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Covid-19:A magnifying glass for Informality?

What informal settlers fear is hunger, intensified hunger. They cannot stay at home when what they fear is hunger.

This unprecedented global crisis of Covid-19 has positioned informal spaces, housing and communities at the centre of discourse and analysis. Informal settlements can be characterised as areas that lack security for their inhabitants, with modalities ranging from squatting to informal rental housing. Policy measures and discourse uses terms such as “housing” and “neighbourhood”, emphasising formal communities. This overlooks the significance of the housing realities of millions of older people who live in informal conditions where housing and neighbourhood are designed and developed informally rather than by the state. These communities are often cut off from basic services and city infrastructure with dwellings likely situated in geographically and environmentally hazardous areas. The material effect of the pandemic is falling hardest on the urban poor. Increasing political recognition has mobilised much needed support but lacking the actual infrastructure to reach informal dwellers. Recent research has shown that the effects of the pandemic on the informal sector were felt before the arrival of the virus and these effects are likely to have a permanent impact. The physical environment of informal spaces places settlers at increased vulnerability. The challenges that society is faced with as a result of Covid-19 has stimulated crucial questions of how to manage this crisis in spaces of informality. With this context in mind, we start a series of posts dedicated to discussing informality.

The material effect of the pandemic is falling hardest on the urban poor.

The informal economy has recently become politically visible but it is doubtful that this increasing discourse really reflects the reality that informal settlers face. Contradictions exist between priorities of informal sector vs mainstream political voices. The risk they face from this crisis is absolutely intolerable through measures of lock-down. In fact, the risks of Covid-19 discussed at the global policy stage are more posed to “mainstream” society and differ from the actual risks faced by settlers. Kate Meagher (Associate Professor, London School of Economics) put it aptly in a virtual roundtable on Covid-19 and the informal economy, “What they (informal settlers) fear is hunger, intensified hunger. They cannot stay at home when what they fear is hunger.” A global mobilisation has formed around emergency social protection measures with multiple organisations at international, national and local level making considerable effort to make informality visible during this crisis. Although still, key issues are insufficiently discussed such as the labour rights of informal workers, social challenges of older people and vulnerable settlers, and further income and infrastructure effects.

In turn, the measures of the lock-down have changed the perceived value placed on the roles of informal workers such as fruit pickers, street vendors, taxi drivers. Such roles have been essential in the survival of families in urban communities for example, playing a role in core elements of food supply and healthcare. Despite this, the issue of validity is not given prominence. Key workers globally are given a less material type of validation that is public affective praise. Informal works need legal recognition as valid workers that deserve social welfare protection from the state.

Policy discourse has increased a type of stigmatisation of informal settlers as “vectors of disease”

On a social level, the measures of the lock-down and social isolation has disconnected informal dwellers from a significant source of solace which is the buildings and gatherings of faith. In some cases, this has created additional issues surrounding defiance and religious targeting. Inadvertently increasing a type of stigmatisation of informal settlers as “vectors of disease”. Informal settlers often experience mobility restrictions and therefore are more exposed to the violence of the police when compared to middle class who can drive without fines. There is a crucial need to continue the conversation about the impact of Covid-19 in informality. How can informal advocates turn the crisis into an opportunity? There is a need to think politically about the real risks informal actors are concerned with.

Further posts on this topic to follow. Contact us for more information

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