Why COVID-19 advice won’t work for millions of people

As Europe and much of the developed world shuts down in the face of coronavirus, many millions of people don’t have much hope in following the World Health Organisation (WHO) advice on washing hands and keeping their distance.

About one billion people live in slum-like conditions, making up 30 per cent of the world’s urban population. These housing facilities tend to have very little ventilation, drainage and sewage facilities, with diseases spreading easily.

Celestine Adhiambo, 43, lives in the Mukuru slum in Nairobi with her husband and six children. The family’s one-room house has no running water or electricity. She says her children can’t move around much without banging into each other.

“It is not possible for us to separate a child from another in case of any infection. We don’t have any space. No rooms here. The government should take the infected people to hospitals,” she told the BBC.

Her husband works as a carpenter and on the days he works, he earns about 400 Kenyan Shillings (£3.15, $4) and every day the family spends about 50 shillings on buying 10 buckets of water.

But the water supply is erratic and on days when there is no water, the family has to forgo the quick bath they are accustomed to.

Over half-a-million people live in Mukuru. The houses are made from cardboard or plastic material while those who are better off have houses made from corrugated iron sheets. There is no waste collection, with most of it going directly into the river.

Local NGO Mercy Mukuru runs four primary schools in the area with a total of around 7,000 students. About half of the students cannot afford soap, according to its head, Mary Killeen.

“I am worried. If the virus spreads in our locality it will be terrible,” Ms Adhiambo said.

Dr Pierre Mpele, a former WHO representative who has worked in many countries in central and West Africa says African households can be more crowded and in some cases, up to 12 people will share a small house. “Self-quarantine is not possible in many places,” he says.

It’s not just slums that are struggling with the availability of water. The cities of Johannesburg and Chennai both almost ran out of water last year. -BBC

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