In Mumbai’s Dharavi slum, a woman known in the community only as Mrs. Mehta fell sick with COVID-19. Her outlook was not good: the social safety net in Mumbai was thin, and no public hospital had room for her. As a maid, she had no spare money to pay for a visit to a doctor. But she was not completely alone. The Dharavi community had formed a network using mobile apps such as IndiaChat and even Allindiachat (a repurposed dating app) to link neighbor to neighbor. Through such networks, other residents learned that Mrs. Mehta had contracted the disease. Every day, someone delivered food to her, backing away from the door when she opened it to greet them. She would then close it, and the two would speak for several minutes before the neighbor would depart.

This setup was obviously no cure for Mrs. Mehta’s illness. Indeed, the elderly widow died just 13 days after showing her first symptoms. The local public hospital was already overloaded, and local medics, who lacked protective equipment or mobile medical supplies, could not come to her aid. Her death, however, was not invisible. In a place where the pandemic’s toll is almost taken for granted, apps such as IndiaChat, whose emoji library makes messages legible even to those with low literacy levels, have broadened and strengthened community cohesion. Rather than just her handful of friends, nearly 2,000 people in Mrs. Mehta’s network noticed and mourned her passing.

The course of Mrs. Mehta’s last days and of the COVID-19 pandemic as a whole raises anew the question of how governments and citizens can organize welfare programs in poor communities—those where the safety net is thin, torn, or absent. Although mobile technologies cannot substitute for ventilators and advanced therapeutics, they have come to provide a much-needed social service: a sense of connectedness that was once absent. Such online forums might not outlast the pandemic, but by playing the role they have in places like Dharavi, they have demonstrated the need and the potential for flexible, responsive alternatives to the rigid bureaucracies that tend to dominate welfare.

TECHNOLOGY AND SEGREGATION

Urban ghettos are islands rather than inkblots: they have tightly defined perimeters isolating them from richer neighborhoods. Urban planners in the twentieth century, whether in New York City or Caracas, often laid out highways in a manner that deliberately segregated the poor. Save for live-in servants, mixed housing is largely absent in cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Johannesburg. Shanghai withholds access to services, such as education and medical care, to those who lack a resident “passport,” effectively cordoning off the city’s large population of migrant workers. The sociologist Douglas Massey has documented the profound depth of racial ghettoization in American cities.

Such segregation affects health-care provision in a particular way. The United Nations has long sought to meet medical needs in the global South by building local, small-scale clinics within poor communities. But few of these facilities can provide the protective environment and complex machinery that COVID-19 requires. Such equipment is more likely to be concentrated in central city hospitals. The pandemic has therefore exposed the limitations of medical decentralization, as desperately ill patients flood clinics inadequately equipped for a crisis of such scale and lethality. The city of Havana offers a shining exception: its local health clinic has managed brilliantly, with only a fraction of the resources New York City or London can command. But few other cities in the global South have met this standard.

Mobile technologies have come to provide a much-needed social service.

Communities that have such disparate experiences with the pandemic also have disparate experiences with digital technology. Since the emergence of the novel coronavirus, the Western press has focused its discussion of technology on affluent societies, where connectivity allows people to work from home and avoid mass transit use, thus thinning out the center of cities. In the slums of Mumbai, the favelas of Rio, and the townships of Johannesburg, such talk is a luxury. A person can’t haul garbage or clean houses online, and the manual-laboring poor are necessarily more exposed to risk. Apple and Google have devised test and trace apps that work well—but once they identify who is ill in poor neighborhoods, what then? In many cases, the only treatment resource is quarantine, and local doctors and nurses lack surgical gloves and other protective equipment. The mobile phone, such as it is, is the only medical instrument that some health professionals possess.

And so poor communities have adopted online networks as a last resort and a replacement for care that fails or is missing altogether. At UN-Habitat, where I consult, we have seen evidence to suggest that such networks have sprung up all over the world. They are based on free chatroom apps that are technologically simple and easy to install. These platforms allow community members to offer one another support services, check on small money transfers, and connect with faraway family members, including those in rural areas. Poor communities have used online networks to mitigate everyday risks and address the depression and isolation that the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have imposed.

NEW NETWORKS

Online help networks might put one in mind of the mutual aid organizations that working-class communities created in the United Kingdom and the United States during the nineteenth century, such as burial societies, co-op banks, and mortgage providers. But the present is not a clone of the past. The mutual aid groups were voluntary associations like those Alexis de Tocqueville described: communal but formal, requiring people to apply for membership and be vetted. Online is not Tocquevillian: there are no criteria for membership other than possessing a mobile phone. The communities are informal, fluid, and open to all.

As the sociologist Theda Skocpol has long argued, a welfare system needs a welfare state. Voluntary organizations proved hopelessly inadequate in dealing with the economic needs of those suffering during the Great Depression, just as online communication networks alone cannot remedy people in medical distress today. Yet there are lessons to be learned from past efforts.

In 1942, William Beveridge crafted his influential blueprint for the post-Depression, postwar British welfare state. He focused on stabilizing society by adopting a basic minimum wage, guaranteeing a certain retirement income, and providing free medical care at the point of service. Beveridge’s model made ordinary people the beneficiaries of help: they were essentially an audience for state power and did not participate in providing their own welfare.

The tools of big tech have proved inadequate to the task of addressing systemic disorder.

Such thinking may be hampering the responses of central governments to their poorest citizens in need today. Hospital officials in Mumbai should join the Dharavi network and use it as an early-warning and monitoring system. But they have not thought to do this, perhaps because the members of the online community are nonprofessionals whom officials perceive as ignorant—and poor to boot. The online communities offer health authorities an opportunity, if they will take it, to engage the public not as beneficiaries and recipients of care but as participants in providing welfare.

Beveridge and his peers understood the forces destabilizing their societies to be economic and military. They did not envision disordering stresses such as pandemics or climate change. The big lesson of the period through which the planet is now passing is that those stresses are systemic rather than episodic. When COVID-19 is mastered, another disease that threatens the globe will take its place. Climate change is so far advanced that its effects will disorder society for generations to come.

A decade ago, purveyors of technology sold their goods to the public as a transformative cure-all for society’s ills. But so far, the tools of big tech have proved inadequate to the task of addressing systemic disorder. Services for the well off are meaningless to masses of immiserated people. To a poor community in crisis, speed, bandwidth, and storage capacity are irrelevant. The greater need is for connection: to hear a loved one’s voice, to receive a message from a neighbor who needs help, to learn that a relative far away has survived an infection. Sadly, in India and elsewhere, government policy supports luxury technology and fails to employ the usable, simple services that bind poor communities to one other and potentially beyond.

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  • RICHARD SENNETT is Senior Adviser to the UN Program on Climate Change and Cities, a Senior Fellow at the Center on Capitalism and Society at Columbia University, and a Visiting Professor of Urban Studies at MIT.
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