Lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic: Improving urban social equity and wellness

Lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic: Improving urban social equity and wellness

If planned accordingly, many aspects of urban life can emerge for the better

The one-year anniversary of COVID-19 brings a time to examine pandemic impacts and the opportunities to improve community planning approaches.

This is especially important for social equity and wellness in vulnerable urban settings. Often the result of rapid urbanization, these communities balance stresses such as low income, high unemployment, and lack of suitable infrastructure. The pandemic has only amplified these stresses, with anticipated lasting ripple effects.

As we look forward, it’s important to consider lessons learned from these cities to improve global urban social equity and wellness. There are aspects of urban life that can emerge for the better if we plan accordingly. This includes urban planning and management and the design of equitable infrastructure (e.g., water, sanitation, health services, transportation, and housing).

People have accepted a huge amount of change during the pandemic. Health has been a strong force for behavior change.

The pandemic has spurred radical new behavior patterns

People have accepted a huge amount of change during this pandemic. In this way, health has been a stronger force for behavior change than long-term threats like that of excess greenhouse gas emissions.

What was unthinkable behavior before is now broadly accepted. Examples include telehealth, taking street space for restaurants, widespread delivery services, travel restrictions, remote work (for those who can), and normalizing mail-in voting. Optimistically, changes to inclusive democracy, flexible work, and the elevation of essential labor can stick after the pandemic.

The economic impact on vulnerable urban populations has been enormous—but there is hope

Urban populations that escaped poverty are fragile to shocks like the great lockdown. The pandemic has reset at least 10 years of poverty reduction. Many are now back under the poverty line. To further complicate things, getting aid to those who need it most is a struggle. Data are missing for many of the most vulnerable, including undocumented and informal workers.

Economic hardships have entrenched existing inequity and are driving people out of major cities in a “reverse urban migration.” In higher-income countries, the wealthy have been able to work remotely and flee the city to wait out the pandemic. Meanwhile, essential workers without flexibility end up staying. In lower-income countries, the poorest urban residents were the ones to flee. They returned to smaller cities and villages where subsistence occupations are more available.

Yet, the pandemic has pointed to some hope in that social safety networks do work when we give them a chance. The added unemployment benefit in the US demonstrated how relatively little of the gross domestic product it takes to improve lives. Looking forward, bold modern tools can help get resources to the right people.

Big data, remote sensing, and machine learning can help identify and reach vulnerable populations. For example, programs like Humanitarian OpenStreetMap and Dar Ramani Huria use satellite imagery to map informal settlements and capture population estimates. This knowledge also helps public health officials combat communicable disease.

Vulnerable neighborhoods should be top priority for improvements in healthcare, environment, and open space

This pandemic has caused policymakers to reconsider the disaggregated, differentiated nature of cities. We cannot continue understanding a city as a single entity. Neighborhoods can have very different health outcomes based on environmental hazards and access to services.

The pandemic elevated marginalized workers to the status of essential for society. Unfortunately, the places these essential workers call home haven't experienced a similar boost. These neighborhoods often have preventable health risks such as overcrowding, pollution, contamination, poor construction, dangerous roads, lack of open space, and limited access to healthcare.

Cities should not tolerate extreme differences between neighborhoods’ health outcomes. As every neighborhood is essential, improving underserved districts should be the top priority. This will improve a city’s resilience and help prevent the spread of infectious disease.

What do you think?

These lessons are informed by our World Cities Day panel conversation with global experts. Do you agree or disagree with what you heard? Do you have other ideas? You can email me, or contact me through social media on Twitter or LinkedIn. Until next time, be well!

2022-01-31 (created sometime in 2018)