By Tanjil Sowgat and Shilpi Roy, GCRF Centre for Sustainable, Healthy and Learning Cities and Neighbourhoods (SHLC)
Khulna is among the largest cities in Bangladesh and home to a growing number of climate migrants from the South Western coastal region, one of the most climate-vulnerable areas in the world. The vast majority of these migrants live in urban slums with poor housing conditions and rely on low paid and informal work. Currently, 32.4% of the people in Khulna city are below the poverty line. These migrant communities are particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic due to over crowded housing and limited access to clean water, sanitation and health services.
In March 2020, Bangladesh saw its first cases of COVID-19. Although the government initially did not consider coronavirus to be a big threat because of the country’s tropical weather, the number of cases began to increase sharply by April 2020. To tackle the spread of the disease, the authorities imposed national lockdowns which included school and business closures as well as restrictions on movement and gatherings. The lockdown was successful at reducing the number of cases in Khulna, but it had a devasting effect on poor migrant households in the city.
Research by the GCRF Centre for Sustainable, Healthy and learning Cities and Neighbourhoods has captured the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on climate migrants living in Khulna’s biggest slum Jora Gate. The negative impacts of lockdowns affected the poorest households the most who suffered significant losses of income, lower living standards and food insecurity.
Unequal access to education and training among migrant communities exclude them from participation in the formal economy and make them highly dependent on precarious work such as rickshaw pulling, easy bike driving, domestic cleaning, street sweeper, security guard etc. As these sources of livelihood dwindled during the crisis, poor households lost most of their income. Food insecurity soared among Jora Gate residents. The situation was intensified by the effect of lockdowns on supply chains which raised local food prices. As a result, many households had to compromise their daily diets and could no longer afford more nutritious foods.
Furthermore, landlords began to evict tenants who could not pay their rent. Although some were sympathetic and allowed delayed payments, many could not afford to do so as their own incomes were also affected by lockdowns and business closures. Many families were forced to take loans from relatives or local creditors at exorbitant rates. The loans mounted up as the number of lockdowns increased. However, post-lockdown income was not enough to repay debts. The intense pressure on already marginalised communities generated severe effects on their mental health and wellbeing.
Public schools were closed for two years, leaving children in Jora Gate without access to education. Since most parents work long hours and many are iliterate, most children could not be home schooled. Private tutors are an expense that the majority of households in Jora Gate cannot afford. Parents expressed serious concern about the children’s future. Children on the other hand felt distressed as they could not continue their education and meet their friends.
Although migrant communities in Jora Gate were seriously affected by the lockdowns, most decided not to go back to their home villages. Given that sources of income were even more limited in these areas and many households did not have assets or land in their village, there was very little incentive to return. The opportunities in Khulna city were still better for these migrants.
The number of recorded cases of COVID-19 among Jora Gate residents is low and there are no official deaths from the virus in the community. Households therefore felt less worried about their health during the start of the pandemic. Some believed that since they were hardworking and worked in the sun for long hours, the virus would not affect them. Because people felt less threatened, they were reluctant to maintain social distancing and wear face coverings. However, as newspapers and television channels reported increasing numbers of coronavirus cases residents became more concerned. Some began wearing masks, but most did not use hand sanitiser or disinfectant regularly.
There was also a lot of confusion and suspicion regarding COVID-19 vaccines. There was little awareness of the vaccine registration process and misinformation about vaccine efficacy and side effects. Many people believed vaccines imported from India were not good and wanted to wait for ‘better’ vaccines. The registration process could only be completed online which created significant challenges to residents with limited digital skills and access to the internet. Consequently, most slum dwellers did not enrol in the vaccination programme. However, thanks to the media campaings they became less hesitant and vaccination levels increased with time. Many residents also started enrolling after hearing news about the Delta variant.
People in Bangladesh have always used migration as a coping mechanism to deal with extreme weather events. However climate change will make these events more frequent and severe, forcing unprecedented numbers of people to migrate. It is estimated that one in every seven people in Bangladesh will be displaced because of climate change. Most migrants are likely to end up in the urban slums of Khulna and Dhaka. The COVID-19 pandemic and climate change have highlighted that marginalised communities are the most impacted by crises. As governments embark on their recovery plans, they must commit to building resilience by addressing poverty and inequality.
Part of the COP26 activities at the College of Social Sciences, University of Glasgow