In a system in which basic needs are regarded as non-essential services, the COVID – 19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of these needs as it is has become clear that governments have found it difficult to contain restless masses. It is impossible to contain people with no food, shelter and healthcare. This article will focus on poor housing especially in informal settlements in Kenya as an impediment to combating COVID-19 pandemic.
As COVID-19 spreads all over the world, people have been advised to stay at home. However, this basic precaution is unthinkable for individuals who are homelessness, or live in perilous housing. Nairobi city for example with a population of approximately 4.3 million people, more than half reside in informal settlements. This is according to the 2019 census report. Taking a walk in any of these informal settlements reveals the sad state of affairs: structures held in place with pieces of iron sheets and polythene papers. This makes it impossible for the dwellers to stay inside their houses in adverse weather conditions such as heat and floods. These structures are sleeping booths for toiling Nairobians, not residences.
Many governments all over the world have laid down plans to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the ultimate being the total lockdown of economies. But is this feasible in Kenya? This would be a recipe for disaster. How can millions of people living in such deplorable conditions in the slums be confined in one place for weeks? Chaos will surely ensue. In addition to lack of food and basic amenities which would make these places inhabitable in the event of a total lockdown, there will be clashes between state operatives and residents. Housing is a key human right and central in the fight against COVID-19. Without sufficient housing, it is difficult to carry out social distancing and the required hygiene practices placing the whole country in danger of succumbing to this destructive pandemic.
For the people living in low-quality housing, a lockdown means more time exposed to cold and other deplorable conditions with dire consequences to their physical and mental health. Lack of essential services, poor living conditions and stress often leads to poor health. Homeless people frequently experience serious respiratory ailments that can be escalated by COVID-19. The spread of COVID-19 is worsening an already worldwide housing emergency that is now affecting millions of people. Prompt, transient activities ought to be centered on containing the spread of contamination, while longer term measures ought to incorporate a survey of the current approaches to housing and land management.
But how did we get here? Times like this bring the realization that egalitarian ideologies have been right all along. This crisis has shed light on the decay of the capitalist system. A system based on private ownership of land gives only a few rich individuals the privilege of controlling this fundamental resource and pillar of human life. Provision of housing should be the government’s responsibility but the Kenyan government has loaded over this vital pillar of society to the greed of private interests. Just as food, healthcare and education, housing should not be a profit making business. It should be controlled and provided by the government. Millions of Kenyans have migrated to major towns in search for ‘greener pastures’ but in real sense they live in worse conditions compared to their rural homes. With decentralization and shift of responsibilities to county governments, these migrations were supposed to have reduced but this was not matched with financial resources enough to sustain the expectations.
The contradictions between the middle class and the working class have been deepened by this pandemic. Citizens living in middle class neighborhoods are seen mostly on social media calling on the government to impose a total lockdown but the labouring classes are not on the same page with them as life will be unbearable to them in the event of a total lockdown. The middle class feel privileged because they live in decent houses with adequate spaces where they can relax. Their houses are stocked with food that can last them for at least a month after panic shopping which is a characteristic of this class. The working classes on the other hand live in crowded houses without adequate lighting and can barely survive with stocks of food that can last for more than two days. They have no extra rooms and spaces for relaxation or study. This is happening in the same country, the same city. What worsens this reality is the fact that the middle class do not understand how dire the situation is in informal settlements yet they are only a step away from that life they abhor.
Clearly, staying at home isn’t an option if you do not have a home. Homelessness has increased drastically in recent times mainly because of the ever worsening living conditions. Homeless people have poorer health and lack essential facilities that would enable them to mitigate the risks of contracting COVID-19 such as washing their hands frequently and practicing social distancing.
Decent housing has therefore become the front line defense against the coronavirus. Housing has become a life or death situation for millions of people in the midst of this pandemic. These are not normal times. People are exhorted to stay at home, but the need for decent housing and hunger overrides the dangers of contracting this disease. “Better to die of hunger than corona.” Some say. COVID-19 control measures in urban areas and absence of access to public spaces can be detrimental to psychological and physical wellbeing of inhabitants. The unpleasant living conditions particularly in little and crammed houses in informal settlements, lack of social and security safeguards and minimal access to essential services compound the danger of violence against women and children.
Children are a frequently overlooked in regards to conversations around housing, given their lack of involvement in discussions on household matters. Be that as it may, housing is integral to children’s wellbeing and prosperity. Closure of schools has broadened and escalated educational inequalities which are related to a large extent to housing inequalities. Homes are children’s new learning environments, but not all kids live in homes where they have the space, protection, and calmness to study. In these times of huge financial insecurities and uncertainties, working class parents are focused on meeting the basic needs of their families, not home schooling needs. This results in stresses and strained relations in most families.
The ever soaring unemployment in Kenya has also become worse in this pandemic. It is estimated that more than 140,000 Kenyans have lost jobs as a result of COVID – 19 crisis. The worst victims of unemployment are always the working class, especially from informal settlements. Rent arrears are increasing with some landlords resorting to locking out tenants, some even using callous means such as removing doors and roofs to force them out. Low income workers have been pleading to the government to implement some contingency measures and ensure reduction of rent. This has not been possible as most housing in the country is privately owned and controlled. Government’s hands are tied by the neoliberal and capitalist policies in place. Only what the government and trade unions have done in these circumstances is to plead with landlords to be considerate to their tenants – an exercise in sheer futility.
Way out In the current crisis occasioned by COVID – 19 pandemic, the government should make it a top priority to provide essential hygiene facilities and services to informal settlements and all those without secure housing. This would allow people living in precarious conditions to practice the required social distancing and other important health measures. Hotels, community centers, schools, churches and other places that are currently un-occupied and un-utilised can even be repurposed to provide hygiene facilities for those without. Other short term measures include mortgage deferrals, tax reliefs and rent control to prevent forced evictions. For the long term, the government should provide decent housing with adequate spacing that would be secure and comfortable in a pandemic such as COVID – 19 and others. The government will need to take full control of the housing sector. Countries where governments control essential services such as housing have had an easier time containing the corona virus as private appetites are reigned in. Decent housing is an essential human need that is even entrenched in the constitution of Kenya. The right to decent housing is entitled to each citizen in the country. Thus, it should be made illegal for anyone to live in substandard housing. The government of Kenya should move towards reducing inequalities and poverty levels by providing decent housing to all as an impetus for the accomplishment of other fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution.
Reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic by the government have so far been short term measures. COVID-19 crisis provides a chance to reexamine the social transformation of society for the long term. This pandemic has shown that lack of social safety nets to the poor and the most vulnerable can be calamitous in a fractured social system. COVID-19 experience is awful and devastating, yet the flip side is that it offers the entire world the chance to restructure the current unsustainable system.