COVID-19 Infections in the Slums: An Anthropological Exploration

Urban slums have been some of the most vulnerable communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Overcrowding and resource constraints make physical distancing and self-quarantine nearly impossible, creating the risk of rapid spread of the virus and increasing infections. BIGD conducted an anthropological exploration of three slums in Dhaka to uncover the emic views of slum dwellers’ everyday life during the pandemic and to understand the outbreak from their perspective.

Researchers: Dr Shahaduz ZamanFaruq Hossain; Shamael Ahmed; Dr Imran Matin

Partners: Brighton and Sussex Medical School

Timeline: 2020–2021

Status: Completed

Method: Qualitative

Contact: Dr Shahaduz Zaman


Journal article: Ethnography of Community Governance: A Case of COVID-19 Response of an Urban Slum in Bangladesh

Working paper: Slums During COVID-19: Exploring the Unlocked Paradoxes

Report: “Paradox” of Korail Slum during COVID-19: Ethnography of Governance from Below

Research brief: COVID-19: Community Resilience in Urban Informal Settlements

Presentation slides: Webinar: Paradox of Korail Slum during COVID-19: Ethnography of Governance


Informal urban settlements, commonly known as slums, are characterized by a lack of proper housing and tenure security. They also have insufficient living spaces and poor access to safe water and sanitation. Due to such living conditions, physical distancing and self-quarantining is virtually impossible in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the rapid spread of infection is deemed to be highly probable. Dhaka is home to more than five million slum dwellers and has the highest number of positive cases in the country (UNICEF, 2020). However, in July 2020, the Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) shared that the slums of Dhaka had little to no positive cases (Shaheen & Islam, 2020). Though the conversations in the media and among other stakeholders were focused on these risk factors as well as the economic distress of slum dwellers, the discussions were primarily from the perspective of “outsiders” with limited understanding of what was happening in the slums.


The study aims to explore the local narratives of COVID-19 among slum dwellers to understand their lived experience during the pandemic, to identify the home-grown interventions taken by the slum dwellers against the pandemic, and to understand the community governance mechanisms applied in tacking the pandemic.


The study takes an ethnographic approach to document the patterns of social interaction and the perspectives of participants to understand the findings in light of the context of the people being studied. Data were collected by four trained anthropologists between January 2021 and March 2021. In addition, several other ethnographic and qualitative research methods were used to triangulate the data. We collected data in Korail from August 2020 to November 2020. A total of 36 in-depth interviews (IDIs) and 16 key informant interviews (KIIs) were conducted across the Gabtali and Sadek Khan slums. We also utilized Participatory Rapid Appraisal (PRA) tools such as problem ranking.

Findings and Recommendations

The overall scenario in the slums during the pandemic was quite similar. However, there were a few differences which could be due to the distinctive community nature of the slums. For example, the Sadek Khan slum had an absence of a sense of community, whereas Gabtali—similar to Korail—had a strong presence of communal feeling. Since these two slums were on government land, they had a sense of ownership working towards the community. On the other hand, Sadek Khan residents were mostly renters and had lesser ownership of the houses or land they resided in. Hence most of their goals were individualistic and their activities as a community were negligible compared to the other two slums. It is visible from the findings that all three of the slums, irrespective of their distinctive communities, stood strong against the pandemic. 


The study is part of the Covid Collective initiative. Supported by the UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), the Covid Collective is based at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS). The Collective brings together the expertise of UK and Southern-based research partner organizations and offers a rapid social science research response to inform decision-making on some of the most pressing development challenges related to COVID-19.