© for the photo: Ayşegül Can
Covid-19, Inequality, and a Place to Shelter
Theory & ResearchThe novel coronavirus has been emphasizing and exacerbating the effects of a widening wealth gap, years of policies of austerity, and the extent of social inequality all over the world. The uncertainty over what the future will look like increases concerns surrounding the future of crucial matters such as labour, the housing market, and higher education. This piece focuses on the practices of solidarity, how this has shaped people’s experiences of the lockdown in Istanbul, Turkey, and the ways in which the local and national state can—and did—exploit public concerns and confusion that have been evoked by the pandemic to fast-track their controversial urban projects and decisions.
The (In)ability to Shelter in Place
The accessibility of basic living conditions appears as an important issue during the current pandemic. With calls from all over the world to implement social distancing, self-isolation, washing hands, working from home, lockdown, and quarantine, it seems like many marginalized and vulnerable communities are forgotten. Many of these calls assume basic living conditions and access to water and shelter; however, in many urban or peri-urban impoverished and vulnerable settlements these are seen as luxuries, which makes it clear that quarantine or the ability to be under quarantine is not an option for a significant part of the world.
Quarantining poor and vulnerable settlements would have its own set of challenges and could do more harm than good while, arguably, not even stopping the spread of the virus because of the acute problems around space, water, and sanitation. There are also the financial problems that would arise from restricting people from going to work. Inhabitants of these settlements usually do not have savings and cannot really store adequate food. Another challenge is the mistrust the inhabitants of these settlements have towards authority. As a community that is usually marginalized and stigmatized, it would be a challenge to relay the message that the control measures taken to stop the spread of the virus are actually to protect them rather than protect others.
People in such communities are used to having their lives restricted in the name of the ‘public interest’, so enforcing a successful quarantine in such places would require the participation of local community organizations. For example, in China’s extraordinary quarantine in the city of Wuhan, neighbourhood-based groups were part of the control measures to restrict people’s movements and inform them of the risks of going out. In India, many people organized themselves to prepare aid packages for people who did not have savings and could not stock up on food because they had been relying on cash from daily wage labour, which was being cut off because of lockdowns. In South Africa, many communities prepared survival packs for people living in informal settlements. These packs included items such as toilet paper, hand sanitizer, bottled water, and food. One other community has built washstands in train stations. These acts of solidarity seem to be on the increase and show it is usually the communal, bottom-up effort that works in such vulnerable communities.
There have been many non-profit organizations and platforms in Turkey that have organized to help such communities. One of them is called Kadıköy Dayanışma Ağı (Kadıköy Solidarity Network, KDA from here on). During the lockdown period, KDA has undertaken impressive efforts to support the poor communities of Kadıköy, Istanbul, where the local and national state fell short. They first tried to reach out to people who were 65 or older. They created a leaflet introducing their organization, left them at the doorsteps of flats and received many responses from people in need. They prepared face shields and face masks and distributed them to hospitals and the public. In addition, there is a population of homeless people in Kadıköy, and during normal times, they were able to at least access some food through local shops and people passing by. The pandemic made their lives much harder. KDA used a local shop’s kitchen and started preparing and serving daily hot meals with the help of their volunteers. After a while, since there was an official lockdown at the time, the volunteers started preparing food at their own homes and brought it to predetermined locations. Following this, they started a campaign entitled “We are sharing our meal”, which involved them preparing food packages that consisted of rice, beans, oil, tomato paste, and lentils and distributing them to households that were hit by the pandemic. As they put it themselves, “let’s keep our physical distance, but we have to keep socially close”, and that has been the motto of KDA.
Vulnerable communities in poor-quality housing and precarious living conditions, being left on the fringes of urban planning and dismissed by policy makers, already depend on community networks and local organizations for the continuity of their livelihood. For that reason, it is essential to use and mobilize these organizations and networks to find appropriate contextual solutions to stop the spread of the virus in these communities and provide healthcare.
Communities living under precarious conditions may have underlying diseases that are never diagnosed, since respiratory diseases are already an important concern given air pollution indoors and outdoors, poor housing quality, and possible occupational exposure. In some places, the on-the-spot, bottom-up solutions provided by neighbourhood associations, NGOs, and volunteers proved to be very effective during this pandemic because of either the lack or inefficacy of state help or, as discussed below, in spite of the state.
Solidarity has been crucial for the management of the pandemic, though at the same time that solidarity has been exploited by the neoliberal government. A healthcare worker in Istanbul, who chose to stay anonymous, talked about solidarity in an interview, and explained how they sewed their own masks and sent extra ones to their colleagues so that those colleagues would not get infected. This act is of course important and fundamental to surviving this pandemic; however, it can be argued that this is also the state’s way of exploiting sentiments of solidarity.
Taking Advantage of the Pandemic
From an urban and housing studies perspective, local and national government in Turkey has been using the pandemic and the fact that people had to stay home as a way to accelerate and fast-track controversial urban projects and decisions, sometimes at the expense of public health. In this section I will be talking about two examples. The first one is from a neighbourhood that was declared as an urban regeneration area in Üsküdar, Istanbul. In an area called Kirazlıtepe, the local Üsküdar Municipality has long been involved in an urban regeneration project. The project itself is about demolition and the rebuilding of this area that mostly consists of a poor and vulnerable urban population. Most of the inhabitants were evicted before the pandemic hit, but some of the owner-occupiers refused to sign documents that the municipality was trying to force them to sign, and stayed in the area. During the pandemic, the local municipality continued with the demolition of the neighbourhood while some of the inhabitants were still in the area, and left all the remaining debris and excavation behind without cleaning up. This posed an obvious health problem which only increased in seriousness during the lockdown, as these leftover materials in the area contained asbestos. The inhabitants who were breathing this asbestos on a daily basis were rightfully very concerned for their health during the pandemic; however, the local municipality used this to further their methods of intimidation in order to force the inhabitants to leave the area as soon as possible. Unfortunately, this method has already been relatively effective.
Another example of this kind of behaviour happened in June 2020, surrounding the very controversial “Istanbul Canal” urban project. The Istanbul Canal is a state-led project that will basically build a new waterway that will be an alternative to the Bosphorus Strait. This project was first officially and seriously announced to the public in 2011. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was then Prime Minister, described this canal as going through the Çatalca peninsula of Istanbul in the European part of the city from north towards south. The given purpose was to decrease sea traffic in the Bosphorus, which is to this day the only canal that connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean through to the Sea of Marmara. The project has attracted serious criticism from almost every segment of the population, as well as from many civil organizations that are named below. These criticisms were made in the form of articles, forums, protests, and lawsuits.
The Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects (TMMOB in Turkish) is a union of 24 different professional chambers, including urban planners and several different engineering chambers and chambers of architects. 9 of those professional chambers in TMMOB opened a lawsuit in 2018 on the grounds that the Istanbul Canal might go against international agreements such as the Montreux Convention and the constitution of Turkey, and that the ecosystem and archaeological and natural sites will be damaged irretrievably. In addition to this, the Turkish Foundation for Combating Soil Erosion, for Reforestation and the Protection of Natural Habitats (TEMA in Turkish), the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey (DİSK in Turkish), 14 different bar associations from 14 different cities, as well as the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality opened lawsuits against the project in February 2020. This was on the grounds that the decision of the Ministry of Urbanism and Environment to give the approval to build the canal in the latest Environmental Impact Plan (EIP) is against the public interest and does not comply with legal and scientific protocols.
In spite of all these lawsuits and resistance to the project, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure announced in late June 2020 that the tender for the project area will be ready for the second half of the year. In addition to that, the Ministry of Environment and Urbanism prepared and announced the master and implementation plans for the project in early July 2020 with the hopes that not many people would have the time or focus to oppose them. In Turkey, after the announcements of master and implementation plans, the public normally has a month to oppose them. After the opposition period, and potentially following revisions of the plans, the national or local authority that holds planning power within that area or neighbourhood can open a call for tender for the construction of the area. A tender is a formal offer from one party to carry out a task which was presented by another. In the case of the Istanbul Canal, the tender for the construction of the project area will be open to bids from construction companies. The important thing here is that this tender process will go through the Ministry of Environment and Urbanism rather than the local state, which is the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality. By doing this, the national state bypasses possible opposition and delays from the Municipality.
Moreover, 4,422,000 square metres of real estate in the project area were turned over to the Mass Housing Development Agency (MHDA) free of charge. The timing and the fact that all these decisions were announced in the span of a week under the circumstances of lockdown, made it clear that the national state was trying to take advantage of the fact that people would not be able to respond or resist quickly. Despite these circumstances, many NGOs, activists, and platforms still organized announcements and online protests. While everyone was busy looking after their health, Ya Kanal Ya Istanbul, Kuzey Ormanları Savunması (the Defense of the Northern Forest), TMMOB, KDA, and other organizations made extra efforts to raise awareness of what was happening and tried to file the necessary documents to oppose these decisions. During the lockdown and pandemic, especially online gatherings, meetings, and protests have proved to be quite useful and effective in raising awareness and allowing people to resist and keep informed without risking their health.
It is undeniable that the Covid-19 pandemic revealed so many flaws in the neoliberal urban space and how quarantine can trigger so many other public safety issues that are arguably as dangerous as the virus, if not more so. Years of policies that undermine the importance of shelter and having access to basic needs have left a big part of the population of the world exposed to Covid-19 with no safety net to fall back on. Governments are unable or unwilling to provide safety and shelter for their citizens, with many people left unemployed, without savings, and sometimes facing eviction in these uncertain times. Even though quarantine and social distancing are necessities due to the highly-contagious virus and overwhelmed healthcare systems, creating that safe space that separates danger from safety is not possible or successful for many people. There must be better reforms put in place not only to respond faster and better in the case of pandemics, but also to make it possible to ‘shelter in place’ when it is needed.
At a time that people are retreating into their local identities, solidarity has become an even more important and complicated issue. This issue has been discussed at length all around the world as we watched videos of Italians singing from their balconies to entertain each other and Spanish police going from neighbourhood to neighbourhood playing songs to the quarantined people. The other end of this has been people panic-buying food and toilet paper, consuming the stocks of the supermarket at an unprecedented rate and leaving nothing behind for people who cannot afford to buy in bulk, such as the poor, the elderly, and healthcare workers who simply do not have the time to do such large shops because they are too busy treating the infected. However, given the circumstances and the shock that many people felt when the cases seemingly suddenly spiked, in the first instance, it is not surprising to see that people were panic-buying for the survival of their closest circles. It is not surprising that people will act irrationally or in an antisocial way during a period of panic such as this. However, as examined above, this has not stopped many organizations and people from continuing to help the communities in need, sometimes at the expense of their own health.
In the case of the cities of Turkey, it has also become obvious that some elements of the local and national state used the pandemic and quarantine almost as an opportunity to bypass public resistance and urban dissent. In the face of such events, NGOs and associations made perfect use of digital platforms such as social networks and video-sharing websites through online interviews with various experts, countless hashtags, and online protests. In the case of the Istanbul Canal there was also an effort to raise awareness through leaflets and posters all around Istanbul even if they were removed by the police forces. This goes to show that the urban resistance is alive and well, even under the uncertain circumstances created by Covid-19, and is extremely adaptable.
 Annie Wilkinson (2020), “Key considerations: COVID-19 in informal urban settlements”, Social Science in Humanitarian Action Platform (SSHAP), available at https://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/bitstream/handle/20.500.12413/15185/SSHAP_COVID-19_Key_Considerations_Informal_Settlements-final.pdf?sequence=15&isAllowed=y. Last accessed on 2 October 2020.
 W. Checkley, S. L. Pollard, T. Siddharthan, G. R. Babu, M. Thakur, C. H. Miele, O. C. P. van Schayck (2016), “Managing threats to respiratory health in urban slums”, The Lancet, vol.4, issue 11, pp. 852–854.
 This Convention regulates the passage of international ships thorough canals such as the Bosphorus and Çanakkale. According to the regulations, only warships of countries that have a coast by the Black Sea can use the canals. With the Istanbul Canal project, the future of the arrangements for passage of all sorts of ships including warships becomes vague.
 Ya Kanal Ya Istanbul(Either Canal or Istanbul), multiple interviews, August 2020. These interviews were conducted and translated by the author.