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A metro train moves past a slum area, in Mumbai, India on Oct. 19, 2020.

FRANCIS MASCARENHAS/Reuters

Mukuru, in Kenya, is the very definition of a huge African slum. A sea of tiny tin-roofed shacks on a maze of mud lanes around Nairobi’s airport, it is home to at least 500,000 people.

The pandemic has turned Mukuru and other slums, shantytowns and favelas (informal settlements, as they’re collectively known) into very dangerous places – though not in the way you might think.

When the novel coronavirus came to Kenya in March, the government responded with strict curfews, as well as the usual hygiene and physical distancing rules. None of these were possible in a place like Mukuru, where the few toilets are shared by hundreds, there’s no running water, a dozen people often share a shack, and families need to go to the market every day to buy food with tiny incomes earned from jobs that can’t be done remotely.

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“If you visit Mukuru you don’t really get the sense that much of a curfew is possible in an informal settlement, and people are so close that you can’t really talk about social distancing,” Jane Weru, who, as head of the Akiba Mashinani Trust housing organization, spends a lot of time in Mukuru, said by phone from Nairobi. “People there cannot wash their hands, they cannot work from home, and this puts the whole city at risk.”

Nobody knows how many people in Mukuru have contracted COVID-19. Studies of other large slums around the world show astonishingly high rates. A survey in Mumbai found 57 per cent of slum residents tested positive; studies in Rio de Janeiro found the highest infection rates in the huge hillside favela districts of Cidade de Deus (28 per cent) and Rocinha (25 per cent).

Death rates have not been so high, for poorly understood reasons. This might be because deaths aren’t being measured or because slum dwellers have endured other viral infections and have some immunity or because numerous other causes of death are drowning out the pandemic’s effects.

But the pandemic’s virological effects aren’t primarily to blame for these areas becoming so dangerous. It’s the economic effects.

Unable to feed their families after their sources of income were shut down and markets were closed, and fearing they’d starve if police were to force them indoors, millions of slum dwellers have slipped out, often circumventing travel bans, and returned to their family villages. This has played a primary role in spreading the pandemic to remote rural areas.

Among those who stayed, most returned to work as soon as it was possible, in order to avoid starvation. And that work is often the cleaning of offices and homes, or other domestic work, in better-off neighbourhoods not previously hit with the virus. Places like Mukuru have thus become vectors of city-wide infection.

“What this pandemic has taught us is that you cannot afford to just let informal settlements be the way they are,” Ms. Weru said. “Because the city is so interlinked – you can’t just say ‘slums will be shut down in a pandemic, and people will just remain within that area.’ Because they will eventually come to work, in our homes. And therefore I’m not safe, because what is happening in Mukuru is not safe.”

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Given how many people live in these unplanned, self-built neighbourhoods, you’d think governments would be doing everything possible to make them safe enough to pose less of a threat. In too many places, the opposite has happened.

“This is way more than a health crisis,” said William Cobbett, the director of Cities Alliance, a Brussels-based United Nations agency that works with urban governments in poor countries. “It’s a health situation showing the divisions at the city level and the national level – how poorly distributed our resources are. But even though it has been unequal, rich and poor alike catch COVID-19 – you can’t gate yourself away from COVID like you try to gate yourself away from crime.”

In Lagos, there have been huge riots against strictly enforced curfews and the resulting starvation. In Addis Ababa and Monrovia, city governments have used the pandemic as cover to demolish entire shack-housing districts or to banish street-vending areas, sending ruined families scattering.

Ms. Weru is trying a different approach: keeping slums safer. Her large-scale Mukuru Special Planning Area initiative seeks to improve life not by rehousing people or raising standards, which would make life unaffordable, but by providing the things residents say they need within the neighbourhood – schools, water, toilets, medicine – at low cost so they can continue their complex economic lives without worrying about the danger and disruption of illegal slum life.

This strategy, which started long before the pandemic, seems tailored for the crisis of 2020 – a way to make a neighbourhood less dangerous, not by treating it as a threat or a problem but by making it possible for people to stay home. Even if that home is a tin-roofed shack.

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