Theater of Cruelty

The consequences of pandemics for cities

CITIES / Life in the world's cities has always been characterized by epidemics and disease. Occasionally cities have been devastated by waves of infection, but mostly they have risen again and moved on. But what will be the consequences of the pandemic that originated in China in 2019? Can cities in our time handle such challenges again?


Life in Shanghai was dramatically changed for the city's 26 million inhabitants in the months of April and May 2022. pandemicone in China was probably released from the animal and meat market in the big city of Wuhan in 2019, with spread via bats and pangolins. But China's President Xi had declared that the country had zero tolerance for infection, whatever the cost, and the situation appeared to be under control, following a strict testing and quarantine regime. Then, in mid-March 2022, there were reports of a new wave of infection in Changchun in Jilin Province in the east, and the city was shut down.

Within a couple of weeks, the infection reached the country's economic center Shanghai, with more than 20.000 new infections each day from the Omikron variant. Airports and railway stations, subway networks and streets were empty, shops and eateries, schools and meeting rooms, office buildings and factories were closed. People were locked in wherever they happened to be when the order was given, whether it was in a shopping center or in an office they had to stay there, eventually equipped with field beds and sleeping bags. Many slept on the streets. There were daily tests, and the infected were taken to isolation centers in schools and fair halls, children were separated from their parents. Weddings and funerals were cancelled. The 'Great Whites', health workers in all-white suits with disinfectant syringes that looked like an invasion from another planet, had unfettered authority in the unpopulated landscape outside barricaded apartment blocks and office buildings.

For the city's 4,5 million migrant workers, the situation became particularly serious. They had no work and no income, hardly anywhere to live, and as unregistered they received no assistance from the city authorities.

People in Shanghai screamed from their windows and balconies about the lack of food and medicine.

People believed shutdownone would last barely a week, and there was a limit to how much food could be hoarded before the shops closed. The apartment blocks' exit doors were barricaded by the police, and people were arrested if they managed to sneak out. People screamed from windows and balconies about the lack of food and medicine, they hit pots and pans, and spread their despair on social media, where the authorities were unable to censor input quickly enough before new ones arrived.

The financial consequences quickly became significant, with major ripple effects. The flow of goods to and from the city was redirected. When the car factories and the electronics industry closed, there was a shortage of parts and products for other countries. In the harbor outside Shanghai, 500 container ships were waiting to be unloaded and loaded. It was calculated that the city's gross domestic product had been reduced by 60 per cent. 45 cities in other parts of the country were also completely or partially closed, with 340 million inhabitants. But President Xi held firm, and it became obviously a question of political control and credibility until the party congress last October. Many were alarmed by something they perceived as a clear authoritarian turning. Foreigners left Shanghai by the thousands, research and teaching collaborations were canceled or put on hold.

After 8 weeks, 1 June 2022, became quarantinen mostly blown off, and people once again poured out into the streets and into the shops. But during the summer and autumn of 2022, new cases of infection were reported, and entire districts were closed down again in anticipation of a full increase in infection and mass testing. IN Chengdu, provincial capital in the south-west with 21 million inhabitants, the entire city was shut down in September, indefinitely. Wuhan was closed down again in October 2022. It was also warned that the mental effects of the closure would be long-lasting.

The cities are closed down

The lockdown in Shanghai in 2020-22 was more complete and brutal than in other countries – with few cities untouched: the press and social media reported how people fled from Covid-19, delta and omicron, from the big cities in Asia, Europe and America, out towards the countryside. The streets became empty and windy, cafes and cinemas closed, from the school classrooms there was only distance learning. The big cities' office buildings got dark windows when people stayed at home at the kitchen table and in bedrooms and lofts with PCs and telephones. Shops and cafes laid off and fired employees. People who could, escaped from density and closeness, out to relatives and acquaintances with homes and gardens in the countryside or to small towns in the rural areas.

Will the cities' functionality change significantly after this?

Half a million Parisians went out to holiday homes and childhood homes in the first couple of pandemic months in 2020. 40 percent of the residents disappeared from some of Manhattan's prosperous areas, and London was referred to in the press as 'a deserted city'. Tourists failed, the desire to travel disappeared, and airports and ferry terminals became desolate and irrelevant to people's daily lives.

This will happen again. Will the big cities be able to survive such a shutdown and dilution of city life, in the longer term? Aren't the cities precisely dependent on the density, the interaction, the close contact and meetings between people, the unregulated and violent life in the streets and squares? Will the cities' functionality change significantly after this? And – are these stories that can also be told in the same ways, or with different emphasis or with more dramatic words, about poorer big cities in other parts of the world?

Disease and plague in the history of cities

Throughout history, disease, contagion and pestilence, along with war, have been the most important causes of the destruction and fall of cities. As long as people have lived close together in cities, with livestock around them, large numbers of them have been affected by, and have died from, infectious diseases. Traders have brought infection with them, goods have been infected, farmers have brought infection from animals when they have sought protection in cities.

The reasons for such pest was unknown. There was mostly poor personal hygiene, the drinking water was often contaminated, flies and mosquitoes were difficult to protect against. There were no other ways to protect yourself, or treat the diseases, than to reduce social contact, sit inside and close the door.

Historically, the cities had hardly anything public health service which could prevent or take care of the amount of patients. It was not enough to have an effective quarantine to avoid measles, typhus, tuberculosis, malaria and jaundice. People lived crowded and unhygienic, and the cities began to blame themselves, with a slow understanding that it was not enough to close ports and borders: open sewers, decay, smoke and garbage created and spread disease. The cities had to be cleansed, the impurities had to flow away faster. Narrow streets and dense city walls had to be demolished so that the cities could be ventilated. Schools, factories and mine shafts had to be ventilated, aqueducts had to be built and long pipes laid to collect fresh water, and sewage pipes had to be dug under the streets. River banks had to be stoned for a better flow of water, and to prevent polluted flood water from flowing into the city streets.

The 1800th century's most important innovators and reformers for the cities were the sanitarians.

The 1800th century's most important innovators and reformers for cities were the sanitarians, the far-sighted health strategists who saw connections between urban structure and infection control. It was Baron Haussmann who laid out the wide boulevards in dense medieval Paris. There was Daniel Burnham in Chicago and Edwin Lutyens in New Delhi. And it was not least the energetic engineer Joseph Bazalgette which, with sewer tunnels and water pipes, would save London from 'The Big Stink' from the viscous sewage of the Thames. Sanitarythe ists became the most influential in the 1900th century's new understanding of town planning.

Outbreaks of widespread plague in cities became less frequent in the 20th century. International transport became cleaner, and new facilities for clean water and the collection and transport of sewage in the large commercial cities meant that the spread of infection by flies and rats became less common. But infection from person to person had disastrous consequences in the years towards the end of the First World War, 1–1918. Contagion often follows in the wake of war. The Spanish disease was an influenza epidemic, which spread in overcrowded military camps and hospitals, and it especially took the lives of young and strong people. It is estimated that 1/3 of the world's population was infected, and between 17 and 50 million died. The death toll was significantly higher than for covid-19, probably the highest since the Black Death in the 1300th century.

Throughout history, pandemics have created crisis and chaos when they were at their worst, but the cities have mostly recovered and continued to grow. "This time it's different", many have probably said each time, even after 2020. Many believed that the flight from the health-hazardous cities would continue. But the cities rose again, time and time again.

The slums of the big city

One billion residents of big cities slumsareas are particularly vulnerable, without clean water, sanitary facilities, waste management and basic health services. The call from the world's health authorities to constantly wash becomes difficult when there is neither access to clean water nor toilets. The water that emerges is often contaminated from uncontrolled sources, and the water pipes become clogged or often leak.

Information in social networks does not work when there is no power to charge mobile phones, or power for radio and TV. The generators that will produce electricity locally are not supplied with diesel for operation. Avoiding closeness to other people becomes illusory in the shacks of Mumbai, Nairobi and Lagos – in slums where families are crowded together and living by open sewers.

The calls from well-intentioned international bodies that such problems are something that local authorities must now quickly solve are not done in practice. Local authorities often lack both the budget and competent professionals and planners to build new infrastructure – and the construction of new water mains is of little help as long as they are not connected to tap points or to houses where people live. The World Bank has calculated that the income of local authorities will be reduced by 15-25 per cent in 2021, as a result of a failure in export income, tourism and a reduction in other economic activity. It seems clear that if the wealthy countries of the world really wanted to prevent future pandemics, they would invest significant funds and provide assistance to improve sanitation in cities in poor areas of the world.

Can cities rise again?

The major pandemics have obviously had significant consequences for big cityone's functionality as a result of shutdowns since the beginning of 2020. The consequences have been least in rich countries such as Norway, where public budgets have been able to continuously remedy the problems by replenishing empty coffers with fresh capital. But the question in both rich and less rich countries is whether such a shutdown will have a long-term effect, beyond the duration of the pandemic. It is probably too early to give any definitive answers, but it seems that some tendencies are emerging.

During the pandemics, people have largely avoided busy places with lots of people. Meetings have been held digitally, and there have been fewer flights for work. This has obviously affected both the daily work travel pattern and choice of residence, shopping patterns in city center shops and use of social meeting places. Daily travelers have become more skeptical about using public transport, while car traffic in European and American cities now, after the pandemics are largely under control, shows significant growth. People spend several hours a day in traffic queues to and from city centres.

Sewer tunnels and water pipes were to save London from 'The Big Stink' of the Thames' viscous sewage.

In the era of pandemics, the cities' green areas and open public arenas have become more important. This is especially important for those who are less well-off, who cannot go out into their own garden or to clubs with restricted access, and more important the closer the city is.

We have seen, as in Norwegian cities in the autumn of 2021, how quickly people once again poured into the streets and into restaurants and tore off their face masks, as soon as the restrictions were lifted. At the same time, this enjoyment of city street life has been adapted to a bourgeois way of life and a clearly class-divided social and economic reality. This is still the case, more clearly than ever. The economic and social shutdownone in western cities as a result of the pandemic's restrictions, with supply chain failures, unemployment, closed shops, museums, schools and libraries, increasing police brutality, riots and racism, have probably characterized big cities – such as Paris, London and New York. But the effect in poor big cities, where half live in the slums, has probably been much stronger.

Peter Butenschøn
Peter Butenschøn
Butenschøn (born 20 April 1944) is a Norwegian architect.

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