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Reflections on COVID-19 in Cities: Connecting Extreme Poverty, Resilience, and Prosperity

By Allan Lavell, Colin McFarlane, Henrietta Moore, Saffron Woodcraft, and Christopher Yap (KNOW WP2 investigators)

Above image: CCI campaign team members distribute hand washing stations and soap to traders in a local Dar Es Salam market. (Image: CCI, 2020)

The transmission of the coronavirus is determined by the organisation of societies; by the flows of goods and people, of knowledge and resources. Covid-19 reveals the metabolic natures of health and pathogens, of food and waste, of air and space. It lays bare the relational qualities of mobility and communication, of safety and security, of power, privilege, and freedoms. The impacts of Covid-19, too, are products of metabolisms and political economies; determined and amplified by inequalities that existed before the outbreak. Inequality is, as the United Nations' 75th anniversary reminds us, “an issue that will define our time.”


In urban contexts, inequalities are at their starkest. Cities are not just places with high population densities, they are spatial concentrations of vulnerability and inequality; characterised by the unequal distribution of entitlements, services, voice and power. Around the world, the urban poor has been the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic; the virus thrives in dense neighborhoods where social distancing is unfeasible and sanitation is in short supply; while poorer groups have often had to continue working in and around the city. The UN estimates that 90% of coronavirus cases have taken place in urban areas. For these reasons, the pandemic represents a unique set of challenges to vulnerable people in urban areas that will almost certainly lead to increased rates of poverty and extreme poverty.


The COVID-19 crisis has put many of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal targets severely at risk, and is a long-term threat to livelihoods, opportunity, and prosperity. The crisis is reversing decades of progress towards eradicating extreme poverty; the World Bank estimates that 88–115 million people will be pushed into extreme poverty in 2020 alone. The pandemic represents, in a fundamental sense, a ‘wicked problem’; a networked ecology of intersecting issues that have been recognised but not addressed. Seen from this perspective, wicked problems such as the coronavirus pandemic have many of the same basic causes as long-standing developmental challenges.


Such wicked problems demand holistic responses. This means acting not in just one urban domain, such as health or housing, but adopting a focus on the intersection of inadequate housing and location, sanitation, water, public health services, livelihoods, and governance; that is, a focus on the political, economic, and metabolic drivers of vulnerability and inequality that together sustain the COVID-19 crisis.


Calls for holistic responses to intractable development challenges are not new, but the urgency of the current crisis demands that we develop practical steps towards their realisation. To this end, and drawing on our work as part of the KNOW programme, we propose that a holistic response to the coronavirus pandemic must recognise and engage pluralistically with the tangled relationships between poverty, resilience, and prosperity in urban contexts.

Image above Food-bank line in central Havana (during lockdown), seeking protection in the shade whilst queuing for food. (Image: Jorge Peña Díaz, 2020)

Urban extreme poverty in this sense is not only a question of income, but rather, as we have argued, a multi-dimensional set of intersecting challenges that affects different populations within and between cities in different ways at different times; extreme poverty, then, includes issues of rights and wellbeing, marginalisation and stigmatisation, exploitation and exclusion. Prosperity, too, is more than a question of income. Understood as the possibility to live a good life, prosperity is context-specific, relational, and multidimensional. The KNOW programmes’s work with Centre for Community Initiative (CCI) in Dar es Salaam has evidenced, for example, that local conceptions of prosperity include issues of livelihood security, access to basic goods, food, and urban infrastructures, as well as harmonious social relations and space for community voice and action.


The relations between poverty, resilience, and prosperity are close and complex, but often not linear. For example, poverty and lack of prosperity can be understood as basic drivers of the risk that antecedes crisis conditions. Inequalities and exclusion can transform everyday conditions of risk into disasters and crises. Households living below, or close to the poverty line, for example, have significantly reduced capacity to build up the assets that provide resilience against economic shocks.


At the same time, disasters and crises have always tended to strengthen the adverse conditions that preceded them, expressed through greater levels of poverty, lack of prosperity, exclusion, and marginalisation. Local lockdowns, for example, can severely impact many urban households, but it is those groups that were already marginalised that are more likely to be pushed into poverty when mobility and livelihoods are constrained.


These are just two examples of the multiple, causal, reciprocal relationships between poverty, prosperity, and resilience that are ever more evident in novel, and constantly shifting, emergency and disaster contexts, such as is the case today with COVID-19. The pandemic has revealed starkly the nexus between poverty and prosperity; the systemic nature of risk and disaster; and the challenges for building resilience in the future.


When faced with conditions of risk and disaster, state action can take different forms. It can be corrective, searching to eliminate factors that explain the present risk and thus avoid or reduce the possibility or extent of a crisis. It can be reactive, responding to disasters or crises once they exist. Or it can be prospective; anticipating the production of risk and avoiding the processes that contribute to it. Clearly the latter is the more sustainable and transformative approach. However, opportunities for transformation do not rest with states alone.


Image above: Social media campaign from Lima community organisation CENCA, asking for coupon donations to support the community based "AH José Carlos Mariátegui" soup kitchen, with KNOW Lima City Partner (Image: c/o CENCA, 2020)

Understanding and challenging the conditions that lead to rising poverty and decreasing prosperity and resilience is the daily work of researchers and practitioners from universities and research institutions, non-governmental and civil society organisations around the world, across the KNOW programme and beyond. Only through such plural approaches will it be possible to address the multiple drivers and multiple expressions of crises that increasingly affect the urban world. What is clear is that any holistic response will require not only imagination, but a determination to work across knowledges and to learn through the manifold diverse and irreconcilable experiences of the coronavirus pandemic within and across cities and regions. The co-production of knowledge, then, is vital.


In the face of the ongoing crisis, we recognise this opportunity for collective action, for (virtual) participation, and an ethics of solidarity and care. It is only through such collaborations – across contexts, cultures, disciplines, and regions – that we can better understand the relationships between extreme poverty, prosperity, and resilience, and more holistic responses to the urban coronavirus crisis can be formed.

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