By Margot Lootens
When confinement measures and mobility restrictions were put in place at the beginning of the pandemic, the place we call home, our neighbours and local communities, suddenly reclaimed a central place in our daily lives. In the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals and communities showed great solidarity with their neighbours, especially those identified as being vulnerable – those directly or indirectly put at risk by the disease. In the City of Kigali, Rwanda’s capital which is home to 1.6 million people (NISR, 2018), grassroots communities were essential in providing timely assistance to those members of society hardest hit by the pandemic and the associated lockdown.
Epidemic vulnerability in Kigali
At the Resilience Agenda Workshop held in April 2015 as part of Kigali’s participation in the 100 Resilient Cities programme, the outbreak of epidemic diseases had been identified by local stakeholders as one of the acute shocks the city could face (100RC, n.d., p. 28). Based on past experiences with the spread of infectious diseases, such as the cholera outbreak of 2006 in Kigali’s suburbs (ReliefWeb, 2006), the risk of an outbreak and the vulnerability of citizens can be linked to the spatial and socio-economic characteristics of informal settlements.
Photo credit: View of Kigali, Rwanda by Flickr user oledoe under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.
In Kigali, more than 70% of citizens live in informal settlements (NISR, 2018), most of which are located on the steep hillsides or flood-prone wetlands around the historic and economic city centre (see Image 1). Despite recent improvements made in providing universal access to potable water, many of these neighbourhoods still lack reliable basic infrastructure and services related to sanitation, hygiene, energy, and transportation, which are all crucial in building resilience. Only 9.3% of households have access to improved toilet facilities, while more than half of them remain outside the solid waste management system (Manirakiza et al., 2019). In short, the overall access to proper drainage and wastewater management is low (Manirakiza et al., 2019). Furthermore, unemployment and poverty are additional stressors, prevalent in slums and informal settlements further away from the city centre and its economic activities (ibid.). Layering these spatial and socio-economic stressors, certain neighbourhoods are more at-risk of human health-related hazards. That being said, it is important to note that within these at-risk neighbourhoods, households experience different levels of vulnerability and exposure to potential acute shocks.
Leveraging resilience through social cohesion
Not long after the first cases of the COVID-19 virus had been registered in Kigali and a national lockdown was put into place, grassroots initiatives were set up at the neighbourhood scale to support individuals and households most affected by the lockdown. Local communities self-organized to identify households at-risk of pandemic impacts, such as casual labourers and street vendors who depend on their day-to-day earnings to provide food. Using social media platforms such as WhatsApp, those communities collected resources and distributed food to the households at risk (Karuhanga, 2020). With the support of local volunteers, these initiatives reached more than 40,000 households in need, thus reducing the direct socio-economic impact of the pandemic at the grassroots level (J. Habinshuti, 2021, pers. comm., 21 April). Speaking to the success of Kigali’s pandemic response, Kigali’s City Resilience Officer Japheth Habinshuti (2021, pers. comm., 21 April) emphasized the key role volunteers played in enforcing the necessary preventive measures all around the city and thus curbing the spread of the virus.
These spontaneous grassroots initiatives and the solidarity showcased amongst citizens in the early stages of pandemic response exemplify the importance of strong, connected communities and social networks as first line of support and assistance in times of crisis. Moreover, as Japheth Habinshuti pointed out (Resilient Cities Network, 2020), the pandemic response was an operation and collaboration between different sectors and different spheres of the society, where everyone did their part. This recognition of the value of social cohesion in building city-wide holistic resilience which leaves no one behind had already been identified as part of the city’s “pathway to resilience” (J. Habinshuti, 2021, pers. comm., 21 April). The self-organization and mobilization of local communities which emerged early in the COVID-19 pandemic response now provides a fertile ground to put ambition into action. Supporting and scaling up existing initiatives could leverage social cohesion to build community resilience alongside the governments’ commitment to reduce vulnerability and exposure to disasters through infrastructure investment and resilient economic development.
Capitalizing on the pandemic for transformative change
The kinds of grassroots solidarity actions which emerged in Kigali have also sprung up in many other places around the world, taking different shapes and working at different scales. Notwithstanding the damage caused by the spread of the virus, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore the role of connected and empowered communities in coping with the challenges of unpredictable shocks in the interest of all. If people decide to show solidarity and act collectively in the interest of the most vulnerable in a time of great uncertainty for everyone, we can only imagine what connected, activated and empowered communities can mean in the fight against poverty, inequities and injustices in cities globally. How we capitalize on emerging solidarity movements now will determine if, in five years’ time, stories like these will be precursors to transformative change or, alternatively, have become mere anecdotes to a time of disruption and uncertainty.
Karuhanga, J. (2020). ‘COVID-19: Rwandans support needy families during lockdown’, The New Times, 28 March. Available at: https://www.newtimes.co.rw/news/covid-19-rwandans-support-needy-families-during-lockdown (Accessed 14 May, 2021).
Manirakiza V., Mugabe L., Nsabimana A. & Nzayiramboha M. (2019). ‘City Profile: Kigali, Rwanda’, Environment and Urbanization ASIA, 10(2), 290-307. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/0975425319867485
National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda. (2018). EICV5, Main Indicators Report. November 2018. Available at: https://statistics.gov.rw/publication/eicv-5-main-indicators-report-201617
Reliefweb. (2006). Cholera outbreak claims 10 lives in Rwanda. Available at: https://reliefweb.int/report/rwanda/cholera-outbreak-claims-10-lives-rwanda (Accessed 14 May, 2021).
Resilient Cities Network. (2020). ‘Speaker Series #20 – Water and Sanitation: WASH in Crisis and Recovery’, Resilient Cities Network. Available at: https://resilientcitiesnetwork.org/urban_resiliences/20-water-and-sanitation-wash-in-crisis-and-recovery/ (Accessed 14 May, 2021).
Resilient Cities Network. (n.d.). The world’s leading urban resilience network. Available at: https://resilientcitiesnetwork.org/network/ (Accessed 14 May, 2021).
Source of images: City of Kigali. (2020). Food distribution to vulnerable families affected by COVID-19 lockdown. Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/city_of_kigali/albums/72157713697829536/with/49719770586/
Margot Lootens is a student City Resilience at the Universidad Internacional de Catalunya (Spain). Her research experience and interests involve the resilience-development nexus, focussing on leveraging inclusive, sustainable development in intermediary cities in the Global South. She is currently pursuing an internship with UN-Habitat where she assists in project development and reporting on mainstreaming climate action in urban development.