COVID- 19 and Informal Settlements

This was the first panel of a three-part panel series hosted by the Columbia Global Centers| Nairobi and Columbia Global Centers| Rio de Janeiro. The purpose of this series is to hear from experts and residents of informal settlements about some of the pressing issues related to the Covid- 19 pandemic in informal settlements in these two populous cities.

June 12, 2020

Over half of Nairobi’s 4.3 million residents live in informal settlements and close to a quarter of Rio de Janeiro’s 6.3 million residents live in informal settlements known, locally, as favelas. Informal settlements are often characterized as communities with overcrowding, insecure residential status, poor-quality housing, and inadequate access to formal services like water, sanitation, and electricity. While residents of informal settlements are no strangers to preventing and managing infectious diseases, like tuberculosis, cholera, typhoid, pneumonia, and HIV/AIDS, COVID-19 is presenting new challenges for these residents. Environmental, economic, and living conditions in informal settlements inhibit most residents from adhering to social distancing, health, and hygiene recommendations for preventing the spread of COVID-19 and for managing its effects.

Program Moderator:

Prof. Zahirah McNatt- Chair of the Center for Community Health and Social Medicine and Assistant professor at the University of Global Health Equity.


Julia Njoki- (Kenya) works as a Local Human Rights Defender and also as a Community Mobilizer

Prof. Esther Hamburger – (Brazil) Professor of History of Film, Television, and Digital Media at the School of Communication and Arts of University of São Paulo

Thiago Nascimento -  (Brazil) Local leadership at the Jacarezinho community in Rio de Janeiro.

Webinar highlights

Prof. Zahirah McNatt  - When we use the term informal settlements, we refer to ‘favelas’ in Brazil and slums in many other settings around the world, greater than half of the 7 billion people in the world reside in urban areas and a quarter of those in informal settlements, that’s 900 million people and counting. (Time frame from minute 02:30- 02:50)

Prof. Zahirah McNatt  - As we can all imagine, Covid- 19 has increased difficulties in informal settlements and highlighted the grave disparities in health leaving us to consider who has the privilege to social distance and who has the power to stay home from work, and who has access to clean water, soap, masks, hand sanitizers and all the things recommended by public health practitioners. (Time frame from minute 03:35- 03:58)

Prof. Esther Hamburger- Brazil has such a large number of solidarity movements on the ground that will be able to emerge from this crisis with a number of new leaders and new parameters of life, this is to end with some sense of a better future. (Time frame from minute 15:55- 16:30)

Prof. Esther Hamburger- Brazil has transformed itself in the last 30 years because 30 years of solid investment in health and education has allowed a number of people coming from communities who had never had access to university and college education to have access to this education and this brings about a situation of which is a combination of political reaction with the health challenges faced by the world and thus Brazil is faced with a double challenge of fighting the disease and the political attack on democracy. (Time frame from minute 19:50- 20:50)

Julia Njoki- In Mathare settlement, the community doesn’t trust the government, Kenya has a good constitution which on the bill of rights emphasizes on health, food, and education, but that is not the case for it is not implemented. (Time frame from minute 25:10- 25:30)

Julia Njoki- In the Covid crisis, the Kenyan government declared that it had released food aid for the communities in Mathare settlement, but the current state of affairs tells a different tale for the government has not distributed food so far, it is only several organizations and several well-wishers who are currently helping people in Mathare. (Time frame from minute 26:26- 26:50)

Prof. Esther Hamburger- If the president is spreading fake news and fake images, it becomes a big challenge to inform citizens, like the way the Brazilian president is doing, this, in turn, becomes a big challenge to convince them that they should stay home and in informal settlements like the favelas, it becomes more challenging because of the small house structures that are forced to accommodate many people. Due to this, space was created for people with mild symptoms and encouraging them to stay away from their families but this has not been easy due to fragmented communication strategies. (Time frame from minute 34:25- 35:40)

Prof. Zahirah McNatt  - There is such power in grassroots community-based action and activism that often fills the gaps that governments create and so in the absence of well-coordinated government responses globally, communities have done what they always do by responding, caring and gaining solutions. (Time frame from minute 40:55- 41:18)

Prof. Esther Hamburger- What I hope for the post Covid era is that all the knowledge and power being braced in the fight against Covid in the communities is able to express itself in political terms in order to enlarge Brazil’s democracy and face the problem of violence among many other problems. (Time frame from minute 1:06:50- 1:07:22)

Prof. Esther Hamburger- The most scandalous part that Covid is bringing up is world inequalities and in a very strong way and as one of the most unequal countries in the world, Brazil has to deal with this problem, in the future we should learn on how to deal with inequalities for that is where the root to the problem lies. (Time frame from minute 1:19:55- 1:20:37)