Managing the COVID-19 pandemic in poor urban neighborhoods: The case of Accra and Johannesburg

An ETH Zurich Development Economics Group research project.

Poorest face dilemma in Africa’s cities

Without a vaccine, practicing social distancing and protective hygiene are the most effective measures to curb the spread of COVID-19. In order to understand how the urban poor mitigate their risk of infection, we conducted a survey with more than 1,400 poor households in two of the African cities with the most COVID-19 infections, Accra and Greater Johannesburg, early in the pandemic, during lockdowns of public life. We find that many of the urban poor already engage in the appropriate hygienic behavior and follow social distancing rules. However, despite citywide lockdowns, about 25–40% of people still report attending large gatherings, 10–20% report receiving guests at home, and 30–35% report leaving the house more than once per week. Lack of cooperation with governmental regulations seems to be more related to a lack of infrastructure or poverty rather than unwillingness to engage in behavioral change. Interestingly, even with the stricter lockdown in South Africa, people are at least equally likely to deviate from social distancing rules. Our results indicate that more South African respondents perceive their government’s actions as too extreme and underestimate COVID-19 cases in their country. About half of the sample in both countries report knowing (mainly through TV) about current COVID-19 case numbers. Most participants know that coughing is a symptom, but only half mention fever and difficulty breathing, and very few people mention tiredness. Ghanaians seem to be somewhat better informed. While lack of information is an issue, misinformation appears to be limited. We conclude that a costly shutdown of public life is only effective—and might even be prevented—with a well-informed population, who perceives their government’s actions as appropriate and who has access to the infrastructure required to follow WHO safety regulations.

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