There is a specific pattern to the spread of COVID-19, one that’s tied to the way in which global supply chains have been built over the last few decades and where people live and work. If the 1918 “Spanish Influenza” epidemic in the past was spread by soldiers returning home from World War 1, urbanisation and globalisation have had a huge say in how COVID-19 has spread across the world.
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It is also for this reason that it has proved hard to tackle – global supply chains, industries and cities (where more than half of humanity lives) cannot simply be shut down without dire economic, social and political consequences.
COVID-19’s origin and spread has been through cities too. Whether it is Wuhan, New York, Mumbai or Delhi – dense urban and peri-urban areas have been the worst-hit and have also been a source of infections further into the hinterlands.
That said, some cities have been proactive in their response. The examples of city-states like Hong Kong, and even the tiny Italian town of Vo, show that urban areas can get the epidemic under control through proper measures.
An opportunity to plan ahead
Even as cities across the world grapple with COVID-19, the next pandemic may be just over the horizon and it is time to perhaps plan for it in advance. Just as how their experience with SARS helped Singapore and Hong Kong, and likewise MERS for South Korea, we need to prepare for the next pandemic now.
Fortunately, Indian cities have a good record of not wasting a crisis. The recurrence of plagues in Bangalore in the 19th century prompted the creation of new extensions to the north, west and south of the old “pettah” which was considered congested and unsanitary. Then-new “layouts” of Malleswaram and Basavanagudi were planned such that citizens could live in more open areas and with access to (then) modern sanitation practices.
Of course, some old habits die hard – the new layouts were segregated by caste and religion and continue to bear the mark of such segregation. But these efforts did not go waste – when the Spanish influenza pandemic hit India in 1918, it did take a devastating toll on the city but was relatively less deadly than in other parts of the country.
Closer to our time, Surat went from being one of the dirtiest cities in India to among its cleanest as a result of measures that followed the 1994 outbreak of bubonic plague.
Empowered cities can tackle pandemics better
- Rethinking allocation of powers in the constitutional scheme
There should be greater devolution of powers to cities from the state governments. Karnataka’s Municipal laws mandate the state government’s approval for most decisions made by municipalities. For instance, as per Section 72 of the Karnataka Municipalities Act, 1972, state government’s approval is required for any contract exceeding Rs 5,000 that BBMP enters into.
State government retains the final say on local matters in Bengaluru such as fixing a drainage pipe, improving street lighting and addressing road pothole concerns, while the City’s elected councillors have little say in such civic issues. Even the local bus service provider BMTC reports directly to the state government, and works independently of the local government. That is, state government has the final say even on the city’s bus routes.
Clearly, there’s a need to rethink the allocation of powers in the constitutional scheme entirely, or at the very least, give cities a greater say in decisions. To offer one illustration – airports are currently under the oversight and jurisdiction of the union government with little say by the state government or municipal body in its management.
Suppose in a pandemic scenario, a municipal body detects that a lot of infections are being ‘imported’, should it not have the powers to limit the entry of air travellers into the city or at least screen them? Likewise, with respect to the railways? Hence, what this calls for is a fundamental rethink on how cities are governed, and what are ‘national’ issues and what are ‘local’ ones.
- Cities should invest more in public health
A second measure will undoubtedly involve much greater investment in public health from cities. Just as measures to improve cleanliness and sanitation followed outbreaks of plague and influenza in the past, much greater public investment in healthcare is needed.
As mentioned earlier, this was one of the measures taken in Bengaluru after it was ravaged by the plague in 1898, and this helped it handle the Spanish Influenza much better later on. The private sector cannot lead in this regard, and cities must put in much larger mechanisms to manage healthcare.
[This article was first published on the blog of Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, and has been republished with permission. The original blog by Alok Prasanna can be read here. Sections from a blog by Shashank Atreya have also been incorporated into the article.]