Covid-19 through the eyes of adolescent slum residents in Dhaka
17-year-old Shefali (name changed for confidentiality purposes) lives in a slum in Mohammadpur, Dhaka with her mother and two brothers. They live together in a one-room home inside a large building housing multiple families. We first met Shefali in October 2019 when we went to interview her for a research study on perceptions of substance abuse among older adolescents living slums. However, we reached out to Shefali and several of our other adolescent respondents again via telephone after the global outbreak of novel coronavirus (Covid-19) in an effort to see how they and their families were coping.
Since the coronavirus pandemic was announced in March 2020 and the Bangladesh Government temporarily shut down all schools and businesses, Shefali said she has been staying at home. Most of the neighbours in their building have gone back to their villages. Her mother who works as a tailor is still working from home. But Shefali’s older brother continues to work as a delivery van driver. “He has to go to a lot of different places and interact with a lot of people,” she said. “The virus spreads from person-to-person very quickly. This is a chhowa-chhuyi rog (“contagious disease” in Bangla) and I feel very tense about my brother getting ill.”
However, Shefali says her mother is vigilantly making sure that she and her brothers wash their hands before entering the house. “She makes him change his clothes, not just wash his hands and feet with soap,” Shefali said. “He teases Mother by saying, if you keep making me change so many times I will run out of things to wear and will have to stay naked.” However, maintaining strict hygiene in order to help decrease the spread of the virus is no joke.
Close proximity poses threat, despite enhanced hygiene habits
Handwashing with soap, when done correctly, is critical in the fight against coronavirus. Doctors say handwashing with soap is one of the cheapest, most effective things you can do to protect yourself and others against coronavirus, as well as many other infectious diseases. But millions of people who live in urban slums like Shefali and her family, might not have proper access to a place to wash their hands.
According to UNICEF, only 3 out of 5 people worldwide have basic hand washing facilities. Furthermore they must often use toilets that are shared by multiple households in overcrowded buildings. As per the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) from 2013, around 75% of slum households in Dhaka live in one room. Living in such close proximity to each other also places slum residents at extremely high risk of contracting and spreading the virus. While washing hands with soap and abiding by these rules is far from the silver bullet, it is critical to make sure people know what steps they should be taking in order to keep themselves and their families safe.
“If I do not maintain personal hygiene and there is no treatment for me, I might die from this disease,” said another one of our respondents, 15-year old Raju (name changed). Raju lives in another slum near Mirpur with his parents and younger sister. But since the lockdown was announced, the entire family went back to their village home in Chittagong. “There is a fear playing at the back of my mind that, what if I or one of my family members get infected? We wouldn’t know where to go for help,” Raju said. “But while I’ve been here, I’ve been playing with others, that’s the little recreation I’ve been getting. However before I enter the house I make sure I wash up really well. No one right now can afford to forget doing that.”
But Raju says even though people in his vicinity seem to know about the risks of the virus spreading, they still venture outdoors, gathering in small crowds. “If you go outside our house, you will assume that nothing bad is going on in the country. But these people not following the government order don't seem to fear the police nor do they seem to fear corona.” This brings into questions whether or not awareness raising efforts are reaching populations effectively, especially outside of Dhaka and in rural areas.
Faith in fate may exacerbate situation in slums
However, back in Dhaka, another adolescent boy living in a slum in Mohammadpur believes people should not only fear the virus, but also consider it as “God’s test for humanity.” 16-year-old Arif (name changed), who claims to be very religious says, “If Allah wants to give me the disease, it will happen. No one can change that, no matter what I use to sanitize my hands all day.”
If Arif continues to show such indifference, he and others like him fall into a highly vulnerable group of people who can become infected and infect others by not maintaining basic protective measures against coronavirus. Arif is also still going to Friday prayers at the local mosque, claiming no virus or global pandemic can keep him away from his religious devotion.
He believes it is wrong to ask people to stop going to the mosque and says there are many others in his community that agree with him. But he also acknowledges the dangers associated with not social distancing. “I guess right now we should all refrain from going outside and interacting with people, but that isn’t realistic, is it?” he said.
The struggle to put food on the plate: Can’t stay indoors if you are losing an income
For slum residents, staying indoors under self-quarantine is not ‘realistic’ meaning they do not have the luxury to stay at home without being certain of a source of stable income. While several slum and Dhaka city residents have gone back to their village homes on the basis that the Government has declared it an extended public holiday, social distancing is not the primary reason for this mass exodus.
The first and foremost issue is that with everything shutdown, including businesses and schools, the daily-wage based labour that slum residents were usually occupied in (ie, construction, garments, rickshaw pullers, CNG drivers, etc.) are left with little to no way to continue making money.
With no certainty of how to provide the next meal for themselves and their families, most have opted to go back to the rural areas where they will have more support from extended family and be less likely to starve. As a result, the families remaining in the urban slums are left with a tiny bit more leeway to continue managing proper hygiene and sanitation. This gives slum residents very little hope that they can ever so slightly help decrease the rapid spread of disease in their community.
However, the adolescents we spoke to all said their parents are extremely worried but to varying degrees. For instance, a few said they were lucky because they still had income generating opportunities and the ability to put food on the table. But some others said their parents will be unable to manage if things continue this way. 15-year-old Faiza (name changed) who lives in a slum near Tongi said, “We are already having to cut down bit by bit. We can’t eat like we used to and are now very careful about the amount of food we're having each day.”
Faiza’s father is a rickshaw puller and her mother is a domestic worker. With barely any daily commuters on the road, Faiza’s father has given up going out for the last week and her mother’s employer has also asked her to stop coming to work for now. “I don’t know how much longer we will make it, and we have nowhere else to go,” she said.
Not giving up on ambitions: Kids try to continue education
On top of the already stark realities of people living in urban slums, the young people we spoke to have shared various ambitions and dreams with us for their future. Most of them just want to get a good enough education to ensure they can get a job and eventually come out of poverty.
But now with their parent’s sources of income on hold and their schooling stopped temporarily, respondents said this is increasing their anxiety about what will happen to them. Faiza said now she has to study on her own, but this is a problem, especially when it comes to solving difficult math problems. “Sometimes I don’t understand a few things and feel the absence of my teachers because my parents cannot read, and so they cannot help.”
Similar to Faiza, Raju claims this ‘extended holiday’ is also getting in the way of his studying. “I feel tense thinking about the fact that I should be studying more,” he said. “It keeps me awake at night.”
Trying to come to a solution Raju has even considered online math classes, but for some reason it did not work well for him. It could be that online connectivity in rural parts of the country can be difficult to access, serving as another barrier for youth who are more or less used to applying digital solutions to such problems in their day-to-day lives.
Raju, who works part-time in an electronics shop in Dhaka, also mentioned applying for an online job while he has been in Chittagong. However, he does not know yet whether he has gotten the position. “If it works out then it works out well for me,” he said. “I can keep making money from home and help my family.”
An uncertain future
As each day passes, slum residents remaining in Dhaka and those who have left in order to avoid the spread of the virus, are left with more and more uncertainty about the future. It seems those we spoke to have been made very aware of the situation, the matter of maintaining hygiene and sanitizing themselves and their surroundings effectively.
All the respondents said they have been relying on information on the television and news channels; some said they have been getting information from Facebook. That is to say social media platforms often give way to spreading misinformation as well. As one of the respondents, Raju said, “Do you know the movie Krish 3? In this Bollywood film, there is a similar virus that is spreading and threatening humanity. But that disease was actually man-made. This makes me wonder, is coronavirus man-made too? Because a lot of people have been talking about it, especially on Facebook.”
On the topic of the disease being man-made or not, Shefali said she believes the virus is a result of human beings’ disregard for planet Earth, polluting the air and the rest of the environment. While these young people do not know the precise science behind the emergence of Covid-19, they seem to perceive it as a ‘fault of humanity.’ “We are a burden to this planet,” Arif also said.
These short but poignant phone conversations we had with a handful of young slum residents have given us more insight on how they are coping with the situation at present. However, every single one of them was overcome by fear and doubt about what the future holds for them and others in their community. “We aren’t doing so well, yet we are lucky enough to have a roof over our heads today,” said Shefali. “People who depend on daily wages like rickshaw pullers and laborers are suffering the most with no savings. Only Allah knows how they will be able to continue.” No one knows for sure how coronavirus will impact the 20 million people living in a megacity like Dhaka, let alone the rest of the country. The only thing left for us to do is wait.
Anushka Zafar is a Research Fellow and Samira Ahmed Raha and Sajib Rana are Research Assistants at the BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health (BRAC JPGSPH), BRAC University.