PLANNING FOR A PANDEMIC IN CITIES: WHO DO WE PLAN FOR FIRST?
”. A key message that reverberated across the sessions and events of the WUF 10 was the need for an inclusive and people-centric approach to sustainable urban development through strengthening of local coping capacities and mainstreaming resilience in urban policy frameworks. However, due to the onset of the current COVID-19 pandemic, there were fewer participants/delegates at the forum than previous years, along with a few empty exhibits and canceled sessions because of travel advisories and restrictions.
In February 2020, UN-Habitat in Abu Dhabi organized the 10th session of the World Urban Forum (WUF 10) with the overarching theme of “Cities of Opportunities: Connecting Culture and Innovation”. A key message that reverberated across the sessions and events of the WUF 10 was the need for an inclusive and people-centric approach to sustainable urban development through strengthening of local coping capacities and mainstreaming resilience in urban policy frameworks. However, due to the onset of the current COVID-19 pandemic, there were fewer participants/delegates at the forum than previous years, along with a few empty exhibits and cancelled sessionsbecause of travel advisories and restrictions.
The WUF 10 thus presented a microcosm of the global ‘biological disaster’ that was to follow – of empty streets, of restricted mobility, and of strained public infrastructure. And the ever higher need to achieve the objective of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to ‘leave no one behind’, especially those who are vulnerable, in attempts to solve unprecedented challenges in the face of a pandemic.
Even when the outbreak of COVID-19 was primarily an epidemic in its originating country, densely populated and well-connected urban areas faced the maximum impact.Then in a matter of few weeks, the coronavirus spread to millions of people across the globe and was consequentially declared as a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) due to the simultaneous global outbreak. The “culture of congestion” and hustle that made cities appealing, became the optimal backdrop for propagating a ‘culture of contagion’. Amidst this menacing threat of COVID-19 in many Indian cities with million plus populations such as Mumbai and New Delhi, how then do we identify which individuals and communities to plan for first and allocate resources correspondingly?
During pandemics, people with pre-existing medical conditions, senior citizens, and infants are particularly vulnerable to the virus and make up a high share of the emergency cases. However, vulnerability encompasses a broad spectrum of intersectoral factors - such as wealth, social status, and gender, so vulnerable populations include all those sensitive or susceptible to harm and lack the capacity to cope after exposure to risks. In times of forced self-isolation and mandatory quarantine periods, our homes serve as the refuge against the virus. But what about those not privileged enough to have a permanent roof over their heads? Due to growing gig economy activities, a high number of daily wage workers are forced to move away from their homes to urban areas to sustain their families. Moreover, due to a pay-per-day approach and lack of incentives, employers do not take liability to look after these workers when the factories or workspaces are mandated to close indefinitely.This implies that urban poor communities, such as the migrant labourers in our cities, also belong to vulnerable populations that have the propensity and predisposition to be adversely affected (IPCC, 2014).
A critical aspect for preparedness in a pandemic is the early detection and containment of the affected population, particularly those at the risk of infecting others. Those exposed to the causative pathogens may not come to know of it till symptoms manifest because of the varied incubation periods of these agents. Correspondingly, identification of high-risk areas by flagging of indicators such as multiple individuals with similar symptoms, unusual symptoms for localized regions, and severity of sickness outbreaks in an area can help in the early detection of the disease. Leveraging and enhancing ongoing vulnerability analysis and risk assessments by respective authorities thus becomes critical to disseminate timely preventive strategies and contain the spread of pathogens.
The COVID-19 pandemic is now the seventh 'biological disaster’in the last five decades, as notified by the central government. The threat of unknown diseases and pandemics will likely be a norm in the future if we continue to exploit and damage natural resources in the face of climate change, which can trigger and/or enable factors for more biological disasters. Such disasters require extensive planning and strategy formulation for their containment as their threats are often invisible and untraceable, at least at their early stage of an outbreak. Significant policy attention is therefore required within urban resilience frameworks to identify and limit emerging outbreaks and build the capacity of public health and other essential infrastructure.
Owing to the adverse impacts of climate change, such as the 2019 Australian bushfires, many urban resilience strategies have been developed that address-conventionals hocks and stresses. But the outbreak of COVID-19 has brought out two major limitations of strategies in India – inadequate provisions for the vulnerable communities, especially the floating populations (such as migrant workers); and lack of clarity/consistency in mass communication and awareness on the disease impacts. Overcoming these gaps requires a systematic and multipronged approach of prompt response by the government and active engagement by the public at large. This would include focus on strengthening capacities of local authorities, reliable public warning and communication systems, ‘smart’ infrastructure for outbreak identification and containment, adaptive buildings and health facilities, and decentralized public utilities for fail-safe operations during disasters.
For building resilience in the hyperconnected cities of today, it has been highlighted that “digital infrastructure might be the sanitation of our time.” Leveraging ‘smart’ IT-enabled services to maintain supply chains of essential services and robust communication systems can aid a city’s preparedness while limiting direct human interactions. Combined with this technology, it is equally relevant to utilize the knowledge and available expertise from academia, non-government, and civil society organizations that have an extensive on-ground network and a local database of floating vulnerable communities. This will help in establishing inter-sectoral coordination that ensures integration, cross-reference, and liaison between appropriate organizations in different sectors such as buildings, transport, water, and waste management.
Whether it is ‘Black Death’ or ‘Spanish Flu’, physical and socio-political responses to biological disasters have shaped civilizations and settlements over centuries. Modern-day regulations for the built environment, public utilities and, health systems that define the existing urban settlements emanated from the need to contain the spread of contagious diseases, such as cholera and typhus during the Industrial Revolution. However, reforms are needed to contain the spread of pandemics in the current complex urban systems, and to address the impact across critical sectors. Simply put, to contain fast-spreading pandemics and stay ahead of the curve, our emergency response mechanisms and infrastructural facilities need to be inter-connected and well-equipped. And the humanitarian steps we take now to flatten the curve will determine the level of inclusivity we have for the vulnerable in the urban policies of the future.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house