Social distancing is often a luxury for the world's most vulnerable, who live in very crowded communities. How can they still support their families while protecting them from COVID-19?

Guadencia carefully steps across her brother's outstretched legs, weaving her way between family members until she reaches the doorway. Thrusting aside the floral curtain, she pokes her head outside.

Fresh air cools her face, tainted by acrid smoke and the eye-watering smell of open drains. Still, it is sweet relief to escape from the stifling tin room her family of seven call home.

Her neighbours are metres away, separated by only a few sheets of rusting corrugated iron. Around her, thousands of shacks are packed together so tightly they are accessible only by foot. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a steady stream of people walks past.

How Can You Socially Distance in a Slum?

In Kibera, it is business as usual.

To curb the growing number of cases of the highly contagious virus, the Kenyan Government has instructed citizens to maintain social distance and practise good hygiene. But in Africa's largest urban slum, physical distancing is a luxury few can afford.

Half of Kibera's residents are unemployed. The rest work mostly as casual labourers, earning just enough each day to survive. If they don't go out to work, their family may not eat that day.

The pandemic has already left 10-year-old Guadencia's family on the verge of homelessness.

How Can You Socially Distance in a Slum?

"It has been a difficult two weeks," says her mother Dorcas, who works as a cleaner in a Nairobi factory. Her sweet face, usually quick to smile, creases with worry. "We have not been paid for this month since the boss travelled to India and has been unable to come back."

Unable to pay the monthly rent, Dorcas pleaded with her landlord and borrowed money from a friend to prevent them from being turned out onto the street.

According to Ken, Kibera Church of God Child Development Centre's social worker, it is a scenario playing out across the slum, as the pandemic worsens already challenging situations.

"Dorcas isn't the only one experiencing these tough times," he says.

"Many caregivers are mainly rate workers, day labourers, and informal traders. And many of them are under heavy pressure to keep working to be able to put food on the table."

Compassion staff are providing food baskets to ease this burden and help families to stay safe at home, but there are more challenges to overcome.

A key weapon in the fight against the virus is frequent handwashing. Yet Kibera has no formal water connections, and few residents in the sprawling settlement have access to running water.

"While washing hands frequently is paramount to keeping the virus at bay, sometmes it is just not available, or we are forced to make the difficult choice between purchasing water or purchasing food to keep hunger pangs at bay," says Dorcas.

Another measure to prevent the spread of the virus is social distancing. This, too, is challenging for the family. Their single-room home is smaller than the average Western kitchen and houses seven people.

"Our children live in very tightly packed spaces. They share a lot of the spaces with neighbours who are just a few metres apart. Trying to keep the physical distancing rule is just not possible," says Ken.

In Southeast Asia, a similar story emerges in the Philippines.

How Can You Socially Distance in a Slum?

In a squatters' community in Cebu City, children and adults are desperate to flee their cramped, sweltering homes.

"It's not easy, I understand," says sponsored young adult Mae Caila Gepiga, 20. "I see so many children and even teenagers playing outside, although they have been instructed to stay at home to stop the virus. But sadly in our community, instead of staying at home, young people are still playing and roaming outside."

Together with Compassion's local church partner, Mae is helping to encourage children to stay home.

Staff created a Facebook group to communicate with the families registered with the Child Sponsorship Program, sending reminders about the importance of staying home and the reassurance that staff will deliver food.

In Nicaragua, families are facing a different struggle.

In Tipitapa, western Nicaragua, the dusty streets are wide and quiet except for a rooster's crow and the occasional passing car.

Brothers James and Johnny stand outside the squat tin homes lining the road, a patchwork of tin and timber built directly onto the bare earth. James is a head taller than his brother and wraps a protective arm around his younger sibling's slim shoulders.

The neighbourhood is not so crowded that they also rub shoulders with their neighbours. The Zapata family has a different problem.

How Can You Socially Distance in a Slum?

Employment was already scarce in the rural community. The lockdown means providing for their five children is far more complicated, particularly because the children no longer receive a meal at school or their temporarily closed Compassion centre.

"We stopped going to classes at the Compassion centre, and I miss it a lot. The centre has always been a blessing for us. They gave us food and taught us about the Bible," says James.

Before Compassion's intervention, the Zapatas faced a terrible decision: stay home and risk starvation or try to find work and risk contagion.

Amidst the difficult situation, the boys' Compassion child development centre continues providing vital support. Staff visit vulnerable families to check on their wellbeing and deliver supplies.

"The children are our priority. By doing this, coming to their houses, bringing them food and asking how they're doing during this quarantine, we are helping them cope and showing them that we care," says centre tutor, Gleydis Castillo.

"That is why the assistance we offer hasn't stopped despite the crisis, because it's in our hearts to provide them with as much help as we can."

How Can You Socially Distance in a Slum?

As the world tries to undertake physical distancing, Compassion's local church partners are never far away.

Despite child development centres being closed, the children remain in their prayers, thoughts and actions.

"We want the children to see that each member of the centre staff is caring for them even if we're not close together anymore. That we are always praying for them and will always help them in any way we can," says Centre Director Raquel Valle Menéses.

Across the world in the Philippines, Centre Director Reynesto Garcia agrees.

"We remain at their side," he says. "We are on the front lines. It is our call of duty."

Back in Kibera, Guadenica skips inside. Her mother pours precious water from a bucket so the little girl can wash her hands; a virus prevention lesson they learned from staff.

"I remind everyone to wash their hands when they come from outside," she says confidently. "I also ensure that I do it in order to be safe."

In places where social distancing is a distant dream, Compassion's local church partners are doing all they can to protect the vulnerable.

To help us enable them to continue this vital work, please consider giving to Compassion's Disaster Relief Fund.


Words by Zoe Noakes

Photos by Isaac Oglia, Edwin Estioko and Junieth Dinarte