Several times over the life of this blog I have written or mentioned the world's mega-slums, vast slums attached to mega-cities (defined as having populations of at least 10 million). A phenomenon that has long held a certain fascination for me and I have undertaken a more disciplined study of them.
Slums and mega-slums are a natural adjunct to the subject of pandemics, if only from the sheer number of people who populate them. Although statistics are rather imprecise, given the nature of the "unofficial residents", they are precise enough to allow for generalized conceptualization of the issues.
According to the UN's Global Report on Human Settlements 2003: The Challenge of Slums approximately 1 billion people live in what they define as a slum community. Defined with the following indicators to arrive at the baseline global estimates:
- Inadequate access to safe water
- Inadequate access t sanitation and other infrastructure
- Poor structural quality of housing
- Insecure residential status
One billion is shocking enough but even more so when contrasted with the total urban population of three billion. That's one in every three urban residents (roughly half of all people live in an urban environment). By anyone's measure, that's a bunch of folk.
One billion people equate to almost the entire population of China or India (and many of the urban slum and mega-slum dwellers find themselves in those two countries). As I said: That's a bunch of folk.
The domiciles of these informal communities (a more neutral term) are generally small, cramped, rudimentary structures with no means in-home personal hygiene. These things alone mean the residents will suffer far greater morbidity with the accompanying mortality everyone else will face (whatever that ends up being) aggravated by (generally) barely subsistence levels of nutrition and high levels of other endemic diseases.
Diseases caused by contaminated drinking water or mosquitoes and often life limiting or threatening: hepatitis, dengue, malaria, encephalitis, typhoid fever and cholera to name a few of the more common. As if it's some sort of cosmic joke not only do these communities have a severe shortage of safe drinking water, most contend with terrain altered by their very habitation to such a degree that when it rains it floods, and fecal contaminated rainwater inundates everything, inside and out.
Generally, either occupations are low paying unskilled menial jobs, within the city proper, or they are entrepreneurial. The entrepreneurial nature of much of the income generation places it to one degree or another outside of the legal system, either criminal or civil. Unlicensed businesses rob the wider community of license fees and criminality ranges from petty crimes, to prostitution, to illegal drugs.
Given the informal and unofficial nature of these communities, most residents have a greater likelihood of being victimized by crime and thuggery than being the perpetrators of such. Life is generally tenuous and demanding but not bereft of dignity and cultural vibrancy. The one thing residents have in abundance is hope for a better future – if only they can manage to hang on one more day, one more week, one more year.
It is difficult to use generalities given the disparate countries and cities the informal communities spring from. Generalities are just that, generalities, and there is no attempt on my part to say that there are not exceptions. Not all residents of informal communities are poor, nor do all find their way out. Some are born into, and die, in "non-person" status. Some are cold blooded brutal parasites. And, some have lives so tragic as to wilt my soul. But, most are families, trying to survive, making the best of what little they have and hoping for that golden ring to appear before their eager grasps.
A billion people living on the margins.
A billion people at extraordinary risk (known euphemistically as At Risk Populations) during a time that may well end up defined as an extraordinary risk, a severe influenza pandemic.
How many will be lost?
We don't even know (with any authority) how many live, there is no expectation that their deaths will be any more accurately accounted for.
Informal lives – informal deaths – in informal communities.