Experts weigh in on the urban story of COVID-19

The outbreak of the COVID-19 has largely caught countries, and consequently, cities off guard. As cities gear up to tackle the pandemic amidst a global lockdown, many faults in the urban planning and disaster management have become a little more evident.

To understand these issues better, All India Institute of Local Self-Government, Urban Update, in partnership with UCLG-ASPAC, organised a webinar ‘Urban Response to COVID-19’. Prominent experts and dignitaries like Edgardo Bilsky, Director of Research, UCLG World Secretariat; Tikender Singh Panwar, Former Deputy Mayor, Shimla; Ranjan Panda, Convenor, Combat Climate Change Network; Ashok Wankhede, Managing Editor, Urban Update; Ravi Ranjan Guru, Deputy Director-General, AIILSG; Shouvik Dutta, Sr. Programme Manager, European Union; Abhilash Khandekar, Senior Journalist joined the session while Kumar Dhananjay, Consulting Editor, Urban Update, moderated the seminar. In the opening address, Kumar Dhananjay highlighted that as a period of uncertainty looms cities, most of the urban population has been confined to their homes. “The virus has infected over 7.5 million people, while around 180 thousand have lost their lives. India has been under lockdown for a month as of now and d has managed to limit the spread of the virus but we must deliberate about the problems that will arise post lockdown”, Dhananjay said. While he acknowledged that for India, a unique set of challenges, inapt sanitary conditions and high population density and poor living condition of migrant workers being some of the big challenges need to be addressed.

Dhananjay lauded the operation of Bhilwara and Agra model of city response to coronavirus and opened the floor for the panellists to discuss how cities across India can deal with the issue more effectively.

Ravi Ranjan Guru said that the coronavirus pandemic is the defining global health crisis of our time, a crisis at the level of WW-1. “This is not only a health crisis but a social, economically and political crisis as well. Urban Local Bodies have been caught unprepared to deal with the unprecedented situation of such proportion”, he said. Guru lauded the efforts of the health and sanitation workers; law enforcement officials who have thrown themselves into the fray and became the first responders. He commended the efforts of several ULBs in India like Thane Municipal Corporation, who have initiated a door-to-door survey to check for the virus. He also elaborated on the various measures undertaken by ULBs to ensure adequate sanitation of public places. He congratulated Goa for becoming corona free at this stage and appreciated the Kerala government’s efforts. He promoted the concept of knowledge exchange at such times when cities could learn from each other’s mistakes and successes.

Tikender Panwar elaborated on the problem with the overall structure of city operations in dealing with this situation and how cities have pretty much failed its poor. “We strive to achieve sustainability yet our cities were unable to hold migrant workers for seven days,” he said. The migrant population lives at wages as low as Rs.7500 per month. Panwar highlighted studies that show that willingness to work has gone down substantially and predicted that the migrant workers will move back to their native lands once the lockdown is lifted. He further criticised the inefficiency of the ULBs by highlighting that local NGOs are providing more relief work than them. In addition to 700 corona deaths, almost 300 people have died ofother reasons fighting the disease, which is a shame, said Panwar. Panwar said that the government must have focused on developing public housing beforehand and political entities must need to take an active part in public housing for cities to curb outward migration at such times in the future. He also elaborated the need to understand disaster management better and implement a sounder plan of action at the city level. “City Disaster Management Acts need to be implemented,” he said.

In conclusion, he addressed the impending economic crisis and how cities can tackle it with by allocating more GDP to ensure employment to the poor, migrant workers.

Ranjan Panda highlighted that, although the lockdown is affecting the industries negatively, nature has finally gotten a breathing space due to it. “Water of Ganga river is now drinkable, which hasn’t been the case for decades. Air quality has significantlyimproved,” he said. He also stressed upon the need to ensure adequate water as sanitation and hygienic requirements have never been higher. He also added there is a need to capture the lessons from this lockdown when we talk about environmental betterment and thus grow cities while simultaneously preserving the natural resources.

Edgardo Bilsky highlighted the methods that other cities from around the world were utilising in their fight against the pandemic. He elaborated on UCLG-ASPAC’s initiative through which they collected smart practices on tackling COVID 19 from cities from all over the world and launched a call for support to people. Giving the example of Philippines, he said that the local governments were given more flexibility to deal with the pandemic, which enabled better coordination between various levels of governments via temporary coordination units that were established. “We need to mobilise our resources to face the issue. This will enable us to expand relief work, which at this stage is essential. Social support and financial support for people must also be ensured. He added that digital application like India’s Aarogya Setu to get information about positive cases of corona infected people and people who have been placed in quarantine must be available everywhere for people to move smartly, if they need to. Bilsky also advocated the transformation of public spaces to facilitate relief work. He further urged cities to guarantee the continuity of public services, reduce inequalities, protect public servants, ensure financial support packages and support multilateral operation during this time.

Ashok Wankhade was very critical about the lack of coordination that the various levels of government have exhibited in dealing with the pandemic. He suggested that decentralisation of power is the need of the hourHe also emphasised that in order to curb the pandemic, people must also restrain themselves and adopt the mandated social behaviours that are suggested. “Indore is deemed to be the cleanest city of India but is unable to curtail the spread of the virus. This is because of the lifestyle choices and habits of the Indoris. Awareness must be stressed upon,” he said.

Abhilash Khandekar discussed that the exodus of the migrant workers has made the need of better developing rural areas of India more evident. ”We must look into a more equitable model of development for all areas during this time to minimise such burden on cities and thus, avoid such situations”, he said. He also stressed upon the need to discuss the self-isolation during the lockdown in people’s homes, given that the urban poor have inapt living spaces.

Shouvik Datta said that the European Union is actively working in gathering resources to respond to the pandemic situation in Indian and Bhutan. For India, Dutta said EU is prioritising work with developmental banks to implement projects smoothly. They are also assisting in ensuring enough medical supply, masks, sanitizers etc. in India. “EU is doing its best to work best with the resources it has. We have allocated a budget of 500 million euros as a physical stimulus for the worst affected areas of Europe, while the EU has released a sum of 20 billion euros for global response,” Datta said. He further highlighted that out of the funds that EU had allocated to Bhutan Government, which were to be used for capacity building, work on natural resource of the country etc., 8.5 million Euros have been released to enhance the response of city response as of yet. Further, 12 million euros are to be released in the coming months. “EU is also supporting Bhutan via ensuring technical assistance via the World Bank,” Datta added. He further said, ”We are also trying to find out how government’s response can be optimised in the future.”

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