Across the globe, it is the poor, marginalized, and vulnerable groups who are disproportionately affected by the impacts of COVID-19. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, these were the same sectors of society who were at greater risk and disproportionately affected by crises and disasters and who inordinately bear the brunt of long-standing structural inequalities that can be observed in many or in most societies.

Addressing the UN General Assembly during the first in a series of policy dialogues on ending poverty on June 30, the President of the General Assembly, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, “warned that the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are falling ‘disproportionately on the most vulnerable: people living in poverty, the working poor, women and children, persons with disabilities, and other marginalized groups’.”

In his address, poverty was described by Mr. Muhammad-Bande “as a ‘blot on humanity’s conscience,’ which is the underlying trigger of conflict and civil strife, and ‘the most formidable obstacle’ realizing the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals).” He noted that the sharp decline in economic activity resulting from the pandemic can lead to more than 850 million people into poverty. In the same event, UN Secretary General António Guterres “noted that the pandemic has ‘laid bare’ challenges — such as structural inequalities, inadequate healthcare, and the lack of universal social protection — and the heavy price societies are paying as a result.”

The urban poor are always at risk.

Those living in the slums are among the most vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic. The World Bank (WB) Group working document draft dated Oct. 26 and titled, “Global Responses to COVID-19 in slums and cities: Practices from around the world,” described seven living conditions in these areas that make the slums a risk. These are: 1.) high population densities contribute to rapid and broader spread of infection which accelerates transmission, 2.) household overcrowding makes behaviors like social distancing difficult, 3.) poor living conditions exacerbate transmission slowing behavior, 4.) limited access to health services, 5.) reliance on crowded transport services increases contagion risk, 6.) working in the informal sector poses risks, and, 7.) house a large share of the urban population that make up the demographic dividend.

In their review of relevant papers indexed in Scopus (a widely used database for archiving scientific articles) about the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on cities and major lessons for urban planning, design, and management, Ayyoob Sharifi and Amir Reza Khavarian-Garmsir (2020) noted that “[i]n addition to minorities, COVID-19 has hit other vulnerable groups such as the urban poor harder.” Having reviewed works that focused on the effects of the pandemic on minorities and urban poor, their study captured the following.

“Historically, pandemics have hit minorities and people at the bottom of the socioeconomic spectrum disproportionately … as [t]hey often suffer more from pre-existing conditions due to more exposure to risks, economic difficulties, and limited access to services. … In many parts of the Global South, rapid and non-uniform urban development has resulted in conditions where a large share of the urban population lives in slums with poor living and sanitary conditions … A combination of factors such as very high density, inadequate access to basic infrastructure services, and precarious livelihoods makes it difficult, if not impossible, to contain the spread of COVID-19 in slums through promoting social distancing and quarantine measures. … Conditions in slums and informal developments are further exacerbated by the lack of access to medical care (e.g., hospital beds) and basic services such as clean water to comply with hand washing recommendations. … ” (p. 6).

In the Philippines, the lack of affordable land and housing options for the poor in most cities forced between one-third and one-half of the urban population to live in informal settlements, in conditions that are illegal, insecure, and environmentally degraded, without access to toilets, water supply or electricity, and in ever-present danger of eviction (VMSDFI, 2001). In her paper examining the linkages between poverty and environment at the household level in Philippine slums, Ballesteros (2010) noted that the proliferation of informal settlements and slums in the country has been caused by rapid urbanization and the inadequate infrastructure and basic services in large towns and cities.

Specifically in Metro Manila, Ballesteros noted that “[m]ost slums (43%) are on government lands; 15% are on private properties; and 15% live in danger zones such as waterways, river banks and railroad tracks. About 26% of slums are blighted areas where land occupation is through extra legal means or has yet to be formalized” (p.6). These slum communities are highly vulnerable to climate-induced risks such as typhoons or sea surges or seasonal rains. The pandemic and the responses to COVID-19 (e.g., community lockdown) and its aftermath worsened these conditions of the most economically disadvantaged members of the society.

What can be done?

National governments, international organizations, and multilateral institutions rose to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. National government responses, in particular, had resulted in varying levels of success (and failure). Hence, everyone is awaiting the vaccines against COVID-19. The vaccines against COVID-19 may help end the pandemic. But even if vaccines are authorized for use and proven to be effective, governments need to address the underlying socioeconomic fault lines and structural inequalities in their societies. Reducing, if not eliminating, social, economic, and health inequities within societies is as important as preparedness, management strategies, and resources in responding to any pandemic or any crisis or any disaster as it enhances the latter.

Sharifi and Khavarian-Garmsir listed the following recommendations/implications for post-COVID planning based on their review, namely, 1.) prioritizing more inclusive actions towards reducing inequalities and addressing the needs of vulnerable groups, 2.) prioritizing slum upgrading, 3.) social distancing policies should be coupled with economic support mechanisms and 4.) enhancing sense of community as critical for improving response and recovery capacities (p. 11).

But what would a policy and program of slum upgrading require?

The UN-Habitat (2003) described slum upgrading as consisting of “physical, social, economic, organizational, and environmental improvements undertaken cooperatively and locally among citizens, community groups, businesses, and local authorities” (p.165). While slum upgrading programs may vary from one area to another, these usually aim at five key dimensions of improving slums. Based on the UN-Habitat Global Housing Strategy (2006), these are: 1.) access to safe water, 2.) access to sanitation, 3.) secure tenure, 4.) durability of housing, and 5.) sufficient living area.

In December 2011, the Philippine government through the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC) launched the National Slum Upgrading Strategy (NSUS) that sought to guide the efforts of national and local government units in upgrading the slum communities and improving the living conditions of informal settlers in the cities. In its press release on the same date of the launching, the WB noted that “the national slum upgrading strategy will help local government units (LGUs) identify policy and program options for local slum upgrading that will be integrated into the local planning process” and “as part of the process of developing the NSUS, the project will come up with a comprehensive assessment and database on the condition, issues, opportunities, and risks confronting slum communities. This assessment will form the basis for interventions related to slum upgrading.”

Is the database available? Is the database accessible? Were LGUs in the country able to use the database and assessment to guide their planning and interventions? Did the project ever take off?

Slum poverty is exacerbated during a pandemic. And slum poverty cannot be addressed solely by conventional poverty-reduction or poverty-alleviation programs such as cash transfers. The key is for the national government (together with LGUs) to improve social welfare and economic conditions of the poor by addressing social, economic, and health inequities and structural inequalities in the Philippine society. Whether there is a pandemic or any other crisis, the government must do more for the poor, marginalized, and vulnerable sectors of the society.


Diana J. Mendoza, PhD is Chair of the Department of Political Science, Ateneo de Manila University.