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India: Asia’s largest slum rings alarm bells as COVID-19 cases surge

Tightly packed clusters, dense population, and unhygienic conditions make social distancing impossible

Cheena Kapoor   | 09.04.2020
India: Asia’s largest slum rings alarm bells as COVID-19 cases surge


The rise in the number of COVID-19 or coronavirus cases in Asia’s largest urban slum in the heart of India’s commercial capital Mumbai is giving sleepless nights to authorities.

One of the densely populated areas in the world, where seven million people live in an area of 2.1 square kilometers (0.81 square miles), it is becoming impossible to enforce social distancing. Local leaders believe that poor sanitation, open drains and inadequate health facilities rampant in the area are all a recipe for an imminent disaster.

The slum has so far reported nine infected cases and one death. While most of them had contracted the infection from people who had traveled abroad, locals fear that a community-level transmission is not far away in the tightly packed clusters.

Mohammad Ayyub Sheikh, 48, a local trader, who also heads an NGO Dharavi People’s Help Group, said they were trying their best that people maintain hygiene. Slightly better off than others, he lives in a 400-square feet one-bedroom home with his family of six.

The majority of the population in the area cannot afford to stay indoors in their dingy room for want of fresh air.

“How can you expect families of four to eight members to stay indoors in an 80-150 sq ft home round the clock? They need fresh air,” Ayyub told Anadolu Agency. He has been working hard over the past few days to spread awareness about the COVID-19 and is helping the community to observe precautions.

“We are making sure that people know the importance of maintaining hygiene. Every day, we are moving in the lanes, announcing the importance of washing hands and distributing food packages [including rice, onions, sugar, biscuits] to those even less fortunate than us,“ he said.

The western Indian state of Maharashtra, which includes Mumbai, has become the hub of coronavirus in India with 1,078 positive cases and 64 deaths.

Dharavi sealed 

While the authorities have sealed the Dharavi area, restricting the movement of slum-dwellers, local leaders feel that it is not enough to contain the disease. Thousands of crudely built sacks housing thousands of people lie on the banks of open and filthy drains.

“Most of the people living in these slums do not have civic sense, thus putting the entire population at risk, and ignoring all kinds of measures taken by the local authorities. Further 5-8 people live in small shanties, increasing their chances of contracting the disease,” said another community worker.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Baburao Mane, a former member of the assembly, said that the best way could have been to send migrant workers inhabiting the area back to their villages to decongest the slum.

Fear of community transmission

On Tuesday, Maharashtra’s Health Minister Rajesh Tope visited the slum area to look at the measures taken by the local authorities.

“Survey work is ongoing in the Dharavi slum area of Mumbai. The municipal administration has been instructed to increase the number of ventilators in this area at the nearby Sai Hospital, which is available for corona treatment only. The nearby Rajiv Gandhi Sports Complex has been converted to a quarantine facility. I have directed the deputy superintendent of police to implement strict measures to control the crowds to prevent infection,” tweeted Tope after his visit.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Nilesh (name changed), a solid waste management official at the Municipal Corporation, said that community transmission has already started in the city. He recommended extension in the 21-day lockdown period.

On Wednesday, the municipal authorities made wearing protective masks mandatory in the city. Violators may be arrested, stated a letter signed by Praveen Pardeshi, commissioner of Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai.

In India, authorities in Chandigarh, a centrally-administered city in northern India, and the eastern state of Odisha, have also made wearing of the masks mandatory in public spaces.

According to John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Centre, India has so far reported 5,916 COVID-19 infections with 178 deaths. There are 5,232 active confirmed cases in the country while 506 people have recovered.

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