Peter Joseph said he did his best to keep his family safe during the coronavirus pandemic. They all wear masks. They use hand sanitizer when they can find supplies in the whole of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, where they live.
What Joseph, a 39-year-old painter could not change, was a risky situation at home: How many of his family lived in one room in a crowded house in a slum called the French Colony, sandwiched between the upscale suburbs of Islamabad. The front door of dozens of residences stretches only a few feet. The only open space is a canal littered with garbage flowing through slums, smelling of garbage.
“Even if someone falls ill I still have to keep them in the same room, because I only have one room,” Joseph told NPR last week. Nearby, a group of children huddle on the sidewalk, playing marbles. Another child is flying a kite.
For many Pakistanis like Joseph and slum dwellers of the French Colony, space is a luxury – and social distance is almost impossible in their homes or in the narrow streets around them.
Even transportation has its risks: Pakistan’s poor citizens cram vehicles, as in the last days in Islamabad, when more than a dozen men crammed behind pickup trucks – and about five more sat on the roofs of vehicles. Richer motorists look horrified from their cars.
What’s more, worshipers congregate in mosques in working-class areas – often there is no other room for prayer together and many scholars deny the danger of transmission. And when authorities close parks and other green spaces, poor families have no place to get fresh air – while rich people in Pakistan tend to have well-maintained gardens.
Urban planning activists like professors Nausheen H. Anwar, believe that urban slum dwellers in Pakistan and throughout developing countries can emerge as one of the populations most vulnerable to this disease.
“I truly believe that urban Pakistan is at the forefront of the COVID-19 crisis,” said Anwar, founder and director Karachi Urban Lab.
Think about countries affected by a pandemic, such as Italy or Spain, “where there is universal access to clean water, sanitation,” Anwar said. “What we have seen is that the virus has spread at a truly unimaginable speed. So what do we see when we think of urban Pakistan?”
He refers to places like slums in the southern city of Pakistan, Karachi, a city where around two-thirds of its population at least 16 million people live in slums – or informal urban settlements, according to Anwar’s research.
Adding to their misery, many residents in the area did not have running water. They buy water from tankers. That’s expensive, up to $ 100 a month, the equivalent of monthly wages for many workers. It’s used sparingly, often just for cooking and washing hands regularly is an unimaginable luxury.
Anwar described Pakistan’s urban slums as a black spot. They often lack running water, reliable sewage systems and electric power, he said, and officials do not store data about these communities, so it is very difficult to formulate good policies – including how to keep residents safe during a pandemic.
So even as the pandemic soared throughout Pakistan, the crowd continued. On March 26, a video uploaded on Twitter by human rights activist in a slum, Sameer Mandhro showed Lyari’s way after provincial officials announced the closure a few days earlier. Crowds crammed into narrow streets, rubbing against one another, buying food. They have nowhere else to go, said Pir Bux residents, who were contacted by NPR by telephone – there was no room in their house, no open space elsewhere.
“Everyone on the streets, children, young people, old people. If the police ask them to leave – they just gather elsewhere,” Bux said.
His neighbor is Mohammad Abid, a day laborer who shares a five-room apartment with 25 people: his brothers, his wife and their children. Abid said if a coronavirus rips through here, it will be worse than Italy. He said: “There will not be enough people left to collect corpses.”
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