July 6, 2020

By Ayesha Mir


The health services of the capital announced contact-tracing and testing for the coronavirus in the abandoned slums of Islamabad under the Trace, Test and Quarantine (TTQ) policy on 29th of June but for slum dwellers, the novel coronavirus is not as big a threat as the economic ruin it has brought with it.

The director-general of the Health Services Department of Islamabad Metropolitan Corporation, Dr. Hasan Orooj said that special attention needs to be paid to slums as they are at a higher risk of infection. Dr. Orooj said that there are 34 slums in Islamabad, out of which 18 are recognized by the CDA.

“For slum dwellers, the novel coronavirus is not as big a threat as the economic ruin it has brought with it”

However, according to media reports, many of the inhabitants have resisted giving samples for testing over fears of being dragged into unknown quarantine facilities and their slums being sealed. Just a few days ago, Dr. Orooj set out to conduct 1000 tests in 10 slums over 10 days, but his team was unable to achieve this target due to lack of awareness and mistrust on part of the slum dwellers.

Although this campaign was launched under the health equity model launched by the government, many of the labourers, sweepers, domestic workers, sanitation staff, and beggars, residing in these slums are facing abject poverty. Those who were earning less than the minimum wage, are now scrambling to find alternative means of income. Some slum dwellers informed Voicepk.net that they applied for the PM’s Ehsaas Relief Fund, but are still waiting to hear if they are eligible for it. Others said they contemplated setting up fruit and vegetable carts but do not have a permit from CDA or the means to acquire it.

According to an economic survey carried out by the government of Pakistan, up to 12.5 million people could lose their jobs due to the pandemic, with daily wagers being the most vulnerable. It is estimated that the number of people living below the poverty line may rise from 50 million to 60 million people, so pushing 10 million more towards poverty.

“There are 34 slums in Islamabad, out of which 18 are recognized by the CDA”

While many of the sectors, housing people from higher income brackets in Islamabad are emerging successfully from a ‘smart’ lockdown, social distancing and adherence to SOPs was never an option for inhabitants of the slums, most of whom who have to pack entire families into a single room in a crowded slum area with narrow ‘gullies.’ Now with the growing economic disparity, daily wagers are even more susceptible to the health and financial consequences of the pandemic.

Many of the sanitation workers who are already underpaid lament that there is no option but to put their lives at risk and keep working without protective equipment. For them fighting the coronavirus is not a priority, because their daily life is a struggle where they lack access to basic facilities such as running water, sanitation systems, and electricity. And now with the spike in prices of daily staples such as sugar and flour, they are unable to afford a daily meal for their families.

Earlier in May, the Advisor to the Prime Minister on Climate Change, Malik Amin Aslam launched a program to protect slum dwellers from the virus with the title of ‘Pakistan COVID-19 Urban Slums Response’. The initiative was launched in partnership with UN-Habitat and set out to create new income-generating opportunities, such as the stitching of masks and gloves by the women of the community. But this campaign has yet to be fully implemented in the slums of Islamabad.