While it is easy for urban dwellers to social distance, stay safe in the comfort of their homes and maintain good hygiene, this far from reality for the majority of South Africans.
In an effort to mitigate the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak in South Africa, the government has planned mass evacuations for tens of thousands of people living in informal settlements across the country.
Townships in the Western Cape, Gauteng, Eastern Cape and Kwa-Zulu Natal are said to be in advanced stages of implementing a move to ‘safe zones’ to halt the spread of the virus. This comes after the Khayelitsha township in the Western Cape reported a positive case of Covid-19 – reportedly the first coronavirus case in an informal settlement in South Africa.
The aim of the relocation is to de-congest extremely dense living conditions prevalent in the settlements and which can result in rapid spread of the virus and increased infection rates. Another issue is that residents of these townships are often unable to practice the social distancing and hygiene regulations recommended by the World Health Organization and SA government due to a lack of clean water and sanitation facilities in these areas. Thus, dispersing communities seems to be the most viable solution at this time.
The communities of Khayelitsha, Taiwan as well as eNkanini informal settlements have been notified of the plans to have them evacuated from their homes. According to National Department of Human Settlements spokesperson, McIntosh Polela, these plans are already at an advanced stage. “While this is urgent, it is also an initiative that requires a sensitive approach.”
He could not confirm the number of people set to be removed from their homes, as historically, many people refuse to leave their life-long homes in places common to them, and consultations are still on-going.
“Historically, our communities have resisted being moved. As such, we are careful that they are consulted and assured that they are going to be moved not far from the current place of their residence. We also cannot communicate some aspects of this initiative because of the ongoing consultations,” he said.
“Several communities in four provinces have been identified for the temporary relocations. The measure is aimed at mitigating the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak.
The department of human settlements previously said that they will not be giving out the names of the identified communities, “because we do not want to cause unnecessary panic. We recognise that moving people from their homes can be stressful, hence we will allow for consultations to take place before giving this information publicly,” added Polela. However, according to Water and Sanitation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, five areas have now been identified. These are: “Du Noon in the Western Cape; Duncan Village in the Eastern Cape – and we’ve already started with that because we are upgrading that place, so that will not be a difficult one; we’re dealing with Kennedy Road in Durban, which will be a difficult one because we’re dealing with the history of the place; we’re talking about Stjwetla in Alex, also a very difficult one with the history of that place and we’re talking about Mooiplaas in Tshwane,” she said.
The Department of Public works is also in the process of identifying the appropriate land parcels to use as temporary settlements. More details on this initiative will be relayed in the coming days.
Meanwhile in other parts of Africa, rural areas are facing the same issues when it comes to social distancing and maintaining good hygiene. In Kiberia in Nairobi, one of Africa’s largest slums, self-solation and quarantines, not to mention frequent hand washing, is almost impossible.
As in South Africa, extended families often cluster in tiny shanties – wooden and zinc built homes – while residents share one latrine with 50 to 150 people. Water in the pipes is often contaminated with sewage and clean water is scarce. However, a local Kenyan community leader, from grassroots organisation, Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), is working to keep his neighbours safe with handwashing stations, soap distribution and education initiatives for the township.
“I look at New York, I look at France, I look at Italy, these people are already developed in terms of their healthcare systems and [they’ve] been overrun,” says Kennedy Odede, who grew up in Kibera and founded the nonprofit Shining Hope for Communities. “What about Kenya? What about slums? What about Africa?”
While Africa as continent has reported just over 10 000 cases, a great deal less than some individual European countries, the detrimental effects of Covid-19 in Africa could be far more sever considering the socio-economic factors. The message here is that social distancing is a privilege – and one that not all countries, are able to afford. In South Africa, Nairobi, and many other African communities, the onus cannot be placed solely on individuals to keep the virus at bay. These people need systematic interventions from the government, NGOs and other institutions to help them stay safe from Covid-19 – in the face that basic necessities are not even a part of their everyday reality.