Cities need systemic change to eliminate pandemics of inequalities


Cities need systemic change to eliminate pandemics of inequalities

The COVID-19 pandemic and the sudden and severe lockdowns enforced to prevent its early spread conjure up the image of hundreds of people, mainly migrant contributors to the city’s economy desperately making their way home.

This image is a vivid reminder of the exclusion prevalent in cities. To say that the COVID-19 pandemic exposed some of the faultlines of cities is an understatement; the pandemic lay bare the foundational inequalities in cities whose past is enmeshed in colonial extraction and where globalisation has meant a concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. Here, the developmental state with its characteristic protectionism has meant pushing industries to the periphery, compelling most people to live and work in highly risk-prone conditions in slums. While this majority always had skeletal access to public resources, liberalisation has meant a withdrawal of even those inadequate public resources and a further reinforcement of the inequity.

The recession of the pandemic has been accompanied by discussions on restructuring, revisioning and even reconceptualising cities. However, the pandemic response and recovery has typically contoured to these past legacies. While there is some acknowledgement of the unfair distribution of pains and burdens caused by COVID-19, there is a real danger that the sliver of conscience that the pandemic opened up may be shrinking, even as the threat of ongoing and future pandemics looms large. Therefore, a reminder of the foundational faultlines that made cities highly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19 is necessary and perhaps should act as a test for ongoing and future policies.

In the constant endeavour to produce more, trade more and earn more, cities have become the pinnacle of corporate, financial capitalism that transcends national and regional boundaries and penetrates systems and institutions created at some historical juncture for the common good. In such a situation, we see immense contrasts, such as large proportions of vacant houses alongside an increasing number of homeless and slum-dwelling populations, or the availability of world cuisine along with large numbers of undernourished children and mothers. Admittedly such sights are more visible lower down the global hierarchical network of places, at a significant distance from the command centres of the world. Yet, these contrasts have less to do with the ‘poverty’ of the place and much more to do with the structure and nature of its systems and institutions. Thus, there are several invisible and fundamental systemic inequalities beyond the obvious contrasts that moulded the contours of how, where and why the pandemic spread. These are in the response by societies, localities and governments and the impacts that such responses produced among varied groups of people in cities across the globe.

Cities as Metaphors

Metaphors as calls to reality are critical to how we see things and how we deal with them. Writing about the pandemic, Boaventura de Santos argues that the commonly deployed metaphor of “war against the virus” is futile; instead, a hermeneutic of “co-presence” or “living with the virus” may be more productive. It calls for an acceptance of the virus as a part of the human-nature debate, akin to a monster that lies within us and wakes when reason sleeps. I apply this perspective to cities.

Cities embed the classic war over nature and disease, bringing together economies, people and their activities, and defying time, geographies and scale. They also embed the productive and commanding potentials of humans as part of a global network of places. The seeds of the decline of ancient cities were in their vulnerability to famine and war; industrial cities were vulnerable to cholera, the plague and infectious diseases and threats of fire, and had to innovate to cope with these. The virus, replicating itself in the human body, flourishing in environments created by humans and spreading along the contours of systems created by humans, is expressive of our achievements as humankind but also its fault lines. Was Robert Park2 hinting at such dystopia when he said that “If the city is one of the greatest creations of mankind, it is also the world that he is condemned to live”? 

Mumbai and the Pandemic

Mumbai has historically been a colonial city known for its contrasts. The city has been shaped by multiple influences—global shifts in the economy towards financialisation; local geography, monopolies and high levels of poverty producing one of the most highly-priced real estate markets in the world while also resulting in over half its population residing in slums; informalisation of industry; and a combination of local, regional and national politics producing a highly communal brand of politics.

Unlike several other city governments in the country, Mumbai has a financially strong municipal government. However, it is fragmented due to multiple, overlapping institutions, and weakened due to excessive centralisation and control by the state government and competitive politicisation. The city has poor outreach and a highly divided texture of governance between two sets of publics—the ‘citizens’ and the ‘informals’, the former looking at law as its source of entitlements and the other towards schemes and policies. Each of these dynamics shapes how the city works. The jugaad (make-do) urbanism at work denies the informals their due entitlements and an adequate standard of working and living. At the same time, as Shahana Chattaraj argued in her book Shanghai Dreams: Urban Restructuring in Globalizing Mumbai, it is unable to realise the project of a world-class city. The city’s political economy has been on a chronic real estate ‘high’ and hence, while it offers free housing to slum dwellers, it is inadequately invested in essential services, health, and soft infrastructure. An overall thrust on state withdrawal has also meant a reduction in welfare services and a shift towards insurance- and finance-based welfare with inadequate penetration among the urban poor.

The above realities are well known and documented, yet the public policies to combat the pandemic have centred around the apartment-living citizen with access to digital technology, adequate space and amenities at home, and with a sufficient bank balance.

A prolonged national lockdown triggered panic among migrant workers and daily wagers. The constraints placed on mobility resulted in desperate and often dangerous return journeys home. Welfare measures were initiated too late, were too little and reached very few. Local lockdown governance restricted movement out of homes and on the streets; public transport was closed for an extended period. Education was shifted online. Apartment managements became the extended layer of the state, enforcing curbs on entries and exits. The cumulative result was the destruction of livelihoods of those in the informal sector. The large-scale distribution of state and corporate largesse in the form of prepared food and shelters were hampered by poor distribution mechanisms, the inadequate spatial distribution of social infrastructure, and the absence of care spaces in informal settlements. Checking, testing and containment was enforced unevenly due to the lack of investment in primary healthcare and alienation from local communities.

All treatment facilities and protocols had a significant bias in favour of the ‘apartment-living citizen’. Therefore, while there was an attempt to regulate the distribution of hospital beds and primary treatment facilities, essential medicines, diagnostic facilities and oxygen, and undertake preventive checks and vaccination, the poor in the city were largely alienated and often bypassed to such an extent that they came to see COVID-19 as a “rich person’s disease”. Although the system did produce a celebrated response in Dharavi, known as one of the larger slums in the city and where the infection was curtailed quickly through an intense coordinated response between the state government, municipal corporation, private sector and civil society, the real question is why such a response could not be replicated widely. 


Every crisis is a potential opportunity to learn, but how the crisis is framed is critical. It is possible to see the pandemic as a ‘war against virus’ and ‘chase’ it, although the nature of the virus is such that it is unlikely to go away fully. Therefore, it is vital to ask the right questions, to reflect over the systemic inequalities that our cities and city systems embed, and to redress them. The virus has already shown its presence in an ever-changing form with evolving capabilities to cause infection and death unevenly when accompanied by particularities of the specific systemic inequalities. It is up to us to learn from these and choose how to live with it.

Author: Amita Bhide, Professor and Dean of School of Habitat Studies, Centre for Environmental Health, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.


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