“Analysis of Google Trends data shows that in the past one month, the search term ‘coronavirus’ was explored most frequently by people in Goa (more than any state in India). On Google Trends, Goa had a score of 100, which means that the percentage of people searching for information on the virus through Google was the highest in the country.”1
Goa is an interesting case — while being India’s smallest State, “populated by approximately 1.5 million people; it receives almost 8 million visitors annually”.3 According to the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Goa is also India’s most Urbanised State!
The countermeasures adopted began with an advisory from the Union health ministry, suggesting a postponement of all mass functions, including seminars and conferences, followed by the closure of all educational institutions including schools, colleges as well as casinos, spas, gymnasiums, swimming pools, cinema halls and pubs by the State Government followed by a nationwide curfew on 22nd of march declared by the Prime Minister and as of the midnight of 24th March, India has announced a 21-day lock-down to check the on-going spread of the novel Coronavirus (COVID – 19).
As India prepares its arsenal to combat Coronavirus, we look at the history of cities and the deeply rooted connection between urban planning and epidemics/pandemics.
The truth is that the developments in our urban infrastructure and planning are direct results of pandemics. Ian Klaus (2020) says that “Modern planning and civil engineering were born out of the mid-19th century development of sanitation in response to the spread of malaria and cholera in cities.”4 Conversely, public health officials have been an integral part of upgrading our cities.
In the case of Goa, Celsa Pinto in her book ‘Colonial Panjim’ (2017) illustrates two incidents in the 19th century: The first, in 1822, a complaint was raised by residents Diogo de Costa Fernandes and Antonio de Souza expressing apprehensions over poor waste management leading to epidemics. The second in 1855-56 was a special effort by the Health Department to tackle sanitation problems as the debris and organic waste thrown by inhabitants gave rise to diseases like conjunctivitis, angina, tuberculosis, etc.
The great plague of Marseilles (1720), the cholera pandemic in Asia (1820), the Spanish Flu (1920) are examples of how medieval and industrial cities were forced to implement planning practices to aid in disease quarantine and how post-pandemic, management of water and waste helped remake cities. Moreover, in contemporary conditions of our globalised world, pandemics drastically reflect the shortcomings of our cities. The infrastructure needed to combat epidemics has almost always been an afterthought.
We rethought our connectivity as a city building fundamental post-SARS pandemic. Ebola made us conscious of the coexistence of our cities and the impossibility of mass quarantine. As India begins to get conscious of the corona pandemic, waves of xenophobia sweep the tourist hotspot of Goa, moreover the bordering states, as well as the international connectivity, illustrate the amorphous nature of our cities and urban centres. It took the emergency response services and police around 45 days from the reports of the corona pandemic in India, 30 days from the initial corona infection reports, 15 days post the temporary shutting of some services and 2 days post a nationwide curfew to close the borders between Goa, and its neighbouring states of Karnataka and Maharashtra.
In many ways the fundamental planning strategy that we need to factor is density. Rethinking density management is key for long-term survival in a pandemic-prone world. India is home to a large number of informal settlements. How do we manage density in such a scenario? How do we map an outbreak? How do we quarantine areas and cut off physical contact? One can potentially rely on using the democratic planning method — local mapping and using communities to source data. However, much like Wikipedia, decentralising information and data gathering bring with it credibility issues, with no way of sourcing primary information, all urban knowledge acquired shall present an inadequate picture of ground realities at best. Furthermore, India’s porous and informal borders coupled with shifting trends of internal migration within the state and country coupled with a steady inflow of tourists from around the world raise the larger planning-oriented question: is density even a controllable parameter in Indian cities?
India needs higher standards in public health and planning. Contextual planning demands the decentralisation of essential services as a pragmatic response to pandemics. In cases of pandemics, Indian cities — with our inadequate planning, transportation systems and given the scale of our urban assemblies, have become hotbeds for mass infection. Amidst mass hysteria, and when our systems and responses fail, there has to be an inquiry into the shortcomings of our planning practices. “Singapore had to shut down its main hospitals during SARS. Many countries such as Italy are considering door-to-door testing. But we need to also rethink the ways, perhaps digital ones, we test and contain.”4 The door to door testing model would fail in Goa, with millions of mobile tourists, and in cities like Mumbai and Delhi with upwards of 10 million inhabitants, even temporary quarantine is a distant dream.
The coronavirus first spread through a market at Wuhan. Wuhan is an extremely important transportation and international trade centre. The rapid urbanisation of Chinese cities has made them attractive destinations for Chinese workers; urbanisation enables higher densities as the planning process starts to strategize for public gatherings and mass transportation. The physical output of these strategies creates spaces that would enable the spread of infectious diseases at an exponential rate, moreover, the squatters created in developing countries are particularly susceptible to mass infections. Equally, with major transportation and trade routes now connecting India by land and air there is a blurring distinction between urban and rural in terms of the supply chain of products. Pandemics aren’t simply a by-product of globalisation; they are in fact a very stern reminder of connections, economics and participation of global cities with all other areas within a country. The story of Wuhan teaches us that rapid growth cannot be sustainable unless there is an investment in social and technical infrastructure that develops with the pace of urbanisation. Yes, there is a great monetary advantage in mobility and infrastructures that address to it but outbreaks like the coronavirus pandemic do denote that what we’ve been sold as desirable urbanisation is contrary with what makes sense from an infectious disease perspective, “quarantined mega-cities and cruise ships demonstrate what happens when our globalised urban lives come grinding to a halt.”4
As the Indian lock-down progresses, citizens quarantine themselves and mobility is restricted, the deserted urban fabric starts to reveal itself onto the foreground. Infrastructure begins to support a non-existing assembly of people as vegetation reclaims space and nature thrives. Our cities as of this moment are denoting, with extreme precision, the presence, absence and shortcomings of planning and space management at micro and macro scales. As we immerse into a national quarantine, the infrastructure around us is truly tested. Cities are centres developed around mobility and connections, but what happens when these connections are methodically severed? What results would isolation create in a mobile world? Are we to increasingly adopt newer planning practices or are we to focus on planning for emergencies? The deserted reality of our urban fabric today presents us with opportunities for observation. A rare insight into discerning the elemental framework of our urban infrastructure under pandemic pressures and in the vast emptiness.
The larger point that the pandemics steer our focus towards is when the outbreak shall be halted and bans lifted and the world resumes as normal, there still needs to be a great degree of research and understanding into the relationship between the spread of infectious diseases and urbanisation. There are two aspects that we need to focus on. “One, we need to grasp where disease outbreaks occur and how they relate to the physical, spatial, economic, social and ecological changes brought on by urbanisation.”4 There is a direct relationship between contemporary urbanisation and potential pandemic outbreaks. The coronavirus and its effects over our planet are streamlining our focus towards the evaluation of the present conditions of our cities and its infrastructure, raising planning and contextual inquiries, forcing us to introspect and question what we really learn from rapid urbanisation and more importantly, is there a need to catalogue and curate the exploration of emerging urban landscapes?
- Faria, A, Panjim between the past and modernity: building the city of new Goa, 1776-1921.
- Ministry of Tourism statistics for 2018 in Parliament, 03.02.2020
- Pinto, C (1961). Colonial Panjim Its Governance, Its People. Goa 1556.