Needles hammered on the high corners of Rabindra Jha’s room in Paknajol, aren’t for photo frames or mosquito nets. They are for the ropes to be tied from one end to the other, to hang clothes and towels.
A daily wage worker, Rabindra has been living with his family of seven in two rooms—each 96 square feet large—in a five-story building in which he resides along with some 60-65 people. Rabindra’s family has been sharing a communal toilet with twelve people for almost six years now. Before the lockdown, his children and wife went back to their village in the Terai. According to Rabindra, they have no plans to return anytime soon.
Rabindra’s family is just one among many migrant families living in Kathmandu within exceptionally cramped rented spaces. Engaged mostly in menial and daily wage work within the city’s vast informal economy, they barely earn enough to pay for essentials, let alone afford spacious flats.
“I am glad my children are back in our village. They would have become mad by now, had they stayed here during the lockdown,” Rabindra says with a faint smile.
Two little shafts of sunlight make it through the alley and into Rabindra’s room. Outside, much of the space in the communal corridor is taken up by empty gallons lined up against one side of the wall. There is barely enough space for a single person to walk. Along with him, his two brothers and father who have remained back in Kathmandu—in the hope of resuming their jobs the moment the lockdown lifts—spend their idle days chatting away. The topic, coronavirus.
The Covid19 pandemic, which has resulted in lockdowns in nations across the world over the past two-three months, has had economically devastating consequences that have called to question the life-saving benefits of staying under lockdown. Because of differing socio-economic conditions in different countries, the pandemic has taken different trajectories, and the significance of what has been touted as a necessary intervention in one location has appeared almost senseless in another.
In its basic advice for the public by the WHO, the second and third bullet points recommend that individuals readjust their spatial habits in order to protect themselves from the virus—by remaining at least a metre away from others, and by avoiding crowded places altogether. But for many people living in low and middle income neighbourhoods in cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America—who depend on the informal economy—standing one or two metres apart is not a realistic option. News has already revealed that slums like Mumbai’s Dharavi and Rio’s favelas—infamous for their poverty and overcrowdedness—became instant Covid hotspots in cities where the virus was brought in at first by the globetrotting elite.
Paknajol is a back alley that leads into Thamel, Kathmandu’s crowded tourist district characterised by its narrow alleyways and lines of packed tall buildings. Tanga Raj Magar and his wife of seven years, Reshma, also live in the same building as Rabindra. Their ‘home’ is a 96 square-foot single room, divided to create a semblance of parts that stand for kitchen, bedroom, puja kotha, and occasionally, a living room. They, too, share a toilet with ten other residents of the same flat.
The rate at which coronavirus infections have been rising in Nepal has shot up in the past week, with what seems like the worst still yet to come. Border towns like Nepalgunj and Birgunj have become centres of the Covid pandemic in Nepal, while cases in Kathmandu have remained relatively low, comprising roughly ten percent of the national total. As the lockdown gets lifted and the economic wheels begin turning again, there is a likelihood that the number of Covid cases in Kathmandu will surge as well.
In Paknajol, under lockdown, it is not the police or government officials, but community members who have made their own set of rules and regulations. Bamboo barricades erected at the entry of gallis and signs flashing ‘NO ENTRY’ have become a common sight here. But while the pressure to prohibit movement has reached baffling heights, with community volunteers working more like vigilantes and aggressively regulating the movement of people in public spaces, little attention has gone to tackle the problem posed by cramped living spaces which are likely to facilitate the virus’s spread rather than control it. Mass quarantine facilities along the border have proven to be disastrous owing largely to how they have packed together confirmed, suspected and non-suspected cases under the same facility.
Worries for the residents of crowded buildings are compounded by how limited space usually comes combined with low income, limited resources, and far less access to clean water and sanitation. Tanga and Reshma carry their one full gallon of water (100 litres) from the basement to their room up on the third floor every 12-13 days from the government tap. If they miss out on filling their gallon on the water day (“paani bharne din”), they will have no water for the next 12 days. In that case, buying a jar of drinking water is their only option.
“Washing hands is for my safety—I understand, but with water rationed like this, do I wash my dishes and clothes, do I cook, do I go to the toilet or do I wash my hands 50 times a day?” says a disgruntled Reshma. “Instead of jumping to quick solutions, the government should focus on providing measures that will ensure safety from the virus.”
According to epidemiologist Lhamo Sherpa, the guidelines for physical distancing are mainly for interactions that happen with people outside their homes. The one metre distancing rule is to be applied usually when one steps out of the house, and is engaged in activities such as buying groceries from vendors.
But the distinction between private spaces within one’s home and public spaces gets blurred when a single apartment is shared by multiple households, or when multiple families share common toilets or cramped corridors.
“Of course, if someone in the room is tested positive or shows symptoms, they should strictly maintain distance too, but in cramped spaces where many live in the same room or share the same toilet, quarantining simply is not possible,” says Sherpa.