Health Workers, Slum Dwellers Face Housing Bias as Lockdowns Lift

This story was originally published June 3, 2020 by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The easing of coronavirus lockdowns in cities around the world could lead to a rise in evictions of slum dwellers, housing experts warned on Wednesday, with healthcare workers and migrants also facing difficulties finding homes.

A boy walks in front of a graffiti promoting the fight against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Mathare slums of Nairobi, Kenya, May 22, 2020. | REUTERS/Baz Ratner
A boy walks in front of a graffiti promoting the fight against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Mathare slums of Nairobi, Kenya, May 22, 2020. | REUTERS/Baz Ratner

More than 6 million people have been reported infected with the coronavirus globally, according to a Reuters tally, with slums from Brazil to the Philippines emerging as hotspots.

As eviction moratoriums and rent holidays end, those who have lost jobs will be vulnerable to evictions, with authorities also likely to use the pandemic as an excuse to clear slums, said Theresa Williamson, a Brazil-based city planner.

"Certain government officials would like nothing more than the opportunity to permanently evict these neighbourhoods," said Williamson, executive director of Catalytic Communities, a nonprofit supporting Rio de Janeiro's favelas.

"Government officials will use the high death count to push evictions, arguing that it was these communities' unhygienic conditions that produced the deaths, rather than recognizing their own neglect of sanitation and health," she said.

About a third of the world's urban population lives in informal settlements, according to the United Nations, with poorly ventilated homes, little or no running water, few toilets and inadequate sewage systems.

Most residents lack property records and face the constant threat of eviction, made worse now with job losses and plans for redevelopment, said Shivani Chaudhry, executive director of Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN) in Delhi.

In India, there was no moratorium on evictions during a months-long lockdown, and several were reported then, she said.

"If evictions could be carried out during the lockdown when people were asked to stay at home, there is a genuine fear that these will continue or even rise after restrictions ease," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

More than 11 million people in India risk being uprooted from their homes as authorities build highways and cordon off forests, HLRN forecast before the pandemic.

"We could see evictions on account of the inability of people to pay rent, as well as for infrastructure projects being promoted under the guise of economic recovery," Chaudhry said.


The stigma around those infected or exposed to the coronavirus has also led to doctors, healthcare providers, sanitation and low-skilled workers being denied housing, said Chaudhry.

The Indian government last month launched an affordable rental housing scheme for migrant workers and the urban poor, and proposed stringent punishment for those harassing or attacking healthcare personnel.

But landlords can still refuse to rent to them, said Nirat Bhatnagar, founder of Belongg, a social venture that aims to register homeowners willing to rent without discriminating.

In addition, landlords may insist on health certificates or for new tenants to use India's coronavirus contact-tracing app, which might exacerbate discrimination, he said.

"Already, we are seeing increased levels of social censure and gatekeeping in cities such as Mumbai, where resident associations regulate access to housing," Bhatnagar said.

"People are likely to more closely monitor their neighborhoods, and this will likely lead to increased levels of discrimination against certain kinds of people who are falsely identified as being carriers of the coronavirus," he said.

Reporting by Rina Chandran, additional reporting by Emma Batha in London; Editing by Michael Taylor.

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