Photo Essay | Covid-19 in Joburg’s inner city

As Gauteng steers into the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, inner-city residents who live in derelict buildings face a serious challenge to protect themselves against infection.

The epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic in South Africa shifting from the Western Cape to Gauteng has hit Johannesburg’s inner city particularly hard. 

With nearly 11 000 reported infections as of 21 July in Region F – which covers the inner city and Johannesburg South – it is second only to Soweto in number of coronavirus cases. Both areas have a high population density and so there is a limit to residents’ ability to physically distance themselves from each other.

A large number of Johannesburg’s inner-city residents belong to low-income groups, many working in the informal sector as traders or recyclers, or doing contract work as cleaners or security guards. Others are forced to rely on begging to survive. Many are unable to afford decent rental housing and end up living in derelict tenements, warehouses and houses in the city. These aren’t formally recognised as shack settlements and are often labelled as “bad” or “hijacked” buildings. 

Occupants of such buildings have endured a long history of persecution in the form of police raids and evictions, and have been denied access to basic services. Most buildings do not have electricity, running water or ablution facilities and residents often live in cramped spaces under conditions of extreme emotional, financial and health insecurity.

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The coronavirus pandemic has only worsened their already dire situation. Living in cramped and crowded conditions without access to running water means that simple precautions against infection such as physical distancing and hand washing are almost impossible. In many instances, hundreds of people have to share a single tap or fire hydrant to access water. And the absence of adequate ablutions means that residents are forced to use public toilets or deserted spaces to relieve themselves, which, apart from acting as focal points for the spread of the virus, are also particularly dangerous for women and children, especially at night.

Although the government has been rolling out emergency water tanks and supplies in Gauteng after a call from President Cyril Ramaphosa to make water available to low-income groups in “informal settlements and rural areas”, the vulnerable communities living in Joburg’s inner city have largely been overlooked. And so, for many, physical distancing and hand washing – those most basic of coronavirus protection measures that many take for granted – are out of reach, luxuries reserved for those more privileged than themselves.

16 July 2020: Mpho Mokoena, 28, with her children, from left, Karabo, Kgotso, Kutlwana and Thumelo in their single-room apartment in Johannesburg’s inner city. Mokoena shares the single bed with her boyfriend and the children sleep on the floor. Their building has no running water or toilets, making regular hand washing and general hygiene challenging.
16 July 2020: Mpho Mokoena, 28, with her children, from left, Karabo, Kgotso, Kutlwana and Thumelo in their single-room apartment in Johannesburg’s inner city. Mokoena shares the single bed with her boyfriend and the children sleep on the floor. Their building has no running water or toilets, making regular hand washing and general hygiene challenging.
16 July 2020: Children play in the corridor of an inner-city building. Characterised by dark passageways because of the lack of electricity, derelict buildings such as this one are vulnerable to outbreaks of fire as residents rely heavily on paraffin for cooking and warmth. Those inhabiting these spaces are often living at the extremes of urban existence, where rent is affordable but conditions are crowded, cramped, dangerous and insecure.
16 July 2020: Children play in the corridor of an inner-city building. Characterised by dark passageways because of the lack of electricity, derelict buildings such as this one are vulnerable to outbreaks of fire as residents rely heavily on paraffin for cooking and warmth. Those inhabiting these spaces are often living at the extremes of urban existence, where rent is affordable but conditions are crowded, cramped, dangerous and insecure.
16 July 2020: Rubbish piles up in the courtyard of a derelict building, a health hazard residents have been living with since before the coronavirus pandemic.
16 July 2020: Rubbish piles up in the courtyard of a derelict building, a health hazard residents have been living with since before the coronavirus pandemic.
16 July 2020: Ramaketse Rampaleng, 34, warms himself at a fire at the Gomorrah Building in Johannesburg’s inner city. He makes a living working in the city’s informal recycling sector, but worries that collecting waste may expose him to the coronavirus. Despite not having access to running water at Gomorrah, which prevents him from regularly washing his hands, he has to keep working to survive.
16 July 2020: Ramaketse Rampaleng, 34, warms himself at a fire at the Gomorrah Building in Johannesburg’s inner city. He makes a living working in the city’s informal recycling sector, but worries that collecting waste may expose him to the coronavirus. Despite not having access to running water at Gomorrah, which prevents him from regularly washing his hands, he has to keep working to survive.
16 July 2020: Karabo Mokoena plays with friends outside the front entrance of the Gomorrah Building, the dilapidated structure without running water, toilets or electricity in Joburg’s inner city that is their home.
16 July 2020: Karabo Mokoena plays with friends outside the front entrance of the Gomorrah Building, the dilapidated structure without running water, toilets or electricity in Joburg’s inner city that is their home.
16 July 2020: Thabo Meva, 46, in his small inner-city living space. His most prized possession is a generator, which enables him to run a stove, his speaker and a television. But he does not have running water. He works as a part-time cleaner at the Johannesburg Central Police Station, where he has access to running water for his washing needs.
16 July 2020: Thabo Meva, 46, in his small inner-city living space. His most prized possession is a generator, which enables him to run a stove, his speaker and a television. But he does not have running water. He works as a part-time cleaner at the Johannesburg Central Police Station, where he has access to running water for his washing needs.
16 July 2020: Blankets hung out to dry at the entrance to the Delvers Building in the inner city. Rent is R200 a month, but there is no electricity or running water and there are no ablutions in the building. Residents have to collect water from a communal tap outside for washing, cleaning and cooking, increasing their vulnerability to coronavirus exposure and making regular hand washing difficult.
16 July 2020: Blankets hung out to dry at the entrance to the Delvers Building in the inner city. Rent is R200 a month, but there is no electricity or running water and there are no ablutions in the building. Residents have to collect water from a communal tap outside for washing, cleaning and cooking, increasing their vulnerability to coronavirus exposure and making regular hand washing difficult.
16 July 2020: The Delvers Building in Johannesburg. With the inner city at the forefront of the new coronavirus epicentre in Gauteng, many of its already vulnerable residents must now contend with an additional threat to their health and safety, with little support being offered from outside.
16 July 2020: The Delvers Building in Johannesburg. With the inner city at the forefront of the new coronavirus epicentre in Gauteng, many of its already vulnerable residents must now contend with an additional threat to their health and safety, with little support being offered from outside. 
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