Rethinking cities to beat pandemics

Residents of the Paraisopolis favela protest to demand that the Government of Jair Bolsonaro not stop state aid amid the crisis caused by the covid-19 pandemic, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. One year after the start of the pandemic, deaths and cases of covid-19 are increasing day by day in Brazil, but aid for the poorest does not stop falling. (Source: Keystone)

When it comes to cities, “a paradigm shift” is urgently needed to tackle pandemics, urges the UN agency on sustainable urban centres.

Imagine having cities armed with the tools to respond to future pandemics. A new UN report says this could become a reality by rethinking how people move through neighborhoods and redesigning more equitable and sustainable urban centres.

The report Cities and Pandemics: Towards a More Just, Green and Healthy Future, launched on Tuesday by the United Nations’ Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), calls for a new “social contract”, whilst offering lessons learnt needed for pandemic preparedness.

"We need to establish a new social contract for collective recovery. One that considers universal basic income, health insurance and housing. Cities are the starting point for this new consensus to be built and brought to other levels," said UN-Habitat head of knowledge Eduardo Moreno.

Shining a light on the burden of Covid on urban centres, the findings show that 95 per cent of all cases were recorded in cities in the first few months of the pandemic, which has killed almost 2.8 million people and wrecked economies globally.

"Our cities and towns have been hit the hardest by the pandemic," Maimunah Mohd Sharif, executive director of UN-Habitat. But despite these pressures, many local governments and community leaders in urban areas responded quickly and effectively to prevent the spread of the virus as well as mitigate its effects, which according to Sharif is the first step towards accelerating recovery.

However, the report argues that to reduce the impact of future pandemics, governments need use the lessons learnt from Covid-19 and address the inequalities that exist within cities, and which exacerbated the crisis, such as overcrowded living conditions.

Bearing the brunt of the pandemic. Based on evidence from more than 1,700 cities, the report found that patterns of inequality act as destabilising factors in increasing the scale and impact of the coronavirus. These inequalities play out in the absence of basic services, including inadequate housing and lack of access to clean water, transport, as well as the economic consequences of lockdowns.

The pandemic “exacerbated” poor living conditions of more than one billion people living in inadequate housing and an estimated  “120 million people in the world will be pushed into poverty and living standards will reduce by 23 per cent,” said Moreno.

Case studies: In the case of New York, for instance, an eye watering 71 per cent of deaths were in the poorest neighbourhoods, whereas only six per cent were in richer communities.

Hit differently by the pandemic, the overall cases have been low in Singapore, yet some 93 per cent of the migrant worker populations accounted for all positive tests. With fingers pointing to “poorly designed and overcrowded” dormitories where workers were held in the wake of the lockdown.

Beyond this, the findings illustrated that Covid infections in many informal settlements are not recognised or reported. In Rio de Janeiro for example a study carried out last June in six of the city’s most marginalised neighbourhoods found that the actual infection levels might be up to 30 times greater than official estimates.

Marginalised communities in precarious living situations are unfairly targeted by the pandemic as witnessed in eviction of those in informal settlements, particularly at the height of the first wave.

In Nairobi for instance, due to Covid thousands were forced out of their homes with very little warning and minimal support for finding alternative housing and compensation, despite legal measures in place to protect marginalised groups. In Kariobangi, one of the main informal settlements in Nairobi, some 8,000 residents were forced from the area and “their homes destroyed despite a court order in place prohibiting authorities from undertaking the eviction,” the report stated.

Calls for a new social contract: With cities at the forefront, a “new social contract” is needed between all stakeholders including civil society, governments, private sector and citizens, the report says

“Cities are engines of dynamism and innovation and can help us overcome development deficits. They can spearhead reforms towards a new social contract to tackle poverty, strengthen social protection, restore public trust and reach people who are on the margins or who face discrimination,” UN secretary general António Guterres states in the foreword of the report.

At the launch, the mayor of Bogotá, Claudia Lopez Hernandez, explained how the Colombian capital is recognising the new social contract, by prioritising women and children.

“We need a social contract that includes women, that provides them with time, with time to take care of themselves, with time to educate themselves, and with time and education skills to come back to the labour market,”  said Hernandez.

Speaking on the Spanish experience, Madrid city councilor Santiago Saura agreed that both his own city and Bogota shared the common priority of building inclusive and sustainable cities that could weather any storm.

For Saura, however, the focus would be on the transformational power of technology.

“Madrid is working in assigning an artificial intelligence strategic vision for further development and transformation of the city  and its strategic objectives response, prioritising  our citizens, territory, but also aiming for the maximum alignment with the sustainable development goal agenda,” said Saura.

“The pandemic is an X-ray that goes very deep in our society and is telling us about our inherent inequalities,”said Moreno.

To change the harsh realities brought to light by the pandemic, the report calls for a “paradigm shift, a transformative change,” as returning to normalcy is no longer enough. According to the UN urban centres agency, well-planned cities combining residential and commercial with public spaces, along with affordable housing, can improve public health, the local economy and the environment.

Using lessons learnt from the current pandemic, the report asks urban leaders and planners to “rethink” the form and function of cities.

A new normal can emerge in cities “where health, housing and security are prioritised for the most vulnerable not only out of social necessity, but also from a profound commitment to human rights for all.”