Shack dwellers mobilise to halt Covid-19 spread

In the Western Cape, residents from townships and shack settlements are seeking ways to minimise the spread of the coronavirus. But they still need government aid and support.

Residents from townships and shack settlements in the Western Cape gathered at the Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education in Mowbray on Wednesday 18 March to discuss what their communities can do to fight the spread of the coronavirus. This was in line with measures announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday 15 March. 

Speaking at the meeting, Nwabisa Mahashe from the Treatment Action Campaign, an organisation that advocates for treatment to be made available to those with chronic diseases, lauded the government for initiating a lockdown, saying that it is a proactive way of limiting the effects of Covid-19.

“Our experience has taught us that it is better to prevent the disease from spreading than having to face a situation where you have to dish out treatment for thousands. Clinics will have long queues. That would put a strain on our healthcare system that is already failing.”

Residents from Philippi and Gugulethu requested that the government introduce a robust and engaging educational campaign in their areas, including the distribution of pamphlets. They also asked that the government help improve or install new ablution facilities. 

Task teams

Tshisimani deputy director Mazibuko Jara said the agenda had been informed by the need for action. “People from the informal settlements will be the most affected. It is therefore crucial that we come up with plans to prevent the spread in this meeting,” he said.

Those attending the meeting had their hands sprayed with sanitiser at the entrance. Participants had to speak through microphones, eliminating the need for any form of contact through conversation. Those outside used video conferencing technology to take part in the proceedings.

A number of concerns were raised, most of them around how township folk’s behaviour can spread the virus, making people with disabilities and mobility-impairments vulnerable. The meeting resolved to set up task teams and subcommittees to devise ways to slow the progress of the virus. Task teams will take comments and suggestions from their respective communities.

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“We have faced diseases in our lifetime, but this is worse. No disease has ever spread throughout the world this quick. I am terrified. It seems as if this disease has the potential to wipe out the world. These task teams must be set up immediately,” said meeting attendee Lutando Bhongo.

Riana, a doctor who took part in the meeting via video conferencing, said she is helping set up a team called Cape Town Together to respond to the situation in the area.

“I have an experience with Ebola I want to share with you. People in Sierra Leone died from social issues not related to the disease. It is important that we prevent that from happening here,” she said.

Unprecedented fear 

Isaac Mangwana from the Movement for Change and Social Justice lives in the Europe shack settlement in Gugulethu. He said people from his neighbourhood have never “feared this much” about a virus. “Even the children as young as five are talking about how much they fear corona. This is something that we are all afraid of. I hope we can have meetings of this nature in our townships.”

He urged the government to educate people further about the disease. “[The] Department of Health must send experts and talk on loudspeakers to teach us about this pandemic. We live in fear. We want solutions. I am glad I came to this meeting. I will teach my community about what I have learnt here,” he said.

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Mangwana also raised concern about the affordability of the required stuff to minimise the scope of Covid-19. “I think the government must provide us with hand sanitisers. That would make prevention easier because every household will have it.” 

He said that he fears they may be badly affected as they live a communal life. “We are a community of 500 and more. We share everything, even taps and toilets. If it reaches us, it will spread quickly like a wildfire. I hope the cure is found quickly.”

Luzuko Jwarha from Khayelitsha said: “From now, I will lock my kids inside the house. This is scary. I will go to the shops and buy everything we need so that no one will get out.”

Abahlali baseMjondolo intervenes

Meanwhile, Abahlali baseMjondolo, the largest shack dwellers’ movement in the country, held meetings with elected leaders in all provinces to discuss the pandemic.

The organisation said it had declared a red alert in all land occupations and settlements affiliated to the movement: “The resources that would have been used for meetings, protests and rallies have all been redirected towards providing equipment that can help people to survive this crisis. We are all doing all that we can to communicate the best information, based on science, to our members and to combat fake news and conspiracy theories.”

While detailing the role it will play to ensure the safety of its members, the movement also highlighted longstanding social ills that exist in almost all shack settlements. 

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“Shack dwellers and other poor people, including street traders, casual workers and undocumented migrants, have not been taken into consideration when it comes to the prevention of the coronavirus, or included in decision-making about the crisis,” it said.

Abahlali said it is especially worried about shack dwellers who fall within groups that are considered high risk. These are people who may have HIV, TB or various other underlying health conditions.

“There is real fear that this new virus will hit impoverished people the hardest. In the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 and 1919, 60% of the people who died were poor people living in western India. There is a fear that, once again, it could be the poor of the world, more than a billion of whom live in shack settlements, who are hit hardest by this epidemic. This is a national and international emergency.”

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Because of the nature of shack settlements, it is difficult for shack dwellers to practise self-isolation and social distancing. Water sources are centralised, too, which makes regular contact between people inevitable.

Abahlali baseMjondolo has called for all evictions to stop, shack settlements to be included in municipal refuse removal programmes and shack dwellers to be provided with sufficient healthy food, including free food parcels. Abahlali went on to say that water and sanitation must be provided to all shack settlements as an urgent priority. 

It wants shack dwellers who test positive for the virus to be given safe and dignified accommodation in which to self-isolate, and all hospitals and other health facilities to be made available to all people living in South Africa, including undocumented migrants, with immediate effect, with free testing and treatment for all.

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