The City during the Pandemic: Invisible Problems and Possible Solutions

Графіті маски на білій стіні / Graffiti of the mask on a white wall

Epidemics change our cities. There have been numerous examples of such transformations in history. The modern European sewage and water supply system was created in the mid-19th century. This was the governments' response to the cholera outbreaks that were increasingly affecting the cities, which were industrialized and overpopulated at the time. The tuberculosis epidemic in the New York City in the early 20th century gradually led to the emergence of housing policies and improved living conditions in the city.

The pandemic of the new SARS-CoV-2 has already caused a number of temporary changes and restrictions in many countries. Cities are adapting to new conditions, in particular through short-term design and planning solutions. In Berlin, bike lanes are being expanded to encourage the residents to use alternative modes of transportation. The Governor of New York called for making certain streets in the NYC car-free to create more space for pedestrians and allow them to keep a distance of several meters. Planners are convinced that some of these changes should become permanent. The current approach to the density and ways of construction in cities needs some rethinking.

It is still unknown what ideas will remain after the pandemic goes away. However, we can already tell it will have long-term consequences in all aspects of our life. There will be no expected "going back to normal." Scientists and virologists warn that we are going to face more similar crises in the future. Negative consequences will have an especially big impact on the cities which are not only spaces of opportunity, but also centres of profound social and economic inequalities.

Before the pandemic, the humankind was "standing on the tracks watching an oncoming train & arguing about how fast it was going," writes anthropologist David Graeber on his Twitter. According to him, the oncoming train is climate change. Philosopher Bruno Latour writes in his op-ed for Le Monde that the healthcare crisis stemming from COVID-19 is only a rehearsal of the climate catastrophe.

To meet future challenges, cities and countries need long-term strategic solutions. French philosopher Henri Lefebvre wrote that urban space was a product of economic, social, and political processes in society. Now, we have an opportunity to rethink these processes to make them fairer and more inclusive. Isolated design and planning interventions will not be able to overcome the current sanitary crisis or to prevent the future climate one. They serve to fight against the consequences instead of roots of the problems, so they cannot replace comprehensive municipal, national and global policies, especially in such spheres as environment, employment, housing, and social security.

The shortcomings of Ukrainian social security policies are deeply embedded in the urban space. The problems which existed long before the quarantine have now become more visible. This includes the unavailability of healthcare and educational establishments, the lack of high-quality public transport, affordable housing and recreational spaces. This primarily affects vulnerable groups: the homeless, people with unofficial employment, the elderly, low-income people, and immigrants. Some of them don't have a home where they can self-isolate, others cannot work remotely, and some need regular help.

The existing infrastructure is not enough to protect everyone who needs it. According to the Ministry of Social Policy, there are 796 social service institutions functioning in Ukraine for about 1.2 million elderly people and people with disabilities. In the capital, Territorial Social Assistance Centres are located in every district. However, when restrictions on going outside are imposed, people over 60 have a hard time obtaining the necessary services. The Podilsky district of Kyiv alone has 43,000 registered recipients of social benefits, with retired elderly people accounting for 80% of them. Those who don't have families usually count on activists and volunteers to bring medication and food to them. As for establishments for reintegration and social assistance to the homeless, there are just 100 of them in Ukraine. However, there are about 27,000 homeless people in the capital alone, who do not have comprehensive support programs and can count on one single paid municipal shelter.

During the pandemic, the government has also turned a blind eye to people who do not own real estate. We are talking about tenants, who constitute at least 15–20% of the population of big Ukrainian cities. The authorities' actions during the quarantine are aimed at protecting homeowners: they suspend mortgage payments, cancel fines for failing to pay the bills, etc. At the same time, tenants are on their own, having to make arrangements with their landlords for a discount or even suspension of rent payments during the quarantine.

Tenants are mostly young people, who don't have enough savings, and representatives of other vulnerable groups, such as immigrants. Those who have the right to residence in Ukraine have to enjoy the same rights to social security as Ukrainians do. However, some of them do not yet speak the language, others do not have Ukrainian friends. This reduces even their chances of obtaining adequate medical services. All these people require special protection during the pandemic, since the vulnerability to diseases directly correlates with social vulnerability.

Ukrainian urban transportation is not suitable for the new reality. The current crisis has shown us how important it is to have affordable and comfortable urban mobility, especially in large cities. The restrictions on the use of public transport during the quarantine may well have protected people from the virus, but they have also made it impossible for certain groups to get to work, visit a doctor or receive social aid. These decisions have also created striking new inequalities in mobility between people. Car owners could leave the city during the quarantine and spend some time relaxing in the nature. This caused a wave of public criticism, which led to a ban on visiting green areas even for transit for most people.

The government of Ukraine is promising to gradually restore the operation of public transport from mid-May. However, there is a risk of a second wave of the epidemic, since the vaccine against COVID-19 will be publicly available no sooner than next year. Researchers claim that in the near future, people will use public transport in the city with caution. All this will have long-term consequences, as it will be increasingly difficult to convince people to give up their cars in favour of public transport. The development of alternative mobility and cycling infrastructure could partially resolve this problem. However, bicycles are not always viewed as valid means of transportation in Ukraine. One vivid example is the fact that car repair shops and gas stations worked during the quarantine, while bicycle repair shops were closed. After the biking community reported the problem to the authorities, the restriction was lifted.

Social and economic inequalities in society contribute to the emergence and spread of epidemics. Today's crisis provides an opportunity for structural change and a chance for cities to become more sensitive to the needs of various groups. Despite this, there is an alternative view of the pandemic. Some people see this situation as a space for implementing authoritarian solutions, encroaching on people's rights and freedoms, and increasing police power. Bruno Latour points out that while we stay at home, the expansion of police powers is unfolding. We see examples in Ukrainian cities: fines and imprisonment for violating the quarantine rules, the ban on visiting green zones and the obligation to carry ID papers. In some oblasts the authorities were even considering curfews.

During a pandemic, people feel anxiety and tend to support increased restrictive measures. They worry about their own health, the well-being of their loved ones, and financial stability, and they need protection. However, increased control does not necessarily mean security. There is a risk that temporary interventions in the form of regular ID checks or surveillance of citizens from drones will take hold in our cities, but it will not increase justice.

The pandemic and the quarantine are not the cause of problems in our cities; they are merely a lens which helps us look at them more carefully and critically. This experience has shown us systematic shortcomings in various areas. They can only be resolved by changing policies. Various civil society actors should unite and put pressure on the authorities to implement these changes, so that the world and our cities do not return to their former "normality."

Author: Anastasia Bobrova, Analyst, Project Manager at CEDOS think tank.

Translation by Natalia Slipenko.