From Wuhan to New York and Sao Paulo to Mumbai, the world’s cities appear to be hotspots of the novel coronavirus pandemic, so much so that the virus seems essentially anti-urban.
Some medical researchers and urban planners have argued that the population density of cities makes them more vulnerable to a sustained local outbreak. According to Steven Goodman, an epidemiologist at Stanford University, population density together with very good intra-city connectivity has been the enemy in cities like New York, Chicago and New Jersey. New York’s high COVID-19 mortality seems to hold this argument up (although the mortality is lower in many of Asia’s hyper-dense cities).
Others, however, are not so sure single or a few reasons suffice. For example, urban theorist Richard Florida has said multiple factors are responsible for the virus’s spread, including population, age distribution, education levels, inequality, religiosity, occupation and level of social capital.
For example, in New York, the areas of Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn are less densely inhabited than Manhattan borough (27,826 persons per sq. km). However, their residents are less well-off, more exposed to air pollution, have poor access to basic amenities and almost don’t have any access to health insurances services. And in these areas, the virus has had a higher infection and mortality rate per capita.
The pandemic in Indian cities
Apprehensions are rife that community transmission is well underway in India’s cities. The Indian Council of Medical Research recently announced a survey to estimate the virus’s prevalence in Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, Ahmedabad, Thane, Indore, Jaipur, Chennai, Surat and Agra. Of them Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, Ahmedabad, Chennai and Surat have stronger connections with the global economy and are prime investment centres.
Every megacity in India has several cities within, often marked by drastic differences in socio-economic and infrastructural conditions. For example, in Mumbai, the slums of Dharavi, Madanpura, Elphinstone and Grant Road coexist with the plush enclaves of Malabar Hill, Chruchhate, Worli and Juhu in close proximity.
Mumbai’s population density is comparable to that of Manhattan, but unlike Manhattan, crowding and poor infrastructure access among the city’s urban poor means community transmission is more likely in slums and low-income settlements. A little over 40% of the city’s people live in such resource-poor and infrastructure-deficient situations. Additionally, city authorities haven’t expanded basic services to half of all slum-dwellers (anecdotally speaking).
Dharavi, which is Asia’s largest slum and has a population density upwards of 2.5 lakh people per sq. km, and the informal settlement of Shivaji Nagar are Mumbai’s bigger COVID-19 hotspots. Due to acute land scarcity, six to eight persons share a room of 100 sq. ft, rendering physical distancing meaningless. Some 40% of households here don’t have toilets, forcing scores of families to share one community latrine. Frequent hand-washing is wishful thinking: in Sivaji Nagar, people often pay premium prices to purchase drinking water during the summer.
In 2006, American geographer Neil Smith wrote with reference to Hurricane Katrina, “In every phase and aspect of a disaster – causes, vulnerability, preparedness, results and response, and reconstruction – the contours of disaster and the difference between who lives and who dies is to a [more or less] extent a social calculus.” Indian megacities provide ample evidence to support this. The issue is not the city or the density per se but the crowding of the poorer.
In Mumbai, just as with density, the property prices in some of its areas are comparable to some in Manhattan. As a result, 41% percent of Mumbai’s population lives in 7% of the city’s habitable area. Even resettlement schemes move slum-dwellers to multi-story pigeon-holes using amnesty features like higher floor-area ratios and transfer of development rights to lesser land areas to make them commercially profitable for developers, and with complete disregard for open spaces and public health.
Many of these vertical slums already hosted other diseases before developing the risk of COVID-19 as well. And their noncompliance with building codes is likely to make them conducive to community transmission as well.
The industrialist Ratan Tata has suggested redefining housing and infrastructure norms to ensure better quality of life. According to the World Wealth Report 2019, Mumbai is among the world’s top 20 wealthiest cities. However, this wealth is not evenly distributed within the city, leaving one prominent part of the population especially more vulnerable to a ‘super-spreader’ virus like SARS-CoV-2. Delhi, Ahmedabad and Kolkata are no exceptions. Prevailing economic structures and social ecology influence the nature of inequality, pre-existing vulnerability and enhance communities’ exposure to risk.
In another example, Ahmedabad’s COVID-19 mortality rate is the highest among India’s cities and almost double the national average. A strict lockdown didn’t work because the city’s eastern part as well as the ‘older’ areas are very congested. Religious polarisation plays a role as well: the infection rate is higher in Ahmedabad’s slums and low-income settlements in Jamalpur, Danilimda, Dariyapur – all Muslim-dominated – and Behrampura. These areas are characterised by large families, economic and social deprivation, regressive beliefs and practices, inadequate sanitation, irregular water supply and lack of open spaces. Mistrust between the people and city officials only compounds the problem.
Kolkata has the third highest mortality rate among India’s cities, and its cases are concentrated in infrastructure-deficient north and central Kolkata. In Delhi, Mangolpuri, Wazirpur and Shahdara are the hotspots. Even in the planned city of Chandigarh, a large number of cases have been reported from the Bapudham slum rehabilitation colony.
While researchers are still hard at work discovering more about the novel coronavirus and its effects on the human body, the highly localised crises in our urban centres is a desperate plea to organise our cities differently. In the 19th century, a cholera epidemic in London prompted the city to modernise its sanitation systems. During the first industrial revolution in Europe, city officials introduced housing regulations to prevent overcrowding and improve access to natural light and ventilation. And when the plague swept through Bombay in the late 19th century, the British government setup the Bombay and Calcutta Improvement Trusts to improve public health and hygiene in cities.
However, after the onset of globalisation and neoliberal reforms in the early 1990s, privatisation of infrastructure became the new normal, and replaced the public purpose of cities. Economic growth and land monetisation overshadowed urban resilience against diseases and disasters.
India’s urban development strategy in the last three decades has prioritised international connectedness, hyper-commodification of land, marginalisation of the poor and an increased informality of labour and life. The pandemic has simply exposed the resulting lack of an urban safety net and the extreme vulnerability of these people.
Going ahead, we must put inclusivity before economic growth. Tools like social housing and inclusive zoning can restore the pro-poor orientation and incorporate their priorities in future city development.
On the institutional front: the 74th constitutional amendment enforced municipal elections in the country – but the other provisions to devolve authority and development responsibilities are pending. Karnataka’s and Kerala’s experiences have shown that elected panchayats and municipalities can successfully respond and contain a disease outbreak Since the principle of subsidiarity can effectively ensure resilience at the grassroots, empowering local self-government should be our immediate priority.
So, are we going to reset our city development strategies or let our urban future drift?
Souvanic Roy is a professor of urban planning at the Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology (IIEST), Shibpur.