Working with informality for more resilient, equitable responses to COVID-19

Source(s): International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)

In this second report in our series setting out key lessons from the coronavirus pandemic, we highlight the need for COVID-19 responses that work with the informal sector.

By George Masimba Nyama, Patience Mudimu, and Anna Walnycki

Beyond COVID-19: grassroots visions of change

This article is part of a new IIED series that brings together forward-looking responses on specific themes in reaction to the coronavirus pandemic, drawing on our partners’ insights and providing a platform for voices from the global South.

In the first instalment of this series, Alice Sverdlik outlined how practical responses to COVID-19 are being produced in informal settlements. Here, George Masimba Nyama and Patience Mudimu, from our partners at Dialogue on Shelter Trust in Zimbabwe, and Anna Walnycki consider the need for COVID-19 responses that work with the informal sector to promote resilience and equality.

COVID-19 has acute social, economic, and public health impacts globally, but it disproportionately affects informal, low-income communities in the global South. Lockdowns are an exceptional exertion of state authority, but they reflect an extension of local and national politics. In Zimbabwe, the pandemic response represents a continuation of hostility towards informality settlements and the informal sector. Lockdowns have not been designed to respond to the inequalities that exacerbate the impacts of COVID-19 on the poorest communities. 

Similar to other nations, the response presumes adequate living space, access to affordable basic services, and social safety nets. Instead many households depend on informal employmentlive in crowded settlements with unreliable, shared access to water and sanitation. Households tend not to have sufficient enough savings or access to healthcare. In short, many residents of informal settlements lack the resources to survive without defying COVID-19 lockdown orders.

Our understanding of the spread of COVID-19 in Africa and informal settlements is limited, but it is increasingly clear that COVID-19 can take different shapes and forms in different contexts. COVID-19 is unfolding in the context of Zimbabwe’s existing political, economic and environmental shocks and stresses.

As such, it is important to understand the interrelated aspects of urban resilience that are central to addressing the immediate needs of informal communities, while promoting more equitable urbanisation. Local stakeholders and organised communities are well placed to co-produce contextualised responses along the following lines, particularly as we learn more about transmission. 

Working with the informal sector to promote tenure security: Zimbabwe’s Operation Murambatsvina in 2005 demonstrated how, despite the government’s best efforts, evictions and demolitions cannot destroy informality. Informal settlements and economies will re-emerge in a different form. Forced evictions and demolitions of Harare’s informal settlements and markets have been pursued in response to COVID-19, but this has been counterproductive, leading to increased levels of homelessness and disrupting access to food and essential goods.

The informal sector plays a key role in providing housing, services, jobs and food for low-income groups in Zimbabwe, suggesting important inter-dependencies with the formal sector. Responses to COVID-19 need to support informal service providers and workers, particularly those providing essential services.

Community action, participation, and political voice: Communities can develop contextually appropriate strategies for physical distancing in informal settlements, and ensure higher levels of compliance. This could include more effective use of public spaces, community shielding, quarantine, group solidarities, care at the community level, and the promotion of much needed livelihood activities. They are well placed to collect reliable local data on COVID-19 impacts, share accurate information and counteract misinformation on COVID-19 in informal settlements.

Beyond an emergency response (improving access to basic services): The current COVID-19 pandemic is taking a huge toll in countries with poor basic service and health infrastructure. Most informal settlements in Harare do not have access to mainline water services. Where settlements are connected, supplies are often intermittent or contaminated.

Dialogue on Shelter Trust are already redesigning existing water points to accommodate COVID-19 risks to maintain higher levels of hygiene practices. To maintain COVID-19 hygiene standards, water, sanitation and hygiene facilities need to be mapped. Where clean water is unavailable, water needs to be trucked into communities and chlorination packs can be distributed.

In the short to medium term, better coordination of borehole use and widespread water quality testing could improve access. In the longer term, settlements require investments in mini-grids, or access to the mainline network. This requires reducing non-revenue water, providing subsidised access and supporting  community driven and community-public-private collaborations. Communities have also started producing PPEs and detergents, thereby enhancing chances for promoting personal hygiene for limiting transmissions. 


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