Today, coronavirus is convincingly and distinctively an urban threat, which has brought the concept of global, interconnected, bustling cities to its knees. New York City is the biggest terror story with around 20 percent of the residents infected and over 20k deaths. the situation isn’t encouraging in London, UK.
Going back in time just a couple of months, a very pertinent issue was raised at the beginning of the pandemic when the developing countries including those in South Asia remained little affected by COVID-19: The impact of COVID-19 on urban centres and highly populated areas. In the latest update, the World Economic Forum has warned that COVID-19 will hit the developing world's cities hardest for reason that have been well known for long. Pointing out the informal settlements in Orangi Town in Karachi, the WEF highlights the silent surge in infections that could turn these areas into urban morgues without proper prevention. Moreover, the economic implications of lockdown and high food prices are also made part of the factors that could lead to a steep rise in deaths.
However, prevention in such areas is easier said than done; most of the urban cities in developing particularly poor countries have people living in congested low-income areas commonly referred to as slums, which provide a conducive environment for virus incubation. High population density, over-crowded households, lack of amenities and facilities like water and sanitation make slums havens for viral diseases. Preventive measures like social distancing and hand-washing are rendered futile in such localities.
As seen recently, the new hotspots emerging like Spain and Brazil have a big chunk of the population residing in urban slums. Does the trend suggest that cities like Karachi, Dhaka, Mumbai in South Asia could become the future epi-centres? Chances exist especially when people are seen disregarding SOPs after lockdown easing across countries.
A recent analysis by Consortium for Development Policy Research (CDPR) on urban density in the times of COVID-19 rightly points out the additional burden urban cities like Karachi and Lahore face. While high population density and overcrowded localities are key features of urban centres across the world, quality and accessibility of healthcare systems, fiscal emergency response and the organisational capacity of city governments are equally important factors as highlighted by the CDPR analysis. Going by this, the situation in South Asia including Pakistan has the potential to leave behind the wealthy cities like New York City and the likes - and some lessons for urban planners and developers.