The Coronavirus brings Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) and Economic Challenges to Informal Settlements

informal settlement, slum, WASH, water, sanitation, coronavirus
Informal settlement in Buguruni Ward, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

With over 1.7 million cases and more than 100,000 deaths to date, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is a major global challenge. On top of this, It has battered economies and put particular pressure on already precarious household economies. In short, the coronavirus is exacting a physical (health) and economic toll across the globe.

While there is plenty of reporting on the health and economic effects in Asia, Europe, and North America, there needs to be more about the effects of the pandemic throughout Africa, particularly major cities in sub-Saharan Africa. Especially vulnerable geographies in these cities are the informal urban settlements. These are often characterized by high population densities, lack of infrastructure, and low levels of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) access.

Thinking about these issues through a lens of vulnerability and resilience can be useful. Before the pandemic, large swathes of the households in these areas were already economically vulnerable and possessing varying degrees of access to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services. When the starting point can be roughly described as ‘poor, crowded, and lacking water and sanitation‘, the coronavirus is likely hitting these sorts of communities very hard. The ability to the spread of the virus is hampered by all of these characteristics. There is a great article on these very challenges in Lagos at The Conversation. As has been also noted elsewhere, it is hard to socially distance, wash your hands, or quarantine and forego your entire income.

What can be done? WSUP gives a useful overview on how to reduce the spread of the virus and minimize the impact. Much of it is intuitive– there should be emergency water and handwashing facilities, increased hygiene promotion work, and of course, personal protective equipment for local health facilities. It will take a whole lot more than the nuts and bolts of water, soap, and health facilities/equipment, of course. It will take political will and coordination at all levels of government to improve situations in both the short and long terms.

Lastly, I would argue, governments should consider providing some emergency and temporary basic economic support to these communities in the form of cash aid. While I am well aware of how poor many of these countries are, one can only imagine the health benefits of enabling some of one’s most vulnerable citizens.

The coronavirus will no doubt be a major setback, and, for at least the short term, it effectively turns WASH efforts from development WASH into emergency WASH. Nevertheless, this situation should be used to strengthen and improve WASH access and livelihoods in informal settlements so they will be a bit more ready when the next health challenge arises.