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Covid-19 & the urban poor

Street stall
Morata street stall

EDDIE TANAGO PAINE

PORT MORESBY - On the eve of Papua New Guinea’s state of emergency shut down, little did informal vendors know how this sudden decision would snap their daily livelihoods.

While the state of emergency was a crucial measure to prevent the spread of the virus, the restrictions imposed had a devastating impact on the majority of urban people.

“Suddenly everything comes to a close, like as if our lives were put to stop by a greater agenda,” said one vendor.

The government was caught unawares and severely underestimated the impact of the lockdown on the urban poor.

The belated attempts to provide food were uncoordinated and failed to compensate for the loss of earnings.

Morata is one of Port Moresby’s largest squatter settlements, one of many shanty towns and settlements throughout the country.

It is densely populated; home to thousands of people whose main income is generated through informal economic activities.

The impact of the state of emergency restrictions on the people of Morata was immediate and severe; with the poorest families faring the worst.

Within two weeks, incomes had dropped by as much as 90% for the poorest families.

On a typical evening, with an average of over 15 mouths to feed in a household, middle to high income earners were able to survive the first few weeks.

Sadly, low income earners immediately went without food.

The primary problems revealed by our survey were:

Access to food and other supplies. Ensuring that food and other essential supplies reached the vulnerable sections of the city was a challenge during the state of emergency. Eighty percent of respondents reported not getting access to adequate supplies of food, essential items and other services.

Public transport suspension. Ninety percent of respondents said they could not restock supplies to sell as movement was restricted. It was therefore impossible for them to make sales. All experienced a huge loss in revenue.

Public gatherings prohibited. Sixty percent of respondents were not aware of the social distancing protocols.

Markets price increase. The findings revealed that 90% of the food consumed by households was from fresh food markets. As fresh produce came to an abrupt halt, demand and price of items increased. All respondents said they paid no attention to nutritional value and ate what was affordable and available.

Restricted access to health and education. Lack of basic awareness of Covid-19 amongst health workers resulted in the unnecessary closure of public health clinics. One-third of respondents said they were ill during the lockdown and suffered terribly as they did not have access to a health worker.

Hunger and starvation. 95% of households confirmed they skipped meals in the first week of the state of emergency and experienced hunger and starvation in the second week. Five percent of respondents went to churches to get food through the government supported feeding program.

The pandemic has amplified and further widened the gap between rich and the poor.

The experiences of the last three months will most likely impact overall efforts at recovery.

Our survey showed that a lot needs to change in terms of policy and incentives to protect the most vulnerable members of the community, such as the women and children.

Without incentives and social security, it is crucial to proceed with caution when planning and executing for in a crisis.

In future the government must maintain access to the flow of fresh food from rural and peri-urban producers into urban markets through the informal sector.

The city authorities need to ensure safe markets and provide alternative income streams for women and their families.

Proper fear and stigma-eradicating awareness is also needed, utilizing existing community networks in city settlements.

Covid-19 remains a threat in PNG but nature and geography has helped us buy time.

We need to use this time with adequate resources, to conduct mass education for the bulk of the population on prevention of Covid-19 spread when conducting their business activities and when with family.

Existing community groups are vital awareness conduits, as it creates ownership of the issue, retain knowledge within these community groups and will prove sustainable in the long term.

Covid-19 has made us realise that agriculture is the most important sector of our economy and can sustain us all in times of emergency and when the widely promoted formal sector comes to a halt.

But, in urban centres, government must be proactive to ensure supply is not disrupted by the restrictions on movement otherwise it risks swapping one health crisis for another.

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