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In Cramped Urban Quarters Of Pakistan, It's Impossible To Keep Your Distance


Social distancing is how health officials say the spread of the coronavirus will be curbed. But having space is a luxury for most people in the developing world, including Pakistan, where people live in crammed quarters. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: I'm standing on a main street in Islamabad, and I'm facing one of the city's largest slums. Here, houses are smushed together. The doors are barely a few feet apart. There's a small river that runs between the houses, and it reeks of sewage.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Some boys play on a narrow footpath - one flies a kite, others play marbles.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: We meet Peter Joseph walking toward the colony. He, his wife and four kids live in one room there.

PETER JOSEPH: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He worries about them catching the coronavirus.

JOSEPH: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: They wear masks and use hand sanitizer.

JOSEPH: (Through interpreter) Whatever precaution we can take we are taking (non-English language spoken).

HADID: But he says there's no way to isolate family members if one of them gets sick.

JOSEPH: (Through interpreter) Even if somebody falls ill, I would still have to keep them in the same room because I only have one room.

HADID: Many Pakistanis live like Peter Joseph.

NAUSHEEN ANWAR: I really, really honestly believe that urban Pakistan is at the front line of the COVID-19 crisis.

HADID: That's Nausheen Anwar. She's a professor of urban planning and the director of the Karachi Urban Lab in Karachi, a city of at least 13 million people, most of whom live in slums. Anwar says they have little or no access to clean water and sanitation.

ANWAR: If we compare this, you know, for a moment with countries that have been decimated by COVID-19, countries like Italy and Spain, for example, where there is almost universal access to clean water and sanitation, what we've seen is that virus has spread at an absolutely unimaginable pace. So what are we looking at when we think of urban Pakistan?

HADID: Urban Pakistan - it's places like the Lyari slum in Karachi. An activist there posted this video.


HADID: Crowds cram on a narrow street brushing against each other buying food. This is during a shutdown. We reached a resident there, Pir Bux. He says, people have nowhere else to go.

PIR BUX: (Through interpreter) Everybody is on the streets - kids, young people, the elderly. If the police ask them to leave, they just converge somewhere else.

HADID: Bux's neighbor is Mohammad Abid. He lives with his brothers, their wives and children, about 25 people in five rooms. He says if the coronavirus rips through here...

MOHAMMAD ABID: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: ...It would be like Italy. He says, there won't be enough people left to collect the bodies.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.