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The COVID City

The COVID-19 pandemic has fallen hardest not just on cities but on poorer, overcrowded neighborhoods, lending further credence to the observation that, in today's world, one's post code determines one's destiny. But could the pandemic lead to a more advanced and inclusive form of urbanism?

LONDON – No city has escaped the deadly spread of COVID-19. But the virus has had a profoundly uneven impact on different groups of people, even within the same city. When New York City was the global epicenter of the pandemic, downtown Manhattan had an infection rate of roughly 925 per 100,000, compared to 4,125 per 100,000 in Queens. The reason for this gap is straightforward: New York’s wealthiest residents could access a wide range of health services and work remotely in spacious multi-story buildings.

As in every big city, one’s post code profoundly shapes one’s destiny. Manhattan and Queens are less than 25 minutes apart by subway, but the difference between them in annual median income is a staggering $78,000, and the variation in life expectancy between the city’s boroughs can be as high as ten years. Similar inequalities in income, health, education, and virtually every other metric of wellbeing persist in most metropolises around the world. COVID-19 will widen these disparities further still.

Around the world, it is not so much densely populated cities as overcrowded, marginalized neighborhoods that are struggling to contain the spread of COVID-19. Socioeconomic factors, not physical geography, are a key determinant of contagion risk, particularly in the built-up areas of developing countries. For example, it is estimated that over half of Mumbai’s seven million slum-dwellers already have COVID-19. And in South Africa, where five million households do not have a refrigerator, barely 46% have access to a flush toilet in their homes and one-third share toilets with other families – it is not surprising that new infections soared despite drastic lockdown measures.

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