Inspired by the Council’s Rachel Tanur Memorial Prize for Visual Sociology, we ask prominent scholars to select a visual artifact of this time that will help future researchers understand the Covid-19 crisis. In this conversation, Arjun Appadurai (Goddard Professor in Media, Culture and Communication at New York University; professor of anthropology at The Hertie School – Berlin) spoke with Jonathan Hack (program officer, SSRC Anxieties of Democracy program), explaining how Covid-19 has impacted the lives of two vulnerable populations—migrant workers and those who reside in informal settlements (disparagingly referred to as “slums”).

Photo by INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP via Getty Images

Jonathan Hack (JH): You selected a stark image, a glimpse of the Dharavi “slum.” Why did you choose this as an artifact for the time capsule? What do you hope it communicates to future researchers?

Arjun Appadurai (AA): Dharavi is often called—though it may not be entirely accurate—Asia’s largest slum, and if it’s not exactly the largest, it’s up there. It is located in the city of Mumbai, which is itself a very large city pushing toward 20 million people. And last but not least, India is a country in the hands of a right-wing, Hindu-oriented nationalist regime that needs to tackle this new crisis on top of crises around liberty, democracy, participation, and dissent.

Importantly, this image begins to capture the very real problems for two categories of people that often overlap: migrant workers within India—people who come from villages to cities for temporary employment—and those who reside, long-term, in these informal settlements, which is a better way to describe them. Slum is a stigmatizing term. I use it sometimes because the stigma is based on something real—a horrible way of life for a very large number of people in India’s cities. Together, the migrant worker and the slum dweller are the hardest hit under the current regime and the most vulnerable to a rampant pandemic in India. 

That said, this is a global problem. This image could have easily been from Bangkok or Lagos or many parts of Latin America, hundreds of cities in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. India is what I know, it’s the place I follow most closely, but this is a widespread and significant story. The image of Dharavi is just one example of a larger narrative, telling the story of the horrible conditions so many people across the globe find themselves in. 

JH: Given that a large number of people throughout the globe live in these informal settlements, what are the implications of Covid-19 for such vulnerable populations?

AA: There are two big implications. Arguably, the single most important feature of these large slums in large cities is density. Too many people living in a small space, in extremely ramshackle structures. It is very common to have a structure made from tarpaulin, junk metal, possibly some wood—but quite fragile and too close to the next one. On top of that, there are often families of anywhere between eight and twelve individuals living in a room of approximately eight by ten feet, and maybe with one story above.

This class of people typically lives in shoddy structures on land that has been reclaimed, by the people themselves, from swamps, or in the case of Payatas, Manila, essentially built on a huge garbage dump. These are amazingly stark, desperate conditions. The density of people and social distancing don’t go well in these situations.

First, it is impossible to distance yourself from those living with you. These may not be just your nuclear family, but relatives, dependents, and so on. Then there are the people around you who are also very close by—maybe, at most, a four-foot-wide space between your dwelling and the one opposite. Ordinarily, people would come and go, head to work, or move about as best they can, but with curfews and lockdowns of various kinds to try to stop the spread of the virus, work is often rendered impossible. In many ways it is a hyper-incarceration, because the conditions of life are already somewhat incarcerating. Ultimately, you have a densification problem that makes any notion of “distancing” from those around you impossible. 

Second, the most simple rule now known to contain the spread of the virus, worldwide, is hand-washing. But water is a problem. Fresh water and potable, drinkable water have always been big problems in places like India and many other parts of the world where these populations live, because they have no piped water. Again, if you reclaim your land from swamps and so on, it’s a massive political struggle to get any public health–related infrastructure. Water is one challenge and sanitation is its twin. For example, there are situations where 800 people share a single toilet seat. These toilets are part of small structures where there may be ten seats, but 3,000 people are lined up to use the facilities. 

When you take those numbers into account, coupled with a lack of clean water, inability to wash hands, and then not having soap and water to wash after defecation, it becomes clear that it is tough enough to live in these conditions so far as the elementary sanitary precautions are concerned. Now, layer on top of that the health crisis arising from Covid-19—people in these places are faced with a new problem of health safety on top of a pre-existing one.

JH: From your perspective, do you think that the experiences with Covid-19 will change the Indian government’s perspective on how individuals live? Do you think there is an urgency to lift people out of slums?

AA: It’s been a very slow process, even in the best of times, to bring clean water and basic sanitary conditions to various parts of the country. But this is a question about housing—providing secure housing. These are ongoing, uphill struggles, lasting for decades in India. The situation was already very difficult for urban slum dwellers, and now, with Covid-19, there are questions of priorities: Who do you deal with first? Who are your powerful constituencies?

India, so far, is an electoral democracy. People who dwell in slums do vote, which is one of the reasons why, cyclically, there are some efforts to do things for them. Sometimes symbolic, sometimes empty. But there is a certain cynicism in all electoral processes in India. And now we have an additional layer, which is a Hindu-oriented nationalist regime massively into circuses, rather than bread. From my perspective, not shared by every observer, but by quite a few, development in India today, broadly conceived, is a low agenda item. Priority one is instilling a sense of commitment to the national government, to the Hindu state. 

Returning to those who dwell in places like Dharavi, they are in lockdown, cut off from employment and in a very unsafe health situation. Beyond that, they are in a very volatile political situation where, if they try to leave for any purpose, not only are they stopped, but, the police have become brutal, especially in their treatment of poorer populations using the lathi [baton] to inflict great pain. It’s very brutal and dehumanizing, and is typically done to people who have no recourse. It is a very grim situation. 

The big Covid-19-related question for me, beyond the question of when and how this overall situation will be rectified for slum dwellers, is whether there will be an intensification of Covid-19 cases. The tiny silver lining, and this is speculative, is whether the strains of the virus in India might be less malignant, less fast-moving, and less damaging than those that hit Italy or China or other places that have suffered greatly. Northern Italy is very different compared to Dharavi. Still, we must wonder: What will happen in India’s slums? Who will come to treat the citizens there? Where will the dead bodies go? Who can provide masks to these people? Or more importantly, where will water and cleansing fluids come from? 

JH: Drawing on your last point, do you see any silver lining or any hope coming out of some of this? 

AA: Well, for some biological reason, the virus, or its mutations, is kinder to some parts of the world and to some populations than others. Whether it’s Nigeria or elsewhere in Africa or crowded parts of the Middle East or Latin America, everywhere in the so-called third world, a similar experience to that of Dharavi is going to be seen. We can only pray that the places where people are most vulnerable and most devoid of means to tackle this pandemic are the places where the virus, for some reason, does not appear in its more virulent form.

That said, there is a remarkable internal mobilizing of these communities. For example, a dear friend of mine runs a very important NGO, which is part of a global network of NGOs whose focus is the extreme poverty in cities. She told me that they are using Zoom to bring together in one case 200 people, in another case 2,000 people, from different micro-communities in Dharavi to meet with leaders or representatives to discuss Covid-19. This is mobilization—not protest or resistance, but an effort to share information, methods, and best solutions to try to transcend the isolation of those in extreme poverty amid this pandemic. There are remarkable NGOs, of all sorts, doing fabulous work to try to help these most vulnerable populations.

Lastly, there are remarkable instances of specific communities, often religious, trying to help those in need. For example, the Sikhs, a very generous community to anyone in trouble, have these huge portable community kitchens. They often arrive with seventy-five or more people and cook a thousand meals a day for those most in need.  

I’m not sure of the quantitative takeaway, but these examples indicate that the impulse toward generosity, solidarity, kinship, and help has not died under the pressure of Covid-19. The applied lesson, with all these things—self-mobilization, NGO activity from the outside, and charitable work often from religious sources—is that we can all always weigh in and multiply those events if we wish. This is a reminder that we have not been reduced to our lowest common denominators. So that image, of Dharavi, highlights the starkness of the problem, but it does not exhaust the horizon of more optimistic possibilities.  

This conversation was conducted on May 7, 2020. It has been edited for length and clarity.