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Covid-19 and Lima’s urban informal settlements

By Pamela Hartley

“Slums are overcrowded and densely populated, making self-isolation, social-distancing, and quarantines practically impossible.”– Cities Alliance

Peru’s National Institute of Statistics (INEI) reports that 7 million Peruvians lack access to water, making them more vulnerable to Covid-19 as regular hand washing is nearly impossible. As far as we know, Coronavirus has not yet spread to informal settlements, but if/when it does, it can be particularly devastating for its residents. Living in close proximity and having limited access to basic services, large populations of informal settlement residents are facing a significant risk. More information on particular vulnerabilities faced by informal settlement residents can be found in the Social Science in Humanitarian Action Brief.

“Currently the threat of COVID-19 is being discussed in universal terms, but there is a real risk that the impacts on the urban poor will be considerably higher than elsewhere.”- Cities Alliance

In Peru, the government has acted quickly and decisively in response to the spread of Covid-19 by closing borders, enforcing a national quarantine and imposing a strict curfew throughout the country. In fact, Peru was one of the first Latin American countries to impose a national quarantine and social distancing measures. President Martin Vizcarra excels under crisis situations having gone through various social and political crises including corruption scandals, countless cabinet changes, national referendum, congress dissolution, and now, an international pandemic.

Led by Vizcarra, Peru has implemented social protection policies to help those in poverty and extreme poverty in urban areas. These social protection measures aim to provide an incentive for social isolation and motivate urban slum residents to stay home. For many slum residents, it is a question of staying in and starving, or venturing out and potentially contracting the virus.

Citizens under the category of poor or extreme poor will receive a one-time subsidy of 380 Soles, roughly $112 USD for the initial 15 day period of quarantine.

Citizens under the category of poor or extreme poor will receive a one-time subsidy of 380 Soles, roughly $112 USD for the initial 15 day period of quarantine. The Peruvian government is relying on the 2017 community census called the Encuesta Nacional de Hogares/ national home survey which maps citizens living in urban and rural areas. This survey/census, however, leaves many of those living in informal settlements out for a variety of reasons. These citizens will not be included in the relief package and are excluded from government records.

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This relief package or subsidy like some are calling it, was initially proposed as a measure targeting 3 million families in a situation of poverty. Critics have highlighted that many residents were not counted in the 2017 census and a significant number of residents were left out. Some of the main flaws of the relief package are that beneficiaries must access an online platform to determine if they are included in the list and if they are, they need to physically go to a bank to cash their subsidy. 

The beneficiary list of “Bono 380” went live early this week and the Ministry of Inclusion and Social Development (MIDIS) has already acknowledged flaws such as not having up to date information on beneficiaries addresses and including some recipients who passed away. Additionally, MIDIS has recognized that many people were not included in the initial list and are looking to amend the beneficiary list with the help of local government to hopefully reach everyone. Many local non-governmental organizations are playing a big role here, advocating for those who are excluded including a significant number of Venezuelan #refugees.

In the Global Development Institutes’ latest blog post, Professor Diana Mitlin highlights some steps that can be implemented to reach those living in slums who are now facing more vulnerability because of Covid-19.

“The global spread of Covid-19 poses particular risks for the one billion people living in informal urban settlements in the global South. A range of factors make transition of the virus more likely and strategies to tackle it extremely difficult to implement.”- Diana Mitlin

Mitlin emphasizes the importance of “developing partnerships with local authorities” and relying on local community networks that have a wealth of co-produced information from their communities. 

Based on years of working in and with informal settlements, Professor Mitlin proposes the following measures:

  • Monitor conditions in informal and formal neighborhoods across the globe
  • Identify high-risk locations and help those individuals who are not well to isolate
  • Identify high-risk occupations and begin to roll out health programs
  • Establish effective partnerships between key stakeholders
  • Establish reliable sources of information 
  • Capacitate networks of community leaders

Though most of the examples Professor Mitlin talks about are from Africa and Asia, I’d like to share a few actions taken by TECHO in Latin America and more precisely in Peru to mitigate the effects of Covid-19 in informal settlements in Lima.

In Lima, TECHO works with 24 informal settlements across the urban periphery. This partnership relies on having frequent and effective communication with local community leaders and working permanently with slum residents to create inclusive co-produced solutions.

Data from TECHO’s 2018 community census shows 76.1% of families living in informal settlements in San Juan de Miraflores depend on water trucks. With Peru’s national emergency & social isolation policy, many of these families are being left behind and washing their hands becomes impossible. Water is not reaching these residents and when it does, the price is unaffordable for many.

Actively participating in this emergency, TECHO has identified 5 main problem areas that communities in the urban periphery are facing:

  • Reduced access to safe and clean water
  • Lack of a complete and accurate community census 
  • Big increase in prices for food, water, and other products
  • Difficulty accessing non-perishable items
  • Temporary closure of local community kitchens

To mitigate and minimize these, TECHO is:

  • Advocating for residents in informal settlements
  • Identifying the needs of the local communities and co-producing knowledge 
  • Raising awareness about the current situation families in slums live in
  • Having constant communication with local community leaders
  • Collaborating and sharing information with local and national governments, organizations and other government entities. 
  • Providing complementary data for the governments’ subsidy list 

Through these actions, TECHO is filling some of the gaps between the president’s policies and the most vulnerable communities in Lima’s informal settlements.

Additionally, President Martin Vizcarra announced yesterday a 13 day quarantine extension and also added further social protection policies to improve the original subsidy measure. Besides the Bono 380 subsidy, the government will:

  • Decentralize aid and transfer a total of 200 million Peruvian Soles to 1,874 municipalities
  • Add 800 thousand more families to the Bono 380 list focusing on informal and/or independent workers.

These are just two of the six complementary measures announced yesterday during President Vizcarra’s daily nation address.

Gloria Montenegro, head of the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations (MIMP) said in an interview with RPP radio that “every Mayor throughout Peru will now have the budget to provide food and basic necessity items (canasta básica) to vulnerable populations in their districts. People with disabilities, elders and children will be prioritized.”

To make sure this aid reaches those who need it most, it is important to monitor the activity of local government and demand high levels of transparency and accountability, especially with such a substantial transfer of funds. Civil society and community leaders have an important role to play here.

President’s Vizcarra’s leadership and bold policies combined with the response of civil society organizations has brought about a strong response to assist vulnerable communities in this time of crisis.

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There is no perfect recipe when dealing with an international sanitary emergency situation and there are many lessons to be learned from the Covid-19 pandemic. In the context of Peru, Norma Correa (PUCP) highlights that this pandemic will teach us the importance of having a social protection and public services system based on solidarity and effectiveness. Additionally, Diana Mitlin points out that “at the heart of a humane progressive response will be a new relationship between citizens, their organizations and the state.”

In Peru and many countries across the global south, the Coronavirus has brought to light the many flaws in social policy, which often leaves the most vulnerable out of the equation. It is time to look at more and better co-production techniques where citizens, communities, organizations, and government work together from the bottom up instead of top-down. Urban informal settlement residents deserve more credit. They are resilient, organized and experts in their communities.

Finally, I hope that some of these social protection measures and pro-poor policies can be permanently adopted to help the most vulnerable not just in times of an international pandemic, but instead, every day.

Photo credits: Edgar Escalante

This article is a contribution to our blog, written by Pamela Hartley. Pamela recently completed an MSc in International Development from The University of Manchester’s Global Development Institute where she focused on Politics, Governance and Development Policy. She is originally from Lima, Peru and has volunteered for TECHO for over 10 years. Pamela is currently part of the emergency team dealing with COVID-19 in Lima working on political advocacy efforts and government partnerships.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Snakes and Ladders Blog or its members.

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