COVID19 - Urban Thinkers Campus - Facing Urban Vulnerabilities in the COVID-19 Crisis: What is needed to address hot spots and build resilience

COVID19 - Urban Thinkers Campus - Facing Urban Vulnerabilities in the COVID-19 Crisis: What is needed to address hot spots and build resilience

Nairobi, 4 May 2020

In times of pandemics, social cohesion becomes key to survival and resilience in the most vulnerable urban hot spots. Rather than pointing at urban informality as a problem, decision-makers need to put communities at the center of their response. The role of community leaders has proven essential in many contexts. They have the intimate knowledge of communities and without them, little can be achieved effectively to face the challenges of the pandemic.

This was one of the conclusions of the first COVID-19 Urban Thinkers Campus session hosted and coordinated by the World Urban Campaign on Tuesday 5 May. The on-line event gathered a hundred participants with eminent speakers from Slum Dwellers International, the Cities Alliance, the Freetown City Council, Wits University, REALL and UN-Habitat.

The COVID-19 crisis is revealing the most difficult aspects of living in informal settlements. With Covid-19, many in my city feel that this is a worse pandemic than Ebola as we are dealing with an invisible enemy, said Sibyl Harleston, Informal Settlements Upgrading and Relocation Lead at Freetown City Council, setting the tone of the debate. In Freetown, Liberia, the COVID-19 response is based on three pillars: behavior change messaging, behavior change support and isolation and containment. To be effective, that requires a participatory approach engaging the community leaders. 

Governments should effectively support the civil society said Rose Molokoane, President of the South African Federation of the Urban Poor, a partner of Slum Dwellers International. In South Africa, the Federation has proposed to the Government the partial road re-paving of informal settlements for instance. So, roads are created to enable ambulances and water supply access into the areas. Without the inside knowledge of the organized community groups, such action would not have been envisaged. Governments should recognize the fundamental work of grassroot organizations on the ground. For example, the government has used civil society groups to distribute food to the communities.

The crisis has focused attention on sanitation, water, urban density, but the issues are not new said Smruti Jukur from the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres, based in India. She added: Many dense settlements have been lacking access to water for decades, and have very poor primary and secondary healthcare systems. These structural issues are just now revealed with the COVID-19 crisis and will have to be addressed if we want to address future pandemics.

Let’s use this crisis as an opportunity to take action and better prepare for future shocks, and ensure that vulnerable groups don’t bear the brunt of crises such as this one and to limit the impact going forward said Lucy Livesley, Director of Market Transformation at REALL, an innovator and investor in affordable homes in Africa and Asia. We consider our mission as to contribute to resilience, providing space to socially distance, clean water, toilet within the home, safety and security within resilience and vibrant communities. Housing gives people an asset, security and protection against shocks by reducing their vulnerability. Housing is also a means to kickstart economies and embed future resilience.

With this new crisis, we are currently adding new urban vulnerabilities that pre-existing vulnerabilities explained Prof. Marie Huchzermeyer from Wits University, South Africa. Many structural issues that have not been addressed in the past need to be faced now. She also emphasized the need to rely on existing survival mechanisms to build resilience. Care must be taken in order not to disrupt survival mechanisms that heavily rely on social cohesion that is ultimately  beneficial to health. It is also important not to quickly identify informality as the problem, she said. Community organizations that are structures of communication and decision-making within informal settlements, onto which systems of reciprocity are often built are key to building resilience. There has been rapid asset depletion, rapid emergence of large scale starvation which has placed extreme stress on social cohesion. Civil society and support organisations, reaching out to charities and solidarity groups play an essential role in this crisis and the future pandemics to come.

In the COVID-19 response, women also play an essential role in informal settlements for many reasons said Giulia Maci, Urban Specialist at Cities Alliance. Women are in the forefront in fighting the pandemic as health and care workers. As those primarily engaged in family and domestic duties, they are the first to recognize symptoms and take care of the ill in the society. Women are also more active in community organizations, filling the gaps left by existing institutions. They know the needs of the community, have the trust of the community, they deliver foods and supplies to those who need. As a result, it is essential to engage women in defining post-COVID-19 recovery plans, including economic measures to protect and stimulate the economy, from cash transfers to credit loans targeting women. Also, women have to be equally represented in decision-making structures.

Ms. Kerstin Sommer, Coordinator at UN-Habitat, outlined the approach taken by the Participatory Slum Upgrading Programme(PSUP) in the COVID-19 crisis. We need to combine the immediate responses to the long term recovery strategies, particularly through  partnerships between people, private sector, informal sector in line with the decade of action and the implementation of the SDGs, she said. Our pillars for action in this pandemic are advocacy for governments to integrate informal settlements and slums in their responses, sharing innovative approaches among partners. It is also crucial to work with national government to ensure community voices are heard in design of national policies and protocol for informal settlements. The PSUP has developed guidelines for local authorities, communities and a catalogue of projects to guide partners in different areas of action

Overall, participants agreed that this pandemic should be seen as an opportunity to reflect on basic structural issues in urban areas and the most vulnerable spots that the COVID-19 crisis is revealing. The role of communities is crucial in the immediate response but also in the next steps from the immediate recovery plans to long-term resilience. An integrated approach will be needed to evaluate the different responses. This should be done by engaging all stakeholders and bringing communities at the center.


Article by Christine Auclair, UN-Habitat
Photo Credits: Kirsten Milhahn (CC)​