Road to redemption for countries, cities

Winston Churchill once said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”Covid-19 is the biggest health crisis in the last 100 years. Nations have had to lock up their money-minting machines—cities—completely for almost two months. Analysts believe that the health crisis could be over in a few months but the repercussions on the world economy and normal lives of citizens would be longer lasting than is being anticipated. Cities should use this crisis to overhaul their urban engine, make them resilient to such emergencies, focus on sustainable development, and avert the impending crisis of climate change

Every country is now aware of the physical threat of the Covid-19 but the associated damage has just begun to come into focus. Almost every country has taken an economic blow because of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown of 6-12 weeks. At the time of writing this story, 5 million people have already been infected; more than 320,000 people have died around the world. India recorded 100,000 cases and over 3200 deaths. The nation is also under complete lockdown since March 24. With so many unfortunate deaths and now economic distressstaring down,  cities have no time to mourn but restart the economic engine to save millions of people from falling into economic despair. However the reopening needs extra caution.

Every nation did look at lockdown as the first response to halt the spread of the coronavirus. Some countries acted quickly and some countries like Sweden, which has one of the best health care systems in the world, went the relaxed way and trusted their people for following social distancing and other precautionary measures. There has been no strict lockdown in Sweden. Some countries including India, which has weak health infrastructure and densely populated cities, felt thatlockdown was a necessityand an inescapable step.

Economic crisis looming large

The lockdown has caused havoc and thrown normal life out of gear for everyone.The worst affected are the poor, especially the migrant workers in Indian cities. They lost their jobs in a jiffy as most of them were daily wagers or weekly contract workers. The data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy tells thatthe unemployment rate shot up to 27.1 per cent in the week ended May 3. This is the highest in the last five decades as I could find the recording of the unemployment rate in the country from the late seventies only. Losing their job in such a difficult time was a big blow to the poor workers. They had no jobs, hence no daily earning to support themselves.

Despite assurances from the state and central governments for the monetary assistance and arrangements for the food and shelter, they faced difficulties. They started their journey to their respective destinations. Some cycled, some set out on foot for hundreds of kilometres. A number of these people died enroute; run over by goods train, rammed by speeding trucks or simply from the exertion and heat strokes. The pictures depicting the pain and agony of these people will haunt the nation for a long time.

Unemployment is not an exclusive problem for India during the pandemic. The United States of America is also witnessing the unemployment rate that has reached the level of the Great Depression of 1929. Similarly, all the big economies including Japan, Canada, United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Germany have seen rise in unemployment levels between 5 per cent and 15 percent; especially among the people working in the informal sector. Guy Rider, Director-General of the International Labour Organization, has aptly described this in his tweet and suggested a way forward by saying, “Our new data shows the social and economic impact of #COVID19 is being felt hardest by informal workers and by enterprises in high-risk sectors. It has exposed the frailties and inequalities of our societies. We must build better normal that supports the most vulnerable first.” Remember the quote of Winston Churchill we quoted in the beginning. Nations and cities should not waste a ‘good crisis’.

A recent report by the World Economic Forum ‘Covid-19 Risks Outlook’ underlines that economic distress and social discontent will rise over the next 18 months unless policymakers and business leaders work together to manage the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.International Monetary Fund predicts that the world economy would contract by 3 per cent because of the lockdown measures across the world. The same report namely ‘The Great Lockdown’ predicts that India’s GDP would grow by 1.9 per cent only while another report by the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) says that India would grow between 0.9 and 1.5 per cent. Goldman Sachs says that India’s GDP will slump by 45 per cent in the second quarter this year. These are also the best case scenarios if the coronavirus is contained in the next six months.

The crisis has already started gripping the white and blue-collar working groups because of the salary cuts, and retrenchments. Many of them have started digging into their savings to survive or remain financially stable during the crisis. Salaries may have stopped coming, shops may have been shut for months, the businesses may have been closed but the recurring expenses like EMIs, rent, electricity bills, medical expenses and many others remain the same. People are comparing the scenario with the great depression but the economic problem may run deeper in the absence of any vaccine. This is perhaps the first time in recorded history that countries have completely shut down the economic activities.

Every country has taken a slew of measures to bring the economic train back on track. India has also announced a fiscal stimulus package of 20 lakh crore or almost 10 per cent of India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This includes new loans, the moratorium on existing loans, selective contribution to Employee Provident Fund (EPF) of small companies, tax deferrals, direct cash transfer to the poor, free food grains through Public Distribution System coupled with labour and agriculture reforms. 

Post Corona World

Now the nations are lifting the lockdown with invariable concessions to come back on the track soon. When the world is still reeling under the impacts of the pandemic and finding ways for normalization, China is already on its feet and has even opened the Disney World for the public on May 12. Its factories are again roaring and producing the essentials, non-essentials, everything. They may not be running to full capacity but in no time, they will completely return to normal much before any other country because of their political and administrative system. China was operating at 87% of typical output on May 12, according to the Trivium National Business Activity Index.

Prime Minister of Sweden Stefan Löfven had repeatedly pointed to the fact that the more relaxed framework is sustainable for a longer time. The leaders of all the countries have to take a cue from his statement because it seems that humanity has to live with the virus for some time until the vaccine is out. Life, while living with the virus, is going to be different. Cinema halls, malls, restaurants, hotels, aviation and tourism industry, and many more businesses, where chances of contagion are high, will likely bear the brunt of the restrictions. People will avoid going  to concerts, sporting events, etc. Life is going to change and we will have to prepare ourselves for transformative changes.

Rethink cities

India has fared well in terms of the number of positive cases and fatalities considering that we have the second largest population in the world. As per the last census, a majority of Indians, a little over 65 per cent, still live in rural areas. Though there is no research done on this,it could be one of the reasons that the number of cases in a hugely populated country like India is lower than the USA, Russia and many European countries which host a fraction of India’s population. But the reason for most of the cases from the big cities could be the density. That’s why only five Indian cities account for 65 per cent of positive cases.

And, the world over, more than 50% of the world’s population lives in cities that occupy just 2% of the world’s landmass. Thishas always seemed to be a critical problem even before anybody knewwhat the phrase social distancing meant literally.Now, we know well what havoc a communicable disease can cause in the cities. NewYorks, Londons and Mumbais of the world are the examples.

The pandemic has told us that cities are dangerous places to live in and during the lockdowns, many people living in cities thought of living in emptier places. Is this thinking going to prevail? Nobody knows. Many outstation workers returning home have said that they will prefer staying back home but this trend will not last long for many reasons. Cities attract people not just for offering them employment for survival but also offer them a dream of a better life. Just compare the thinking of a migrant worker with an upper-middle-class youngster who aspires to get a Green Card or Permanent Citizenship in a developed country. They can get a job back at home but most of them who studied abroad want to stay back and give the same lifestyle to their children;unless they have some family business to manage in India. Migrant workers will come back sooner or later but we must prepare our cities to include them and have a respectable space for them.

Our cities need to learn from the various aspects of this pandemic and plan their future development, not just making themselves efficient to handle the pandemics and disasters but also learn the nuances to handle the social aspects of the evolving urban challenges.

Villages saved India!

I have tried to collate some data on coronavirus cases, cases per million, total deaths, deaths per million and urbanization trends in countries and regions. The data suggests that cities are friendly to coronavirus and give them fertile ground to spread wide and fast. Leaders all over the world are all praise for India for handling the pandemic well. There is no proven model of fighting coronavirus from India that proves that the country has done something exemplary in containing the virus and deaths. India has also followed the model of lockdown like many other countries did. This is just one hypothesis, based on the comparison of data, that Indian villages could have saved India from the massive damage from the pandemic. India that has weak public health infrastructure and has just 0.5 beds per 1000 people has fared better than the countries with excellent healthcare facilities. Some countries have 8 to 14 hospital beds per thousand people. Russia, Japan, South Korea, Germany, Italy, the USA, the UK, and France have 8.2, 13.4, 13.2, 8.3, 2.9, 2.8 and 6.5 respectively. All of them have higher per million death rates than India.

India had 2.5 deaths per one million population. Though every death is unfortunate, the Indian numbers are far less than developed nations which have urbanization between 70 to 100 per cent. Only China comes close to India with 3.5 deaths per one million population but there are questions on their transparency in data sharing. (See the Chart A)

There are surely many positives of urbanization as it provides economies of scale and other efficiencies. Cities fuel the economy of nations but the pandemic has reminded us that the urbanization process has many faults and it is the duty of urban planners and policymakers to relook at urbanisation from a new lens.  The road to redemption for countries shall go through the tunnel of rethinking urbanisation.

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