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Exploring the impact of COVID-19 pandemic lockdown on informal settlements in Tshwane Gauteng Province, South Africa

Our take —

This study conducted qualitative in-depth interviews with 30 informal settlement dwellers receiving food assistance in Tshwane, South Africa during a COVID-19 lockdown. Interviews revealed the deleterious economic, social, and health-related impacts of COVID-19 lockdown policies on low-income households and communities.

Study design

Cross-Sectional, Other

Study population and setting

The authors conducted telephone interviews with 30 men and women receiving pandemic relief assistance from humanitarian organizations operating in informal settlements in Tshwane, South Africa. Interviews were conducted during the 21-day lockdown imposed by South Africa’s government, which mandated the closure of all schools and non-essential business and required all South Africans to shelter in place if not reporting for an essential job, seeking medical care, or purchasing food or other essential items.

Summary of Main Findings

Participants reported difficulties adhering to social distancing recommendations, given overcrowded housing conditions in informal settlements. In spite of the lockdown orders, participants expressed concerns about COVID-19 transmission in informal settlements due to people continuing to congregate in public spaces. Increased strain on public infrastructure, including waste management, due to crowding within the settlement was an unintended consequence of the lockdown. Many participants were forced deeper into poverty due to lost wages from business closures. Insufficient money also exacerbated food insecurity, which some participants reported destabilized medication adherence for people living with HIV and tuberculosis. While South African schools adapted to online modalities of delivery, poor internet connectivity and lack of internet access in many households resulted in temporary school discontinuation and attrition. Lastly, increased isolation due to mobility restrictions increased sentiments of anxiety and depression.

Study Strengths

The authors implemented qualitative interviews to gain a deeper understanding of informal settlement dwellers’ experiences during the mandated national lockdown. The iterative thematic analysis of interview transcripts allowed the study team to interrogate and critically examine their interpretations of participant narratives captured in the interviews.


Given the inductive and exploratory nature of the research, the authors could not probe or compare the experiences of informal settlement dwellers of Tshwane to those in other settings. Participants were also receiving pandemic relief from humanitarian organizations, which may render their experiences incomparable to those of other informal settlement dwellers or South Africans who did not receive or require this assistance. Additionally, the qualitative results summarized did not explicitly present comparisons in salient themes or experiences between participant strata, including gender or age.

Value added

This is among the first published studies to use qualitative methods to document the impact of COVID-related lockdowns on low-income individuals living in informal settlements, particularly in the African setting.

This review was posted on: 8 September 2020