The recent COVID-19 pandemic has created an awareness of the limitations of modern urban systems, and their vulnerability to pandemics. The history of urban development begins from the consideration of cities as death traps to their consideration as areas in which there is potential to get a quality life similar to that accessed in rural environments. Previous considerations of city inhabitation as a contributor to the reduction in life expectancy have changed over the years through more effective urban designs including the designs of infrastructure, development of intricate food systems, and increased population mobility even within the urban settings. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the same factors that have been considered essential towards developing a high quality of life in urban centers can be risk factors during pandemics. The infrastructure, urban food systems and population mobility, all contribute to high quality of life during good times and increase vulnerability to mortality and morbidity during pandemics.
Factors that Increase Risks in Cities during Pandemics
The industrial revolution resulted in the development of cities that were later considered to be hotbeds of infectious diseases such as cholera as a result of pollution. The recognition of factors such as poor sanitation as contributors to the high risk of infection in such urban environments led to the establishment of various social amenities to enhance the quality of life (Neiderud 2015). However, some of these amenities that were previously considered effective towards improving the quality of life in urban centers have increased the risks of spreading of infectious diseases either through resources such as water or through various infrastructural developments.
The urban infrastructure is its most essential feature that enhances the quality of life in good times, yet facilitates the spread of infectious diseases during pandemics. Urban infrastructure, in this context, is used to describe a system of built environments covering sectors such as the transportation industry, communication, as well as general modern-day work environments (O’Sullivan and Bourgoin 2020). Any physical alterations made to the natural environment through human-developed structures used for the provision of shelter or performance of a wide array of activities is included in the description of urban infrastructure. In the present day society, infrastructure in urban centers has seen urban populations spending nearly 90% of their everyday lives in enclosed spaces (Nasir, Campos, Christie, and Colbeck 2016). According to Nasir et al. (2016), these enclosed spaces also increase the risk of infectious diseases, particularly airborne and vector-borne diseases. Most of the working population in urban centers spend a lot of time using public transport, thereby exposing them to the risk of exposure to environments containing a wide array of contaminants from sources such as building materials, occupant activities, and consumer products (Kapiriri and Ross 2020), and in widely varying forms including particulate matter, vapors, pathogenic and non-pathogenic biological agents, as well as their derivatives, and gases (Neiderud 2015). The environments increase risks of allergenic and infectious disease attacks, and the infrastructure promote the movement of disease vectors.
As part of the urban infrastructure, the growth of the airline industry has been an essential feature of urban development as it opens up opportunities for business, which promote the quality of life of users through limitation of geographic boundaries. However, it is also among the aspects that contribute to increased vulnerability during pandemics. Kaneda and Greenbaum (2020) aver that the air transport sector has made inter-continental movement much easier, not only for people but also for viruses. Comparison is made between the spread of the flu virus across countries in the period after World War II, which took months, and the recent spread of COVID-19 virus across the globe in a matter of weeks (Allenby, Chester, and Miller 2020). This ease of viral spread is attributed to high volumes of international travel that is occurring due to the reduced cost and time of travel. The same channel that has tremendously eased international business in sectors such as agriculture and in multinational corporations has increased the spread of COVID-19 infections.
During pandemics such as COVID-19, the historical H1N1 flu, and SARS, such environments facilitate the spread of vector and airborne diseases. The same environments have continued to exist in urban environments in spite of varying design considerations. Such urban infrastructures thus provide avenues for access of infectious disease vectors during pandemics (Heng 2016). The infrastructures that facilitate hyperconnection across different cities also make urban centers vulnerable during pandemics as infectious diseases can be transferred from one location to another (Bernaert 2015). Vulnerability to infectious diseases is increased where there is consistent flow of traffic between different localities in both intra and inter-city, facilitated by the availability of public transport infrastructures.
Another attribute that defines urban centers is the high population and the population mobility in such areas. The large populations in urban centers are a good source of economic growth to such centers through professional and business contributions (Schuchat, Bell, and Redd 2011). Urban centers often report higher GDP per capita than rural settings (Kapiriri and Ross 2020). This indicates the role of urban populations in the national economy. The same populations can be a source of risk during pandemics. Bernaert (2015) contends that in various countries, high rates of urbanization result in massive population mobility, which leads to the development of informal settlements. Crowding in informal settlements and in urban centers in general results in high risk of spreading infectious diseases. Evidence of this risk is evident in the historical cases of Ebola virus in the Democratic republic of Congo, as well as in the current trend in the spread of COVID-19 (Anderson et al. 2020). In such pandemics, the impacts are felt both within and across borders due to the absence of effective governance mechanisms that can limit population mobility immediately upon realization of the imminence of a health pandemic.
Urban populations require the existence of intricate patterns of urban food systems, which also constitute a risk factor to the urban population during pandemics. Most urban centers are characterized by food systems whereby different urban and rural settings play a collaborative role towards ensuring sufficiency. The food systems are described as the combination of elements such as inputs, people, infrastructures, and the environment that support the production and processing of food, as well as its preparation and consumption by the end users (Bhatia 2020). Such food systems play a significant role in various elements of the urban environment including urban economies, public health, agricultural systems, as well as other systems including housing, transportation, and water and energy networks (Bhatia 2020). Management of food systems involves various stakeholders including the department of food, councils on food policy and security, as well as city planning agencies.
The importance of food systems in cities and their diverse characteristics contribute to their consideration as a point of vulnerability for cities during pandemics. For instance, issues with availability and accessibility of foods in cities are linked to continuous interaction across different geographical locations that engage in the primary production of different foods, transport systems that move food from one area to another, as well as other infrastructural systems that are linked to human life (UNSCN 2020). Food can act as a vector for infectious diseases; food systems can also result in closer and continuous contact between people hence increasing the risk of spreading vector borne infectious diseases (Zurayk 2020). Since food is a basic need and part of a continuous energy cycle, it becomes more difficult to completely isolate distinct parts of the system in order to address any concerns that may arise during pandemics.
Change after COVID-19
The experiences of cities during the COVID-19 pandemic call for immediate action during the post-pandemic period to establish better governance mechanisms for improved response to such pandemics in future. One of the changes expected in cities following COVID-19 is the adoption of governance mechanisms that would be suitable for effective disaster response across geographies. Inter-geographical transportation during the COVID-19 pandemic is among the factors that have had significant impact on the escalation of the pandemic (Niewuenhuijsen 2020). The governance mechanisms that would be developed following the pandemic would seek to address issues of collaboration between national and local governments, as well as between the civil and private sectors across geographical boundaries to foster information sharing for immediate action in response to public health pandemics across geographical boundaries. The governance systems would also facilitate real-time surveillance, collection, and analysis of data on the spread of infectious diseases in different regions during an epidemic to foster decision-making on response directions. Better governance structures for disaster response would also entail establishing centers of research on microbial threats as research will also help in identifying strategies for the prevention or reduction of contagion among vulnerable communities (Oppenheim et al. 2020). Achieving these governance objectives requires the input of cities as they are the center of the pandemics.
Preventing a future shift back to the traditional unsustainable infectious diseases management paradigms requires collaboration among stakeholders to develop infrastructures that aid in livelihood without jeopardizing the well-being of the population. Loh, Love, and Vey (2020) point out that the same infrastructures that have facilitated the spread of COVID-19 will aid in economic recovery after the pandemic, indicating the inevitability of infrastructural need in urban centers. The roles that different features of cities play in population survival imply that elimination of those features is not part of the solution to the escalated vulnerability to infectious disease pandemics. On the contrary, stakeholder collaboration will result in the development of other systems that not only create awareness of the incessant risk of pandemic, but also provide evidence towards the effectiveness of public participation in problem solving (Shearer et al. 2020). Infrastructure such as transport systems need to be used to generate economic benefits without the risk of transferring pandemics, hence have to be designed with the incorporation of technologies that eliminate biological pathogens and chemical toxins at the origin. The long-term management of cities to avoid resurgence of infectious disease pandemics requires consideration of more effective approaches to the development of infrastructural resources, which is a collaborative initiative.
Another possible action following COVID-19 is the development of strategies that facilitate self-sufficiency within cities. The food system comes to mind in reference to this subject. The need for interactions across major cities both within and outside countries is due to the level of self-insufficiency in those cities (Constable 2020). Focusing on enhancing food sufficiency through setting aside agricultural practice zones within cities can help to restrict movements across city boundaries, especially during pandemics. Recent concerns raised regarding delay in government measures to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic included the challenge of self-sustenance under lock down conditions (Rinde 2020; UNSCN 2020). While such complaints may arise from individuals who depend on daily income-earning activities, it is important to note that the incomes they earn are spent on food materials and other household products that have to be transported into the cities for ease of access.
Attaining self-sufficiency does not necessarily mean creating island conditions in cities and urban centers. Instead, developing conditions through which sustainable economic interactions can be realized without having everyday travels can be created through enhanced storage facilities that can support city life for a significant period during pandemics. Traditionally, the design of cities does not take into consideration the population growth aspects when planning features such as agricultural lands for city areas. Rinde (2020) suggests that the nature of urban design is intertwined with that of disease management. Changes in design considerations ought to be made after COVID-19 to ensure that new city plans and additional developments in existing cities incorporate infrastructure to support progress towards self-sufficiency. In this way, it may be possible to abate future economic losses of magnitudes similar to what has been incurred during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in significant economic and social losses across the globe, leading to the realization that some of the features of urban centers that are the backbone of economic growth are also the route for the advancement of pandemics into cities. Features such as advanced infrastructures like in the transport sector and other built environments, high populations and population mobility, and the urban food systems have the potential of exposing urban centers to risks of infectious diseases. The movement of people and goods across geographical boundaries has become easier, creating environments that facilitate the spread of disease vectors and airborne diseases. Post COVID-19, it is expected that governments across the world will be able to adopt measures that would help prevent and/or manage such pandemics in the future. Some of the possible measures include; change in governance structures for cities and disaster management outfits, collaboration among stakeholders to develop better infrastructures, and enhancement of urban food systems towards self-sufficiency.
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