Giving Compass' Take:

• Vanda Felbab-Brown and Paul Wise explain how COVID-19 will hurt those living in slums and the special measures needed to protect these populations. 

• Are you prepared to support the needs of people in urban slums? 

• Read about philanthropy in urban slums in India.

Slums provide uniquely challenging conditions for containing the coronavirus and confronting the threat of COVID-19. There may be no ambulances. No hospitals. No tests. No or few police. Only some of the most densely populated places on earth. When COVID-19 reaches the world’s slums, few policy options are available; and those that exist often entail hellish bargains with the criminal groups that so often rule such areas.

Poor areas that surround the developing world’s great urban centers are crowded places where one-room shacks may house a multi-generational family. They are deprived of public services, with water for drinking and washing often only available at communal distribution points. Sometimes, criminal groups in collusion with corrupt water authorities sell water from tankers or street carts. Washing hands diligently is impossible. Shacks lack toilets and entire neighborhoods have no sewage systems. Since households don’t have electricity or refrigerators, stocking up on food is not feasible. In the absence of a safety net, staying at home can mean starvation.

Quarantine restrictions are compounded by the lack of official law enforcement. Social norms and the suppression of street crime are frequently provided not by police but by criminal or militant groups, even though they themselves are perpetrators of criminality and violence. In some cases, such as in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, local criminal gangs have already taken it upon themselves to declare a coronavirus-related curfew, trying to mount some public health measures despite President Jair Bolsanaro’s downplaying of the pandemic.

Criminal groups may even distribute some public resources such as water, soap, or food to families of the sick, seeking the political capital with which they rule slums. In other cases, governments and politicians who sometimes clandestinely, and other times openly, outsource the management of slums to criminal groups will explicitly ask these groups to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the areas they control. In some neighborhoods an enhanced police or military presence is considered predatory and would be met by local resistance.

The first task is to hold both the governments and criminal groups accountable for the health and security of the urban communities under their jurisdiction or control.

In contrast, humanitarian groups seeking to deliver medical aid in urban areas controlled by criminal or militant groups must be made immune from for providing material support to illicit actors.

Read the full article about COVID-19 and sums by Vanda Felbab-Brown and Paul Wise at Brookings.