If Mumbai’s COVID-19 story is told in all fairness, it would speak of a classic turnaround in how Mumbaikars thought the virus would travel and how it actually did.
COVID-19 was expected to hit the city’s slums and informal settlements the hardest considering their ultra-high density of population, unavailability of space for physical distancing, and lack of steady water supply for frequent hand washing. As cases rose in the informal settlements of Worli-Koliwada and Dharavi through April-May, these areas were described in uncomplimentary phrases — ‘ticking time bombs’ or ‘fertile ground’ for rapid spread of the virus.
The inference was unmistakable: Mumbai’s high density slums and settlements were responsible for the city’s spiralling case load, and worse lay ahead. A study done by a reputed international group within six weeks from the first case in March quickly demonstrated that most containment zones — areas with large number of cases, fully sealed to inhibit all movement in or out of them — were within slums or nearby. Slums and informal settlements house around 42 percent of Mumbai’s nearly 18 million residents.
Yet, six months after the virus brought India’s commercial capital to an unprecedented halt, as the total cases crossed 170,000 this week, it’s apparent that coronavirus does not respect classier demography or geography. On September 22, there were 617 active containment zones across Mumbai’s slums and informal settlements; in contrast, as many as 10,065 buildings including gated communities and high rises had been sealed.
Residents in the latter believed they had safely wrapped themselves in their ‘bubbles’ while the dirty unwashed millions were more susceptible; that bubble has burst. There is an undeniable class divide — one that’s hardly articulated in popular discourse, also difficult to map because Mumbai’s municipal corporation does not provide detailed spatial data within an affected area.
However, two data points illustrate it. One, the month from August 15 saw an 86 percent increase in the number of sealed buildings nearly corresponding with the 85 percent rise in positive cases; containment zones in slums and informal settlements saw a miniscule 0.3 percent rise. This challenged the early idea of slum containment zones as proxy for COVID-19 cases. It was a false positive. Testing was concentrated in slum pockets where the virus was ‘chased down’ and ‘patients forcibly quarantined’ in institutions; gated apartment complexes and high rises did not see similar aggressive chase of the virus or suspected patients.
Two, of Mumbai’s 24 municipal wards tagged alphabetically, the ones with high slum populations do not feature in the lists of top five wards with maximum cases or doubling rate of cases measured in days. For example, M-East ward where a staggering 73 percent of residents live in slums near landfills and open sewage was shamed as a ‘Covid-19 hotspot’ in early April; its caseload on September 21 was only half that of R-Central, the ward with maximum cases in the city.
M-East performed better on yet another metric. Cases here took 73 days to double — twice that of the worst ward H-West, comprising upscale Bandra and Khar, where cases double in only 38 days. Mumbai’s average is 60 days.
Then, L ward with nearly 54 percent population in slums has a doubling rate of 81 days, and G-North with 33 percent in slums clocked 85 days. One of the toniest areas with a fair share of glamorous names and a few slums is Andheri West or K-West ward where more than 770 buildings and apartment complexes are sealed.
Health workers point to anecdotal evidence to show that many ‘bubble wrapped’ people lived and moved around with false security because they followed the mandated precautions — and unconsciously lowered their guard. Then, there’s wilful disregard of protocols, notably wearing masks. Municipal corporation teams patrolling the iconic Marine Drive caught 45 defaulters on September 19. The A ward comprising Marine Drive, Colaba and Cuffe Parade yielded the civic body Rs 86,400 in penalties in only five days from people not wearing masks.
Despite the unavailability of granular data within a ward, the available metrics tell their own story about the class divide. The virus that international travellers brought into the city, through the aviation sector that the poor or migrants have little to do with, and was feared to spread rapidly because the latter could not afford preventive steps, has come to settle in gated apartment complexes and high rises.
To be sure, the worst isn’t behind in the slums and informal settlements, but they aren't the only problem in Mumbai’s battle against COVID-19.
Smruti Koppikar is a senior Mumbai-based journalist and urban chronicler. Views are personal.