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M East Ward, Mumbai. December 2019.

M East Ward in India’s Financial Capital, Mumbai, is one of the most lethal peace-time neighborhoods in the world. If an entire Ward could have pre-existing conditions (thereby making it more vulnerable to Coronavirus), it would be M East Ward. Home to 900,000 people, this tightly packed region is bound by a sewage treatment plant (very top left of photo), Deonar dumping ground (top left), a series of nallahs (drainage channels that have morphed into open sewers on account of non-existent municipal services), and a national highway (bottom right).

But, me being me, I always try and look on the bright side, even when it is dark. (my wife calls me the ultimate optimist). So here is a rundown of some good news.

BMC officials are sanitizing public toilets in this ward. Now, this is a relatively simple task as there are only 501 toilets, total. So, even though someone may be #80 in line to use the toilet (yes, some parts of this ward have 80 users per toilet seat), they can find solace in the fact that, 80 shits ago, their toilet was sanitized. (sarcasm, of course)

Many residents already have a doctor, or know someone who does. With drug-resistant Tuberculosis prevalent (2,800 recorded cases) in this ward, doctors are a part and parcel of life. Dr. Zarir Udwadia, who has been extensively involved in the discovery and treatment of the drug-resistant bacterial beast, told The Hindu, We are looking at video and e-consultations to ensure our critical extensively drug-resistant TB patients are under constant supervision.

People can now spend some time at home with their families. Of course, this sounds good on paper, but in reality, it is a tight mess. 10 people often share a 10' x 10' room. Activist Jamila Ethaqulla (Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan) had this to say: “Women hygiene issues have exacerbated during the lockdown in slums. On the one hand, the government has asked to ensure social distancing but with the men sitting at home, the slums are more crowded than ever, posing more challenges for the women here.

The elderly population in this ward is minimal. We all know by now that Coronavirus preys on the elderly. The good news is that one is hard-pressed to find elderly residents in M East Ward slums, and that is because the average life expectancy is a mere 39 years (the national average is 67). So, again on paper, the numbers look good, but of course, the reality is more like cat years. In essence, a 39-year-old in Govandi has the body of a 67-year-old at Malabar Hill.

So of course, most the good news is actually bad news. But given the general depression engulfing much of the world, one does what one can to twist the arm of darkness to find a breaking point, a crevice through which a flicker of light may pass to illuminate the pre-existing darkness.

Written by

Robert Stephens

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