Who gets to stay at home? Social distancing in Asia’s megacities

In Asia’s densely populated cities, social distancing possibilities are limited. The pandemic reveals the need for more sustainable responses and people-centred urban planning.


Asia has seen rapid urbanization with an annual urban growth rate of 3.4 percent compared to 1 per cent in Europe and the United States. Of the thirty-three global megacities with a population of at least ten million, nineteen are in Asia, ten of them in China and India. Additionally, there are hundreds of metropolitan areas with more than one million people, merging into mega-conurbations, vast urban settlements with multiple centres.

This development led to a rise in population density with six of the world’s most crowded cities being in Asia. The challenges this poses for policy makers and urban planners are highlighted in the pandemic. Especially the lower class has been side-lined, living in crammed quarters or slums. And while COVID-19 might not discriminate, containment measures often do. A lack of social welfare, job security, and space leave the marginalized more vulnerable. Lacking governmental support is substituted by self-organization, private initiatives, religious groups, and NGOs.

In times of crisis, adequate governmental action is needed to protect the civil rights of all members of society. Blanket solutions commonly fail to cater to the distinct needs of the most vulnerable. Annie Wilkinson highlights the lack of comprehensive data collection on informal settlings, asking “How do epidemiological models predict spread in populations they have no data for”? As many of Asia's major cities struggle with similar issues, an evaluation of on-going responses and community efforts could support the development of more sustainable mechanisms in the future.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated and expensive cities in the world. Many immigrants and poor elderly work in low-income jobs and despite social distancing, the city relies on many in “essential” jobs like construction, cleaning, or delivery services. To them, home-office is not an option.

For the 20 percent who live under the poverty line, being told to #stayhome can feel like detention. In confined spaces, illegal rooftop dwellings or sub-divided units with shared kitchens and bathrooms, physical distancing is impossible. Hong Kong’s housing prices have led some to rent partitioned beds, sub-sections in badly ventilated 40 sqm flat-shares. Conditions that drive others to rather stay outside. The city’s homeless population has direct implications for its efforts to contain the epidemic. As Tony, a 53-year old homeless man told the South China Morning Post: “Are we really going to start sleeping on the streets when the parks get too crowded? I’d rather catch the virus and get some proper rest in a hospital.”

In the last decade, the number of rough sleepers has more than doubled. Because only few shelters are available, 24-hour McDonalds restaurants have posed as de-facto homes for the so-called McRefugees. After a public outcry, the chain reversed a COVID-19 related stop of evening dine-in services and let them back in. So far, the Hong Kong government has made an effort to keep businesses running and allow people to go out for their daily necessities and some fresh air. But even though the government approved  multiple billion HKD relief packages, the financial and social support of the poor has received little attention.

Asian megacities with populations living in slums

In other parts of Asia, the quickly growing informal slum settlements pose an even bigger challenge to contain the spread of COVID-19. From Manila and Dhaka, to Delhi and Karachi, low-wage migrants dwell in living quarters that often even lack the necessary hygiene facilities, let alone space for social distancing.

When the nation-wide lockdown on Indian citizens was announced by the government, it <link news stories-of-hunger-indias-lockdown-is-hitting-the-poorest>triggered an exodus of millions of poor from the metropolitan areas. Crowded living conditions in slums increase the risks of contracting the virus. Due to the lack of sanitation, many people living in slums resort to public bathrooms or open spaces. Water is often only provided through shared tabs, used by hundreds of people, many of which have to walk long distances to get access. In some slums, the water supply is normally provided by workers that have now returned to their rural homes. Once more the scramble for a comprehensive response to the outbreak of a pandemic has led to the exclusion of the vulnerable populations leaving them on their own.

In Manila, a megacity under lockdown, the poor have been facing sudden unemployment and no financial support or additional health benefits. While some left the city before the lockdown and returned to their families, others opted to stay in Metro Manila as they rely on their daily income. About three million people commute daily from the outskirts into Manila. During the lockdown, informal workers without proof of employment were particularly hard hit as they were banned from entering the city. Ms. Baldoza, a volunteer and resident of the San Roque community, told the New York Times: “We haven’t received help from the government, no help from the outside, except the donations that they give us. And people can’t work”. Those who dare to confront this situation and break social distancing rules may even face being shot by security forces.

Government responses all over the Asia-Pacific region have highlighted the reliance of urban areas on cheap rural labour migration and societies’ deficiencies in social welfare protection. The demonstrated lack of people-centred city planning should become a starting point for future improvements.


Anna Julia Fiedler is a Hong Kong-based freelance researcher and member of the editorial board of the German area studies magazine, Asien, of the German Society for Asian Studies. She holds a Masters in Asian Studies from Leiden University and a Bachelor of Arts in East Asian Studies, Sinology, Political Sciences as well as Social and Cultural Anthropology from the Freie Universität Berlin.

The views expressed in this blog series are not necessarily those of FES.

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