Informal settlement residents fear spread of coronavirus

By Sheree Bega Time of article published Mar 21, 2020

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Johannesburg - To get water in Joko-Tea informal settlement, Anna Gqeba has to dispatch her two children to push a wheelbarrow stacked with 25-litre containers to the handful of taps in the area.

The 52-year-old, who lost her job as a baker recently after she became ill, sits in her yard with a group of her neighbours here in the informal settlement near Vanderbijlpark, discussing their fears of the coronavirus pandemic. Her children, Zandi, 11, and Mpho, 13, peer curiously from the family’s dark, cramped shack.

Pointing to her swollen feet, she tells of her struggles to get water.

“I’m very worried about the coronavirus with this water situation we face here. Sometimes there is no water for four days and when it comes back, it’s vuil (dirty).

“I’m scared that with this virus we will be infecting each other and I’m worried for my kids.”

Sighing, she gestures to the bleak conditions in the settlement, which runs alongside the R57 between Vanderbijlpark and Sasolburg.

“You see how we live here. Everything is dirty. We don’t even have toilets and have to use pit latrines.”

This week, the Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation pledged to increase the provision of water and sanitation in high-density public areas, informal settlements and rural areas to help curb the further spread of the novel coronavirus.

But Joko-Tea resident Ntswaki Motaung doesn’t believe help will come. “Look at this place, at how we must get water. It’s easy for a disease like that to spread here,” says the unemployed 31-year-old as she stands at a communal tap with a group of women washing their clothes.

“We have heard about this coronavirus on the radio - no one from the government has come to tell us anything We are being moved by the municipality to another informal settlement where there is no water, toilets and electricity.”

There’s been failure at many levels of local government, charges Samson Mokoena of local NGO, Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance.

“The biggest problem is housing We have a sewage system that has collapsed. It’s so depressing, especially at this critical time with the coronavirus. I don’t see our government responding especially in this (Emfuleni) municipality where everything has collapsed.”

Preventative hygiene is a critical issue. “We can talk about water but if people don’t have money to buy soap, what is the use? You can have that one tap in your community, but if you only have R10 you are going to buy bread, rather than soap.”

Next week, with other NGOs, he plans to help raise awareness about the coronavirus in some of the region’s poorest communities - and source soap donations from companies.

“It’s up to NGOs and churches to inform people about the basic things they need to help protect them. We need to teach people the whole technique of how to wash their hands properly to protect themselves against the coronavirus.

“Social distancing in informal settlements is impossible. Our government must get a grip with reality as these are really the people in need. This is a wake-up call that it must start doing basic things to provide for human needs.”

Old buildings, he says, should be identified to be used as potential quarantine sites for those who could become ill in informal settlements should there be significant community transmission of the coronavirus.

“In two to three weeks, it could be a catastrophe in places like this,” he worries.

At the Barrage informal settlement, near the banks of the sewage-plagued Vaal River, Sibongile Majola washes her clothes at one of a few communal taps.

“I’m worried about dying with this coronavirus. All I can do is wash my hands with detergent as that is all I have It’s hard to keep safe in a place like this.”

In communities across the country, the lack of water services means personal hygiene is compromised, says water expert Professor Anthony Turton. “Simple things like washing hands becomes impossible. This is a known risk that has already plagued hospitals in KwaZulu-Natal where a breakdown in water services, for example, has resulted in a breakdown of routine infection control protocols in hospitals. The same would hold true in communities.”

Communal standpipes, he believes, are “potential hotbeds of cross-contamination”. “If an infected person touches a communal tap then the pathogen can be passed on that way. I don’t want to create alarm, but these are the logical realities and facts.”

Mike Muller, a visiting professor at the Wits School of Governance, says in tackling the coronavirus, “the first priority must be to provide water to ensure good hygiene at places such as taxi ranks and stations”, as will be identified by the Covid-19 teams.

“There is no evidence to suggest that poor sanitation is a significant pathway for the transmission of the virus. However, clean water and safe sanitation are still important everywhere since people with other medical conditions - including waterborne diseases such as diarrhoea and hepatitis will be more severely impacted by Covid-19 infection than healthy individuals.”

Saturday Star

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