements to observe global “gold standard” measures aimed at curbing the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, such as social distancing and isolation. This poses a great challenge to attempts to curb the spread of the pandemic in such contexts.

Given these circumstances, maybe we need to re-evaluate the effectiveness of global measures such as social distancing and lockdowns in our informal settlements where people live in very close proximity with each other, are economically disadvantaged, lack basic amenities, and must go out every day to eke out a living or face starvation.   Let’s be realistic, in informal settlements such as at Kuisebmund, neighbourhood and social attachment is high.

According to the Shack Dwellers Federation of Namibia close to 40% of the Namibian population are now living in shacks in urban areas, predominantly in Windhoek, accommodating about 500 000 people through informal settlements.
As much as our government has put in place measures to curb the spread of the pandemic, it’s only realistically fair and sad to say that measures developed in the west to curtail the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic cannot be easily transferred and applied to our informal settlements. Though preventive, these approaches are elitist and require some rethinking before being applied.
Most people living in informal settlements face the choice of staying at home and starving or going out to work and risk being infected – of course, these risky behaviours are defiance of the set lockdown rules. 

The foregoing scenario points to the need to rethink existing approaches to the Covid-19 pandemic in Namibia and most African countries at large and avoid the uncritical imitation of measures adopted in other parts of the world. 
Perhaps we need to re-strategise and go back to the drawing board, and introduce some measures to address the adverse impact of pandemic control measures on poor and vulnerable social groups.
While commending the government on steps taken thus far on curbing this pandemic, the government would do well to integrate other innovative homegrown measures that address the socioeconomic realities and inequalities of Namibian informal settlements into ongoing efforts to stop the Covid-19 pandemic.

2020-06-25  Staff Reporter

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