Enabling Cities: Lessening the impacts of Covid-19 on the urban poor.

Reference to Covid-19 as ‘the great leveller’ was short-lived. As critics foresaw, the pandemic has brought societal inequalities into sharp focus. Privileges of the wealthy and middle classes reduce the risk of not only contracting the virus, but also dying as a result of infection and suffering the pandemic’s longer term social and economic effects. This is most evident in cities where the poor and rich live in close proximity and the urban poor and working classes carry a disproportionate burden of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Racial disparities in Covid-19 incidence and outcomes, as seen in the U.S. and U.K., are a reflection of long-standing inequalities acting to exclude Black, Asian, Indigenous and Minority Ethnic people from privileged positions, and place them among those most vulnerable to Covid-19 infection and death.

The pandemic response can and should prioritise equity
The examples that follow demonstrate the capacity to prioritise equity in the pandemic response. As cases continue to rise in some regions and localised outbreaks have seen cities re-shutdown, cities and local governments must use their structures, powers and assets to go further in championing equity and engage with community members to address local needs. Fast and definitive action from decision makers, ‘out-of-the-box’ ideas, and new partnerships between government, private sector, and civil society remain essential to mitigate the pandemic’s impacts on cities’ vulnerable communities.

Secure safe housing. The stay-at-home orders – used around the world to limit spread of the virus at the root of the current pandemic – prioritised the need for universal housing. Emergency legislation to temporarily suspend evictions, freeze rents and ban foreclosures gave residents in countries including Spain, the U.K., the U.S. and Canada some security against the threat of eviction, when incomes declined or stopped amidst business closures and job losses, especially in the gig-economy services. Several cities across Canada temporarily suspended deadlines for municipal property taxes and utility payments.

Cities needed to rapidly and safely house their homeless. The U.K. provided an emergency fund of £3.2 million for accommodation to support self-isolation of people without permanent housing, establishing facilities to separately house and monitor those infected. Overcrowding in homeless shelters led to outbreaks in many places. In response, thousands of homeless people considered most likely to require hospitalisation or die as a result of infection were placed in the vacant hotel rooms of cities, including Los Angeles and Toronto, where social distancing could be more easily practiced.

Maintain urban mobility for essential travel. Major cities, including London and New York, reduced public transport services to minimise non-essential travel. To promote alternatives to mass transit for people needing to access and deliver essential services, road driving charges were suspended during lockdown in London, U.K., and public bicycles were made free to use for healthcare workers. ‘Tactical urbanism’ projects improved walking and cycling infrastructure overnight.

Some regular services were maintained for those without cars needing to travel longer distances. Increased cleaning frequency, reduced station counter services, entrance/exit of buses restricted to doors furthest from drivers and mandatory face covering were among the policies implemented to optimise the safety of riders and providers on operational routes.

Enable continued learning for poor children. In March, 85% of the world’s students were out of school due to pandemic closures. Many schools began distance-learning through online platforms. Many students in low-income households without the necessary resources to participate faced additional hardship. Chromebooks and iPads were distributed to students without devices in cities in the U.S, Canada and Australia. The U.S. government coordinated the ‘Keep America Connected’ pledge among broadband service providers to keep people connected, regardless of payment, and to provide free or low-cost service to low-income homes.

Address growing food insecurity. Demand for foodbank assistance soared, forcing the scale up of existing infrastructure with financing and personnel to meet the growing need. The U.S. national guard was deployed to help cities cope with an up to eightfold increase in food bank demand. Urban charities have set up “drive-through” distribution points for food and essential supplies and organised volunteer meal delivery to elderly and vulnerable populations. Many supermarkets limited essential item purchases to prevent stockpiling by those who could afford to do so. Quito, Venezuela, used a food system map to target assistance to vulnerable neighbourhoods and supported home delivery of produce from local urban and peri-urban gardens.

Over 850 thousand students in England and 30 million students in the U.S. participate in free or discounted school meal programs. Schools in the U.K. were mandated to continue providing meals during closures. Furthermore, a voucher program allowed schools to issue supermarket gift cards to carers of children that qualify for free meals. Cities like Baltimore opened up emergency food distribution sites with grab-&-go breakfasts and lunches for any child.

Support for victims of domestic abuse. Heightened anxiety and home confinement were linked to surges in calls for assistance to Women’s advocacy groups and emergency hotlines in many places. Several governments exempted abuse victims from fines that were in place to enforce stay at home regulations. Paris established a code word alert system for victims’ use in pharmacies. France additionally paid for 20,000 nights of hotel accommodation to relocate people away from abusive situations. Safe-guarding practices in some U.K. schools had teachers make weekly calls to students during school closures.

Support for mental health services. The communities carrying the disproportionate burden of Covid-associated ill-health, loss and uncertainty are most risk of suffering the pandemic’s mental health impacts. To offer free support to those in need, Toronto developed a pandemic support strategy in partnership with local organisations to complement existing services. The London mayor worked with ThriveLDN to coordinate mental health support through healthcare, charity, education and business organisations.

Many cities under lockdown have allowed residents to leave homes for daily exercise and maintained the access to nature provided by local parks, particularly important for families lacking outdoor space at home.

Moving Forward

These strategies have not been without criticism. Some fell short of their stated goals and left needs unmet; for others the implementation timelines left people at risk for lengthy periods. As countries reopen, any short-term policies and programs should be replaced with longer term efforts to address the urban inequalities exasperated by the pandemic. Investment in a green economic recovery, for instance, would reduce urban environmental hazards that are too often concentrated in poor neighbourhoods.
Dealing with the challenge of urban inequalities requires coordinated action across multiple sectors including housing, transport, education, health and wellbeing. It is cities and local government who have learned over-and-over how to deliver services efficiently and can address local needs. It is local government and local organisations that have demonstrated their efficiency in this crisis. It is time that national governments should pass resources and jurisdictions to them in order to better support the urban poor.

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