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NEW DELHI, India – Experts on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) are raising fresh alarms over the condition of people living in informal settlements across the world as COVID-19, the “once-in-a-century pandemic” has been widening the existing gaps in facilities associated to water, sanitation and adequate housing.
WSSCC, WaterAid and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights co-organized an online roundtable on 23 July to deepen the discussion on how to include marginalized people in WASH responses to COVID-19 under the critical principle of leaving no one behind.
“Participants can share their experiences and make recommendations to States, United Nations, development partners and donors to assist them in making the situation better for vulnerable groups,” said Enrico Muratore, Technical Expert on Leave No One Behind (LNOB) at WSSCC.
“The webinar offers a forum to address specific and diversified challenges and needs by including vulnerable groups in the planning and implementation of COVID-19 responses, setting specific LNOB targets in WASH and across other sectors,” he said.
Representing vulnerable groups living in informal settlements, participants from India, Kenya, Nigeria and other countries explained how responses to COVID-19 are affecting them.
“It is ironical that we build a city but are excluded everywhere, including WASH services. We don’t have access to basic services like toilets, dustbins and safe drinking water,” said Ms Ishwari, a construction worker in Bengaluru, a city in southern India.
“Post COVID-19 it was said that social distancing is important for everyone but the reality is that we have to live in an 8x8 room along with five or six family members,” he said, asking the participants how he could maintain a physical distance when there was no space.
“Because of the general neglect, COVID-19 can affect homeless people with psycho-social implications. Due to poor living conditions, people living in informal settlements are vulnerable. They should not be left behind and resources to maintain hygiene should reach them,” said Mr Sunil Kumar, Executive Director, Centre for Holistic Development.
Acknowledging the challenges of sanitation and hygiene facilities in informal settlements, Mr Balakrishnan Rajagopal, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, told the webinar participants that the rights-based approach could achieve a positive transformation in development activities and COVID-19 response.
Shining a spotlight on the vulnerable communities without access to basic facilities, diverse groups of people that are considered “left behind” across India joined the webinar, making their case on a loss of income and greater risks they face due to inequitable and unsafe conditions.
The marginalized groups in informal settlements included poorest women and girls, children and youth, elderly persons, persons with disabilities, persons living with HIV, sex-workers, transgender, education and healthcare workers in slums, sanitation and migrant workers, manual scavengers, refugees, homeless persons and minorities.
“Uncaring and insensitive attitude towards persons with disabilities (PWDs) was seen more during the difficult time of the pandemic. We have limited or no opportunities for earning a livelihood and we remain neglected,” said Mr Swagat Mallick, who is orthopedically impaired, representing the Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR).
“There is no proper integration for us in mainstream institutions, including education, healthcare sector and WASH facilities,” he said.
Raising demand for the PWDs, Mr Mallick recommended that India should properly implement the Right of Persons with Disability Act and collaborates with Disabled People’s Organisation (DPOs) and other networks to ensure that all COVID-19 related precautions, care and medical support reach them.
Alleging neglect and discrimination, Mr MK Raina, Vice-President of All India Senior Citizens Confederation, said that older people faced difficulty in accessing testing, health and social services. He claimed that medical emergency plans in the country did not focus on elderly persons and due to the scarce resources, deep-rooted ageism became apparent.
Requesting for data illustrating an absolute number of elderly people along with their living conditions, Mr Raina insisted that the government should prepare the data to assess community outreach and be able to provide medical support to elderly people.
“I would also want the government to promote collective understanding that most vulnerable to infectious diseases can be protected through effective preventive interventions and they should not be left behind based on age,” he said.
Representing CFAR, Ms Pinki Nayak is a healthcare worker in Bhubaneswar – a city in the Indian state of Odisha and has played a key role in convincing women for institutional delivery and family planning.
She highlighted that during the pandemic, the healthcare workers are most vulnerable as they are exposed to multiple risks with no masks or gloves.
“The stole we tie across our face is not enough to protect us. In most slums and markets there are no or very few handwashing stations which are not enough to fight coronavirus,” she said.
“We have no health insurance, fixed schedule and low remuneration. Post COVID-19 we often have to face stigma and discrimination from the society. The government should ensure that we are treated with respect, PPE kits and mask should be given to us, and we should be placed under health insurance coverage,” she added.
‘More support needed for sex workers’
Speaking for the All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW), Mr Amit Kumar, who is the coordinator of the organization, claims that there is no proper supply of water in red light areas, community toilets are not getting cleaned and they are not able to access menstrual products after the pandemic broke in India.
“The workers are living in inhuman conditions and basic WASH facilities should be provided as they are at a greater risk of getting exposed to infections,” said Mr Kumar.
To address the issues concerning vulnerable groups, Mr Klas Moldeus, Associate Expert at UN-Water, called for investing in long term solutions for water and sanitation. He said that instead of focusing on short-term solutions, a focused approach for long-term benefits would ensure that no one will be left behind.
“Very big challenges are being experienced across the world, and we are dedicatedly working on these issues. The pandemic has made inequalities greater, but we will fill the gaps across sectors,” said James Wicken, Head of Policy and Advocacy at WSSCC.