Enforcing COVID-19 Preventive Measures on Urban Poor Is A Tall Order

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The back view of West Point, Liberia’s most populated slum community, which is home to hundreds of thousands of people who are aware of the risks coronavirus poses, but “cannot stop hustling and interacting with people regularly.

… especially in poor communities; people pressed for space, water and cash

To suppress the spread of coronavirus, the Liberian government has promoted mutual social distancing and daily hand-washing as a top defense strategy against the virus.

However, for residents of poor and clustered communities, enforcing social distancing and recurrent hand-washing is a major challenge.

“The lack of enough space in our home and the community, plus the erratic supply of clean water, makes it impossible for us to obey such safety protocols daily. Every one of us dreams of living up to these laws, but as people living in impoverished and underserved neighborhoods, our hands are a shield. There’s nothing we can do,” said Satta, a mother of four children.

Satta and her husband, who live in Clara Town, a poor, clustered community on Bushrod Island, are just two of the thousands of Liberians that live in many deprived neighborhoods in Montserrado County, the epicenter of a virus that does not have the resources to adopt preventive health protocols daily.

As a one-bedroom occupant, Satta and her family live in a house that has over 8 tenants with each one of the tenant’s room’s doors close to each other.

Another community where upholding the preventive measures poses a serious challenge is West Point, Liberia’s most populated slum community, which is home to hundreds of thousands of people who are aware of the risks coronavirus poses, but “cannot stop hustling and interacting with people regularly.”

“It is difficult for us to follow the social distancing measure in West Point. We live in a clustered setting and there is little room for this kind of activity. It’s a good idea, but it’s not entirely applicable to us,” said John, a father of two. Like Satta, he and his kids live in a house with several occupants.

John, like other West Pointers, lives in apartments that are overcrowded and have a front door only a few feet away from the neighboring tenant.

So as the pandemic progresses through Liberia, social distancing in Liberia’s slum communities is becoming challenging to implement — as people crowded into a small lane, rubbing against each other, purchasing food and children roaming the streets openly.

“We are aware of the threat of coronavirus in our community, and we are doing whatever we can to follow the safety protocols,” said William C. Wea, Township Commissioner of West Point. “I remain confident that we will resolve the social distancing and frequent hand-washing problems as soon as possible.”

Unlike middle-and upper-class residents, impoverished Liberians, most slum dwellers like those in West Point, lack the means to prepare for the lockdown or stay-home order prescribed by the Government of Liberia. There are concerns about money required and space to store up food in readiness for long quarantine.

Instead, many people have to go out daily to earn money to feed their households for the day.

“We can’t sit back and let our families starve. If I sit at home, I will not get pay to feed my family for the days off,” Nuku added. “Illness or its anticipation cannot be excused to miss food money. Every day of hustle counts.”

Marketers, buyers, and passerbys in West Point find it difficult to observed social distancing rule on one of its narrow streets.

Mary, who sells provisions out of a wheelbarrow, is not as positive as Commissioner Wea, because her three children cannot walk around a lot without coming in contact with each other or other kids in the house.

Such a situation, according to Mary, makes it hard for her and others in the township to exercise social distancing and enforce it upon their families.

“Often you have to pass through another person’s house before get to your own. Here, it’s hard for someone to travel without getting in contact with anyone else,” Mary said as she sits next to a nearby group of children clustered on the pavement, playing.

Erratic Water Supply

Adding to the worries of the slum dwellers is the reality that many of them have little or no access to pipe-borne water.

Instead, many of them have to travel for several minutes to buy water from public water taps or gallons — costing between L$20 and L$50 per 5-gallon container, depending on the day.

According to statistics on the website of the British charity WaterAid, approximately 3 in 10 residents in Liberia do not have safe water, which is equal to 1.3 million citizens.

As a result, the purchase of water—used mostly for cooking, bathing, and daily hand-washing – is an incredible privilege.

“The absence of a sufficient water source ensures less hand-washing. Everyone here knows the value of hand-washing, but don’t have the means to do so. Water is in high demand, so it is even hard for those who have a bucket at home to practice regular hand-washing, “said David, a junior high school math teacher who lives in West Point.

Whenever the clean water supply of David and his fellow West Pointers is erratic, they are “forced to forgo daily hand-washing to use the water for the most important thing: cooking and bathing.”

It’s not just the slums that are grappling with limited water availability. The city of Monrovia, which is the capital of Liberia with few suburbs, faces identical unpredictable water supply.

“It’s hard to pick between cooking, bathing, and washing hands with a small amount of water. In certain instances, you would have to forgo the last one and pick the prior two,” said Miatta, who lives in a clustered at South Beach near the Monrovia Central Prison.

“I want my children to wash their hands daily, but it’s hard to rationalize,” she added.

Back in West Point, Satta said they are defenseless against the virus, as many of them have chronic health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, yet most of them do not have the financial resources to buy a hand-washing bucket, which costs between L$1,500 and L$2,000.

Unclean Toilets

Apart from the water problem, inhabitants of slums and clustered neighborhoods have minimal private and public bathroom facilities and low overall sanitation. However, accessible public restrooms compete with hundreds of people who also used for bathing it.

According to the WaterAid, over 1.6 million men—almost one-third of the nation’s population—are engaged in open defecation owing to lack of exposure to sanitation, such as toilets.

It added that: “8 out of 10 people also don’t have a proper bathroom and have to go outdoors instead. “

As per experts’ view, inadequate ventilation can trap infected aerosols and promote the spread of the virus.

In a recent research paper, scientists raise the possibility that the virus can be “transmitted via the fecal—a situation which increases the risk of transmission in public toilets.

For Mary, whose rental house lacks a private bathroom, said during a pandemic like this, “to have access to a public bathroom is troubling.”

Mary noted that the community toilets are not always disinfected, which suggests that a healthy individual may catch the disease “from an infected person if they touch any of the walls or door handle.”

So far, the country has recorded 199 cases, with 20 death and 79 recoveries. However, due to limited testing, the expert believes that the cases load could be higher than what is been reported.

Nevertheless, residents of slum communities are trying to keep their community and family safe during the coronavirus pandemic by wearing masks, and washing hands when enough water supplies are available.

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