From Chicago to Mumbai, the public health crisis could be a chance to tackle long-standing problems – from racial inequality to infectious diseases
* COVID-19 crisis spotlights long-neglected problems
* From inequality to mask wearing, status quo shaken up
* As cities rebuild, leaders see chance for change
By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – From better hygiene to greater awareness of inequality and recognition of “essential workers”, lessons learned during the coronavirus pandemic could be harnessed to improve city life for years to come, city leaders and others said this week.
The health crisis has gutted urban economies, emptied offices and public transport and shuttered communal spaces, but it might mark a watershed as cities seek to get back on their feet, the annual CityLab global summit heard.
“One of the big headlines coming out of the pandemic is that the things we thought were impossible before are actually possible and really absolutely necessary,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot told the three-day event, this year held virtually.
COVID-19 has laid bare “a lot of the economic fault lines around race, around class, gender and inequalities that people believed were intractable – too big to actually solve,” Lightfoot said.
In the United States, the pandemic’s economic effects have taken a far heavier toll on Black and Hispanic families, while federal data from December showed women have been disproportionately affected by job losses.
“The crises we face have made clear the inequity and injustice that persist,” U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris told the event. “We want our cities and countries to thrive, not just survive.”
There are hopeful signs, several participants said.
The pandemic creates an opening to tackle issues exposed over the past year, such as the financial struggles of low-paid workers and their lack of social protection, said Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
“Now we all see that some of the work that was least visible to us is actually essential – to our safety, health and our well-being,” Poo said.
She noted advances made amid the pandemic for domestic workers, most of whom are women and from minorities, including a new “bill of rights” in Philadelphia and a push in Chicago to ensure fair wages, time off and safe workplaces.
Such opportunities are not limited to rich countries, said Reuben Abraham, chief executive of the IDFC Foundation and IDFC Institute in Mumbai, suggesting the pandemic could be a “turning point” for cities in the developing world.
“Is there a way for us to embed the good behaviours that we’ve learned during COVID?” he said, noting the possibility of addressing “crowding” in cities through land use management, zoning and the provision of affordable housing.
Diseases such as cholera and typhoid have dropped substantially in Mumbai due to COVID-related hygiene practices such as hand-washing, Abraham said, while the wearing of face masks has had a significant effect on tuberculosis.
“(The pandemic) has been a disaster for all of us,” he said. “But if we do the right thing now, net-net we end up with a positive outcome.”
(Reporting by Carey L. Biron @clbtea; Editing by Helen Popper. Credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation)