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In pandemic, new U.N. envoy sees chance to rethink housing

by Rina Chandran | @rinachandran | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 26 May 2020 12:29 GMT

A homeless person wears a face mask to protect himself from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at the Taipei main station in Taipei, Taiwan, May 20, 2020. REUTERS/Ann Wang

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In pandemic, new U.N. envoy sees chance to rethink housing

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By Rina Chandran

BANGKOK, May 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Housing is the "front line" of the battle against the coronavirus, the new independent United Nations expert on the issue has said, calling the pandemic an opportunity for the world to rethink its approach.

Balakrishnan Rajagopal took on the role this month and with travel off the agenda, has had to meet government officials and civil society groups remotely to ensure the most vulnerable people have adequate and safe shelter during the crisis.

With more than 5.4 million people reported infected globally, a lack of adequate housing has come to the forefront, with slums and informal settlements from Rio de Janeiro to Manila emerging as hotspots for the virus.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that housing is the front line in the fight against it - but too many lack adequate and safe housing, and are at risk of becoming homeless," Rajagopal told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"The crisis has shown the importance of housing as not only a shelter, but also a workplace, a creche, a daycare centre and a home for the aged," said Rajagopal, associate professor of law and development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Globally, about 1.8 billion people are either homeless or live in inadequate housing, according to the U.N.

While there is no data on how many of them have been infected with the novel coronavirus, those living in inadequate shelters cannot practise social distancing and have limited access to running water, human rights groups say.

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In addition, many more people will be at risk of eviction as they lose jobs and are unable to make rent, said Rajagopal, who got his first law degree in India.

He previously worked as the top U.N. human rights official in Cambodia, where he received the highest royal award for foreign nationals.


Temporary measures such as moratoriums on evictions and relief for renters should lead to more "long-term legal and financial measures to assist those most at risk," said Rajagopal.

"Migrant labourers are particularly adversely affected. The lack of safe and adequate shelter for labourers in cities where they live should not become a death sentence as they go back to their hometowns and villages out of desperation," he said.

Life-saving measures to house the most vulnerable during coronavirus lockdowns risk falling by the wayside after the crisis ends, the former U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing Leilani Farha has warned.

This can only be avoided if governments stop evictions and mass displacements, and assure tenure security for those who live in insecure housing or informal settlements with better quality and more affordable housing, Rajagopal said.

"These measures can lead to housing emerging as a right, instead of a commodity alone," he added, suggesting that with governments forced to think about housing, the pandemic could be a tipping point.

"Just as employment and work are likely to change profoundly as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, housing is likely to change as well, with significant consequences for the legal, social and economic status of housing," he said.

"I hope we see it as an opportunity to reimagine housing for the post-COVID-19 world."

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(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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