COVID-19 has a Postcode:
How spatial inequality shapes the pandemic’s impact and the need for place-based responses
By Jeni Klugman (Managing Director of Georgetown Institute for Women Peace and Security), Matthew Moore (Consultant, World Bank), Michael Higgins (Pathfinders Program Lead on Grand Challenge on Inequality and Exclusion, NYU Center on International Cooperation), and Paula Sevilla (Pathfinders Program Associate at the NYU Center on International Cooperation)
Most of the world’s population — about four billion people — lives in cities. So often the engines of creativity, industry and economic growth, the density and intensity of economic and social life in cities has suddenly become a hallmark of their vulnerability in the face of a highly contagious pandemic.
Yet the vulnerability that marks cities is not experienced by citizens on an equal basis. The pandemic has exposed the glaring inequality that characterizes so many cities around the world. Whether in developed or developing countries, place-based disparities mean the poorest and most marginalized bear the brunt of the pandemic and face crowded housing, lack of medical care, and shortage of access to water. Addressing these policy failures will require new information and tools.
The hardest hit
In Barcelona, Besòs and Llobregat, historically among the city’s poorest neighborhoods, have been hardest hit by COVID-19. Accumulating evidence suggests that economically disadvantaged areas in New York City have also been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus. Data also shows that African-Americans and Latinos are twice as likely to die of the virus, a reflection of structural discrimination and spatial exclusion. In Rio de Janeiro, the first death due to COVID-19 was Cleonice Gonçalves, a 63 year-old domestic worker who worked in one of the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods. She reportedly contracted the disease from her employer who had recently returned from a trip to Italy. Accustomed to cosseting themselves within gated communities to avoid ‘contamination’, it seems a vector of this disease has been the air travel associated with the lifestyles of the rich.
Lock-downs and social distancing have been implemented to halt the spread of disease, yet it is the poor who are disproportionately affected. Billions of people worldwide have been ordered to stay home — yet for an estimated 1.4 billion people, home is crowded, inadequate, and unsafe. In the United States, about 30 million homes have serious health and safety hazards and, on a given night, about 570,000 people have no home to go to at all.
Reports from India over the past week have graphically depicted what shutdown means for the slums and informal settlements that exist around islands of comparative wealth. Many of those urban residents, who work to service the wealthy in exchange for low pay, and generally have poor social and legal protection, have been left with no lifeline.
The COVID-19 lockdown has brought existing disparities in power — not just resources — into sharp relief. The poor and excluded also find themselves at the end of the line when it comes to political considerations. The unequal impact of COVID-19 and deficiencies in governmental responses have spurred communities and CSOs to take action. Favela residents in Rio de Janeiro are raising public awareness about COVID-19’s effect on their communities, and homeless activists in Los Angeles are reclaiming vacant buildings. Collective organizations around the world, from the Self-Employed Women’s Association in India, to the Federation of Muslim Women’s Associations in Nigeria, to the Ndlovu Youth Choir in South Africa have quickly mobilized to provide support and services to their members and affected communities.
Inequality of place
While the pandemic has shone a spotlight on spatial inequality there was already a growing body of evidence about the importance of ‘place’ in shaping life outcomes. Raj Chetty among others has documented that every extra year that a child spends in a better neighborhood environment improves the child’s economic outcome as an adult, as indicated by measures such as income, likelihood of college attendance, and probability of avoiding teenage pregnancy. In 2008, the London Health Observatory found that, when traveling east from Westminster, each tube stop represents nearly one year of life expectancy lost.
We already know some of the steps that Governments should take to respond to the pandemic such as increasing access to basic services, increasing access to water, giving food aid to vulnerable groups and providing cash grants, especially for the hardest hit communities. Yet the lack of available tools and information to track spatial inequality confounds efforts to tackle the problem even where political will and resources exist. The recent UNDESA 2020 World Social Report underscored that many cities are stymied in their efforts to analyze and formulate urban policies to reduce inequalities, due to lack of relevant information. “Official reporting on housing, basic services, and health vectors relies, for the most part, on urban averages that obscure the challenges in informal settlements. “
The global pandemic illustrates this point well: Even in the United States, where information might be more easily gathered, there is generally no data on either the class or the race of victims, let alone intersectional data, as highlighted by Ibram X. Kendi. One exception is Illinois, where the Department of Public Health released some racial data which revealed significant higher prevalence rates among African-Americans.
How new tools can help
New measures that provide a more granular assessment of local conditions could aid governments in planning for and responding to health crises by identifying areas with the greatest needs. This shows the potential of tools drawing on local data to track disparities in housing, health, service delivery, transportation, and environmental indicators, among others, within cities. As part of the Pathfinders Grand Challenge on Inequality and Exclusion we are currently developing tools that can help authorities identify and address these gaps and are partnering with cities to tailor them to suit their contexts and settings.
This crisis has underlined the enormity of the repercussions faced by those who live in and travel to work from economically and spatially disadvantaged areas. To recover in a way that ensures opportunities and prosperity for all residents, we know that essential elements will include more secure economic opportunities; access to better housing, education and welfare; a well-resourced safety net; and the involvement of citizens in decisions that affect them, as well as greater accountability to them.
Many have been struck by Arundhati Roy’s powerful evocation of the pandemic as a portal which offers us the chance to break with the past and imagine the world anew. It is in cities that the fate of this world to come will largely be determined. Let’s try to make it a more inclusive and equal one.
 Chetty, R., & Hendren, N. (2016). The Impacts of Neighborhoods on Intergenerational Mobility: Childhood Exposure Effects and County-Level Estimates. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research