Thinking URBAN in the context of COVID-19

New research and Study on COVID-19 Response in Urban Areas.

Webinars: Rethinking Urban Community Risk Reduction and Resilience while responding to COVID-19


The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that cities are at the front lines of this crisis and will be at the front lines of any similarly globalized crisis in the future. We need to make sure that our targeting and service delivery modalities are “fit for urban” and contribute to building capacities of National Societies and communities to be better prepared for future disasters and crises in urban areas. The COVID-19 pandemic has been affecting cities far beyond the commonly associated health impacts. Urban areas produce over 80% of global economic output, but with over 95% of COVID-19 cases located in these areas, much of the economic activities have been placed in a standstill due to measures to control the pandemic. This has resulted in severe urban economic and financial impacts such as massive loss of jobs and unemployment, dwindling local government revenues, and enormous losses in productivity and business activity. The crisis has set back the progress from the fight against poverty, pushing an estimated 71 to 100 million people below the extreme poverty line in 2020, as well as increasing inequality particularly in developing countries


In addition to a wealth of guidance documents on IFRC GO Platform and the comprehensive guidance for informal settlements, here are some tips for thinking URBAN while responding to COVID-19 crises:

  1. Map the most vulnerable groups and the areas such as informal settlements, slums where the water and sanitation services are in poor conditions or nonexistent. In addition to the most vulnerable groups as profiled from a health perspective, add the essential workers such as garbage collectors, public transportation workers, cleaners who may be still working without proper protection measures in place.
  2. Recognize the additional risk that the communities in informal settlements and slums are facing such as the threat of eviction, homelessness, overcrowded housing conditions at the neighborhood and household levels, lack of access to basic services.
  3. Being auxiliaries to the governments, advocate against eviction, easing of rental and utilities payments for them and extension of basic services in these areas.
  4. In areas where the basic services are poor, position adequate handwashing stations in strategic locations (ex. near toilets, markets, transport hubs, information centers) and use them as main hubs for awareness-raising around COVID-19.
  5. Recognize ethnic and culturally diverse communities (e.g. migrants, refugees, guest workers, tourists); translating material into the languages used by residents, in multiple and accessible formats, including for people with hearing, visual and intellectual impairments and people with low literacy
  6. Be sensitive to the existing “informal” yet very strong community structures (e.g. gangs, groups controlling certain services water etc. informally). Identify community leaders among different social groups (including faith groups) and areas and leverage their influence to disseminate the right messages and information.
  7. Understand the vital role of private sector both as a resource and target beneficiary in cities, particularly the small businesses and informal self-employed households. Partner with private sector to repurpose unused buildings (hotels, warehouses etc.) for potential quarantine centers.
  8. Rethink and expand your volunteer base and how they work: Spontaneous or temporary volunteers are recruited with a minimum online training to provide help for elderly, people with disabilities and people with chronic diseases or people in quarantine such as delivery of food and prescription medicine, paying the bills etc.
  9. Integrate socio economic support into the response AND recovery programs anticipating the loss of livelihoods for many families may prolong the pandemic phase. Devise strategies for food and water provision that consider that households have no capacity for storage for several days and find creative ways to facilitate social distancing (ex. dispersed mini-markets, home deliveries)
  10. Adapt long term and broader perspective: This is a time when awareness on importance of scientific data and impact/anticipation-based action (aka Forecast based action) is heightened (hopefully!). Promote and integrate where possible activities to increase capacity and resources for anticipatory actions and taking necessary measure to protect vulnerable populations and ensure a Do No Harm approach against the compounding impacts of extreme but predictable events including pandemic and weather-related disasters.

Special Considerations for Covid-19 Outbreak Readiness and Response to support those who reside in Urban Informal Settlements and Slums

The humanitarian crisis caused by COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have severe health and socio-economic impacts on urban populations, particularly on the poorest of the poor, and those living in informal settlements and slums. Currently, around 56 percent of the world’s population- 4.4 billion- lives in cities, with over a billion living in slums and informal settlements. There are specific challenges and issues which arise due to exacerbating chronic vulnerabilities in these settings, which must be seen together with the health and socio-economic impact of COVID-19. The potential scale and impact of COVID-19 in these challenging environments, call for urgency to enable us to be better prepared and, ready to respond.


It is of critical importance from protection, gender and inclusion, human rights and public health perspective, that people living in urban informal settlements and slums are included in all COVID-19 outbreak preparedness, response and recovery planning. This interim guidance is in alignment with the WHO COVID-19 Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan and WHO Technical guidance for COVID-19, and mainly targets the wider humanitarian/development community working in humanitarian situations. Those who are involved in the decision-making and implementation of multi-sectorial COVID-19 outbreak readiness and response activities, need to understand how to respond appropriately and effectively in the informal settlements in urban settings. It is not intended to be comprehensive and cross-references are made to other relevant IASC Guidance Notes and briefs.


This Guidance, drawing from a brief developed by Social Science in Humanitarian Action Platform [link], sets out key considerations for protecting informal urban settlements from the spread and impacts of COVID-19. The guidance issued on “Scaling-Up COVID-19 Outbreak Readiness and Response Operations in Humanitarian Situations, Including Camps and Camp-Like Settings”[link] is also relevant but informal settlements need additional focus. Informal settlements have no formal (camp-like) management and tend to be outside the scope of government responses due to their informal nature.

Main characteristics

Informal settlements and slums are unplanned. Many are overcrowded, both at the neighborhood and house level, with very limited public space, and lack access (or have limited access) to basic services such as affordable water, sanitation and health facilities. In informal settlements, housing and land tenure is often insecure with threats of eviction from landlords and from the local governments. There is a need to pay particular attention to the needs of vulnerable groups identified, especially those in need of specific assistance and support in this crisis, including both medical and social vulnerabilities [link].

Many of the broader recommendations to protect from COVID-19 (to frequently wash hands, self-isolate and physical distancing) are almost impossible to implement. Lack of in-house of access to water and sanitation services, coupled with household level overcrowding, make strict self-isolation or lockdowns extremely difficult. Slums are concentrations of urban poverty and consequently, slum dwellers have very limited capacity to manage socio-economic shocks. Staying home for the urban poor is often not a feasible option, as they live day-to-day, both for their work and access to food. Access to education is at the best of times, difficult for many young people in slums, is negatively impacted by the crisis.

The informality of these communities means they are not officially recognized by governments. Little data is available on their size and socio-economic profile, with statistics at city-level masking the inequities. This exclusion often translates into ignorance about the community, stigmatization, mutual distrust and exclusion of government-led responses. The reach of formal governance structures is limited, and residents have great difficulty in having their voice heard. Informal governance mechanisms are important, but they risk fragmentation and are often contested.

Aside from their apparent informality, many slums are highly organized, with well-established leadership structures. Informal settlements and slums tend to have a wide variety of community-based organizations each with their own level of legitimacy that often fill gaps in service provisions (ex. garbage collection, safety). These include women and youth groups, faith groups, traditional community structures, etc. Traditional leadership structures sometimes overlap with criminal or other groups. Understanding these complex relationships requires a good knowledge of their socio-cultural diversity, framed by their areas of origin and ethnicity. Larger slums are not homogeneous but can have several smaller “villages” with different customs and social behaviors.

Inhabitants of informal settlements and slums maintain strong links to their rural homes, sending revenue, and travelling frequently for work and social reasons. They will also return when sick, or to return their deceased relatives to the family home. This mobility often contributes greatly to the spreading of pandemics.

These challenges are further exacerbated for some inhabitants, due to their gender, age, disability, refugee or migrant status, sexual orientation, faith and other intersectional identity factors. Special attention should be paid to youth and children, particularly child headed households, which may already be particularly vulnerable. Evidence from previous pandemics (as well as preliminary information from the COVID-19 outbreak) shows that several factors increase the risk of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and harm to women, children and other vulnerable groups. In addition, many people who live in informal settlements are not able to work from home and so this raises issues with youth and children who are left at home, with lack of access to education and being vulnerable to violence.

The following are key special considerations for inclusion in national and local COVID-19 readiness and response operations:

Key principles for preparedness, response and recovery

  1. Support community leaders to operationalize a preparedness and a response plan, mobilizing the assets and response capacity of all community-based organizations
  2. Adopt an area-based integrated multi-sectoral response, that recognizes the spatial characteristics as well as social and cultural norms and power dynamics
  3. Ensure that the new operational modalities in response to COVID 19 are relevant to and improve long term preparedness and risk reduction efforts
  4. Prioritize emergency interventions that can be sustained and consolidated in the recovery phase

Data and assessments

  1. Invest early in profiling informal settlements and slums, both in terms of its population (chronic and acute vulnerabilities – health, food security, income/expenditures, diverse socio-cultural profiles) and its spatial organization (ex. water, sanitation and solid waste points, markets, transport hubs)
  2. Map the different self-organized groups and community-based organizations, their current roles and interrelations and their potential as assets in a humanitarian response
  3. Support community-led data collection, building on local knowledge, ensuring ownership of the data collected and aggregation into local government-led databases and assessments
  4. Map and monitor the relations and movements within and between specific informal settlements and slums communities and their areas of origin


  1. Facilitate connections between formal and informal governance mechanisms (incl. local government – communities) to give voice to the urban poor and ensure they can help shape interventions
  2. Harmonize the specific assets of existing community-based organizations for a more effective response, while aiming to strengthen inclusive representation
  3. Assess the impact of the in-flow of resources during a crisis so they do not exacerbate tensions between different groups


  1. Establish trust and ensure mutual understanding so people living in informal settlements fully understand the risks, and are able to mobilize their communities to take all possible measures, while overcoming distrust in public messaging and to counter disinformation.
  2. Identify community leaders among different social groups and areas and leverage their influence to disseminate the right messages and information.
  3. Ensure that communication methods and messaging is sensitive to the diverse socio-cultural backgrounds in a specific settlement, translating material into the languages used, in multiple and accessible formats, including for people with hearing, visual and intellectual impairments and people with low literacy
  4. Ensure feedback mechanisms on the feasibility of imposed mitigation measures and assistance are in place
  5. Prepare and share public communication to address and prevent stigma and discrimination that can prevent people from seeking healthcare. Messaging about “high risk groups” should be sensitive to minimize negative impact on those groups

Access of basic and survival services in informal settlements

  1. Work with local governments and service providers to rapidly scale-up affordable provision of safe water, sanitation and solid waste management, ensuring sufficient coverage, in light of likely increases in demand. Water utilities should be encouraged to extend service lines and to make water provision for free services, and work closely with informal service providers.
  2. Position adequate handwashing stations in strategic locations (ex. near toilets, markets, transport hubs, information centers, main entry and exit routes) and use them as main hubs for awareness raising around COVID-19
  3. Devise strategies for food and water provision that consider that households may not have enough capacity for storage for several days and find creative ways to facilitate physical distancing (ex. dispersed mini-markets, home deliveries)
  4. Monitor food insecurity and access to and affordability of nutritious food carefully and promote mitigation measures (ex. urban agriculture, replacement programmes for school feeding)
  5. Focus on creative ways to provide children with alternatives to school and play, to mitigate school closures and restrictions on movements in the absence of community or household level space, which disrupt children’s routine while also placing new stressors on caregivers. This should include early learning opportunities for the youngest, that may entail providing parenting tips and ideas for engaging their children at home.

Shelter and settlements

  1. Analyze the spatial set-up of the settlement to provide guidance on movement control, improved coverage of basic service provisions, alternative food distribution systems, etc.
  2. Map spaces and buildings (ex. vacant buildings, hotels, schools, etc.) in or nearby informal settlements and slums that can be used for isolation of the most vulnerable, triage of potential cases and limited quarantine
  3. Provide low-cost options to facilitate isolation for low risk cases in single room dwellings considering options for partitioning.

Livelihoods and mobility

  1. Promote and tailor social safety nets to the reality of the informal settlements and slums (incl. very limited savings or capacity to save), ensuring access to health services, water and food, while being sensitive to internal inequalities as to avoid disruptive tensions
  2. Prioritize cash-based assistance to help cover rent, utilities, and other housing related needs.
  3. Make provisions so that essential informal services such as food selling, provision of water, hygienic articles, care for children, persons with disabilities, older persons, and those with illnesses, can be sustained in the safest possible way, including during lock down
  4. Map movements between urban informal settlements and slums and rural areas of origin and consider working with local leaders and communities on both ends to implement control strategies, focusing also on transport hubs and points of entry


  1. Ensure protection remains central to the response and through multi-sectoral partnerships, the detection of protection challenges and monitoring of protection needs to provide response to identified protection risks, with a focus also on health workers, service providers, etc (IFRC Guidelines).
  2. Monitor increases in community and household level tensions and violence carefully and work with community-based organizations and leaders to raise awareness and mitigate, paying attention to gender-based violence. Further guidance on addressing gender equality and women empowerment can be adapted from the IASC Gender Alert.
  3. Ensure that isolation of family members does not deprive people of their social support systems and coping mechanisms or exacerbate stigmatization.
  4. Monitor the risk of possible evictions, as families risk to fail on rental payments, as marginalized members of the community, victims of the disease or health care providers risk to be stigmatized
  5. Advocate for the suspension of all residential evictions for the duration of the health emergency since evictions can greatly heighten the risks of community transmission and work with governments to set up monitoring and intervention systems to avoid also informal evictions
  6. Ensure any measures to quarantine or separate sick or vulnerable groups should be temporary, so they can return home once the risk is gone. Such guarantees will be essential to build community trust in quarantine measures, reducing the chances of resistance to these measures which could hinder protection and mitigation actions.

Webinars: Rethinking Urban Community Risk Reduction and Resilience while responding to COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that cities are at the front lines of this crisis and will be at the front lines of any similarly globalized crisis in the future. With these four webinars, we aim to unpack the fundamentals of responding to pandemics effectively in urban areas.

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