Global Development Institute Blog

Professor Diana Mitlin, CEO of the African Cities Research Consortium

Covid-19 has brought a new realization to many governments and development agencies. Investment in towns and cities is essential. People need to live in healthy neighbourhoods with access to basic services. With this new interest, it is critical that appropriate learning takes place so that interventions can be successfully designed.

Over 95% of all Covid-19 cases globally occur in urban areas. Pandemics are dependent on the interactions of humans with their environment and these interactions are intensified in towns and cities. Too little attention is given to the multiplicity of ways in which the “urban” nature of settlements and livelihoods influences what is possible in terms of responses to the health and economic emergencies.

Globally, at least one billion people live and work in conditions of urban informality and precarity. Hundreds of millions more people living in cities located in low and middle-income countries can just about afford formal homes with improved access to services such as piped water, electricity and access to healthcare, but these services are patchy and may be unaffordable.

In this context, some have argued that an essential response to Covid-19 is the ‘de-densification’ of urban areas. For example, the South African Minister for Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation identified 29 areas, in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Western Cape and Eastern Cape for de-densification, targeting 356 010 households to contain the spread of Covid-19. The risk is that this will catalyse a new round of evictions, displacing people from their homes.

This response is based on a misconception. The problem isn’t density itself; it is the overcrowding resulting from low-incomes, expensive housing and the lack of infrastructure and services – and this is caused by state neglect. The lowest income urban residents are facing a global health crisis. The risks associated with Covid-19 are exacerbated by debilitated – or outright non-existent – health services and infrastructures.

Overcrowding and lack of access to basic services prevent the implementation of two key measures that populations are being urged to adopt: social distancing and increased hygiene, particularly handwashing. And with limited political influence they are unable to secure adequate supplies of water, access to sufficient space for social distancing and places to isolate those who are sick.

In Nairobi, the scale of deprivation in informal settlements is evident. In Mukuru, for example, only 1% of residents have access to a private water tap and private sanitation. The lack of provision means that a public tap serves an average of 234 households, and there is one public latrine for every 547 households.

In terms of state interventions, curfews and lockdown have made income generation difficult to impossible. Informal traders have been stopped from operating, while formal shops selling food and other goods are allowed to be open. Formal manufacturing businesses have closed, laying off workers. Low-income households face acute difficulties with limited savings; the need to pay for food, rent and services; and limited access to social protection.

Low incomes make it impossible for many living in towns and cities of the global South to secure adequate accommodation. Poorly informed government strategies to reduce poverty lay too much emphasis on cash incomes and not enough on the social wage (i.e. access to affordable basic services including water, sanitation, energy, health and education). While social protection measures – when provided to those living and working informally – have helped address immediate needs, they are not a substitute for a comprehensive approach to address all needs including access to public services. While community groups have sought to improve access to the services required for health and support those in need, without state investment this cannot be done effectively and at the scale required.

The required response has to prioritize essential investment in basic services and the provision of affordable housing, assisting low income households to secure access to the services and housing that they need for good health and wellbeing. “Affordable” in this context cannot be synonymous with “low-cost” unless low-cost is indeed affordable to the lowest-income households.

There is a new attention to towns and cities in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. While at times it seems that the most likely outcome of Covid-19 responses is an ossification of pre-existing inequalities, persecutions and structural failures, some positive progress is being made.

In Nairobi, the national government has committed to informal settlement upgrading. In August 2017, the government declared Mukuru a Special Planning Area. Plans for infrastructure improvements in water and sanitation, roads, drainage and electrification have now been finalized. Faced with Covid-19 and in recognition of the need for basic services, implementation by Nairobi Metropolitan Services began in May 2020.

The Government of Kenya has shown an increased commitment to address the needs of low-income urban residents in recent years. On 14 February 2020, for example, Nairobi’s City Hall and the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure announced their intent to scale up the upgrading of informal settlements with a Special Planning Area for the neighbourhoods around the Central Station. This new-found political commitment has been further reinforced at the time of Covid-19 with an acceleration of plan implementation in Mukuru and significant new upgrading initiatives across the city. A new programme, Kazi Mtaani has provided social protection for casual and informal workers whose livelihoods have been disrupted by the pandemic and associated measures. This programme pays people to work on improving the environment and delivering services through infrastructure investments, enabling them to buy essentials such as food.

Covid-19 has highlighted the housing needs and the precarious and low incomes of many urban households across the global North and South. The costs of the health emergency have been exacerbated by the associated economic emergency. It is not possible to secure wellbeing in this context. And that reality is now exposed on streets and screens around the world.

The Kenyan response has demonstrated that it is possible for governments to use the health emergency to reset development priorities. Public works can provide essential monies for households while enabling people to work safely outside and provide the services that are required for good health. A willingness to engage with community organizations such as Muungano wa Wanavijiji has enabled local safe isolation centres to be identified in informal settlements. If we are to secure the SDGs and meet the needs of the most vulnerable citizens, the international research community needs to understand better the triggers for such progressive change.

More governments need to recognise that housing and basic services have to be affordable and accessible.  Livelihoods need to be protected; and if they cannot be protected then household incomes have to be secured. However, despite all these efforts, there is a risk that some will be left behind, more than ever in the current COVID-19 context, and these households should not be forgotten. It is more evident than before that this is not only a question of justice. It is also a pragmatic response to our interconnectedness and what it means to thrive, individually and collectively.


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Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole