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Op-ed: No water and no space to breathe

- Basetsana Koitsioe

The impossibility of abiding by social distancing regulation by dwellers of shack settlements, inner-city buildings and neglected villages

Since the announcement of the lockdown, every person, with the obvious exception of people accessing essential goods and services and those who work to provide essential goods and services, has been confined to his or her place of residence. This is in an effort to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.  This drastic intervention has exposed the inequities experienced by people who reside in informal settlements, the inner city and various rural communities which are characterized by structural impoverishment and other poor social determinants of health outcomes.

The Centre of Applied Legal Studies (CALS) represents a community living in an informal settlement in Kliptown, Soweto. Community members are meant to be confined to their shacks for the duration of the lockdown. Although there is police presence, members of the community continue to socialise and mingle in groups. It is only when the police do “walkabouts” that community members quickly retreat into their homes.

Members of this community explain that their reason for breaking social isolation regulation is because, for them, it not possible to remain indoors, in one room, shared and occupied by four to eight people. The material most people have used to build their shacks is tin, which heats up in the sun. On sunny days, the shack can get so hot that, without proper ventilation, it can be hard for occupants to breathe. There is no personal yard space outside the shacks to stand in to access fresh air and children are confined to the shack. As it stands, stepping outside the shack is a contravention of the regulations put in place to slow the spread of the virus.  

The community has also observed that they have not had access to any waste removal services since the start of the lockdown. This further illustrates the inequalities experienced in informal settlements, in access to basic services such as water and sanitation. The community uses communal toilets which presents a huge challenge in maintaining a hygienic environment and curbing the spread of the virus. The Kliptown community only has two taps servicing at least 1000 people and one Jojo tank which is the only source of water in the community. This lack of access to adequate sanitation disproportionately impacts women, girls and people living with disabilities within the community.  

CALS also represents communities in the inner city of Johannesburg who have informed us that movement in the inner city is heavily restricted, that it is not possible to move around without producing a work permit or proof of purchasing essential goods. For the last two weeks, our clients have been confined to a densely populated building, where it is not possible to practice social distancing.

Communities have taken refuge in abandoned buildings because of the lack of affordable housing in the inner city.  Communities residing in certain pockets of the city such as informal settlements and inner-city areas, are particularly vulnerable and struggle to gain access to public services such as water and sanitation. The building our clients occupy is unmanaged and unmaintained and as a result the community has been confined to an unhygienic building, with no water and sanitation since the lockdown was implemented. There are no waste removal services, the smell in the building is said the be unbearable especially when it is hot. But the most pressing issue for this community is securing food for the duration of the lockdown as most of the residence of the building are precarious workers and informal traders.

Access to basic services such as water and sanitation is not only a problem in urban areas, but also affects communities in more rural settings. In the Sekhukhune District Municipality in Limpopo, CALS represents five villages which have not had proper access to water since 2009 when their existing supply was cut off. This has forced the people of Elandskraal, Morarela, Mbuzini, Dichoeng and Tsansabela to walk long distances to collect water from crocodile-infested rivers and put their safety and health at risk. Since the implementation of the lockdown, the community has not experienced any different treatment or provision. From the inception of the national lockdown, CALS has called for an urgent need for interventions that will focus on water services infrastructure, with the intention of improving water supply, access to sanitation in areas with limited or no access to water and sanitation services in rural settlements and water scarce towns.

The lockdown has brought to light the stark inequalities that manifest from past failures of the state in inadequately monitoring the implementation of its own housing policies. Inasmuch as there is political will to continue forging interventions to ease the lived experiences of those living in informal housing, any such interventions must include access to adequate housing progressively realizing the element of “home”. Other considerations must include safe and reliable water, sanitation facilities, access to healthcare and food and must adhere to national and international human rights standards.