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.
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.