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March 24, 2020

Where there is no space to have social distancing: welcome to Teen Hatti shanty town

Karachi

March 24, 2020

Early in the morning, a few relatives of Saima would go to Noori Baba Mazaar, a shrine in the Teen Hatti area. “They are beggers. The shrine is like a life-support system for them,” says Saima who woke up during a hauntingly silent morning on Monday in her small bedroom.

However, the shrine was closed on Monday like the rest of the city. Saima lives close to the informal settlements in Teen Hatti which were destroyed by a fire two months ago. “We are the luckiest ones to have this crammed house. Others [in our family] don’t even have it.”

Next to Saima sleeps his husband and three kids, the eldest of whom is nine. The adjacent room accommodates her brother’s family of five people. The room is as small as Saima’s. In their common room, which is tinier than the two bedrooms, Saima’s ailing father-in-law and mother-in-law are asleep on the floor.

“We are eleven people in this rented house,” says Saima, who works as a maid. This morning, Saima’s job was to clean her own house with her sister-in-law. She says they are “too scared of this virus”.

“We do the cleaning work every day in so many homes. But we can’t afford to have those things – bleach, phenyl liquid – to clean ours,” she laments. “They are saying on TV we should use soaps to clean ourselves. But how do we afford it? People have told me and my sister-in-law not to come to their homes for the cleaning work.”

Saima’s husband and brother-in-law are labourers. “They would work on daily wages. That too as per their ‘mood and convenience’ since they have us earning money for home,” she says. “The best they have been doing for the last two days is going out and taking food for us from charity places.”

How do we fit in? Saima and her sister-in-law’s kids would often go to the Teen Hatti shanty town where a fire destroyed over 100 informal settlements in January.

“Our relatives have hardly recovered from the fire tragedy and now we have this virus problem,” she sighs. “How do we handle these troubling kids? We don’t know. They play all day out in the street and go to see their relatives living in Teen Hatti,” she says as she breaths heavily. “The kids don’t have proper space to live in the house, let alone playing at home.”

Blessing or curse?

A few relatives of Saima “have no work to do except begging”. “They would go to the shrine of Noori Baba. People would give them money and food. But now the shrine is closed.”

She says her relatives living in informal settlements would spend a lot of time in her home. “How do I convince them that they can infect us or could be infected from us?” “Today,” she adds, “just a few relatives could make it to our home because of the fear of this lockdown.”

Saima says one moment she thinks the lockdown is a blessing since it is stopping her relatives to come from the informal settlements, but the other moment she feels bad about it. “We all are disadvantaged people. We were once with them in those informal settlements. But I don’t want to risk my kids’ lives either. I don’t know what to say.”

Saima says she is scared of the virus spreading in the shanty town where her relatives are living as it would “wreak havoc on us all”. “They are telling us on TV we should stay at a distance from each other. But how do you stay at a distance when there is no space in the closely connected informal settlements?”