Responding to changing vulnerability and disproportionate impacts

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The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing vulnerability and economic disparity. How are cities responding to these changes and their consequences for communities and the city?

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing vulnerability and economic disparity, through health, social and economic impacts. The airborne nature of the virus poses specific problems to cities where individuals live in close proximity to one another and travel together via public transportation. For many cities, the best known way to stop the spread—social distancing—has deep economic impacts on the manufacturing, service, and informal sector jobs that cannot be done remotely.  Poor residents in crowded urban neighbourhoods cannot afford the luxury of social distancing. The lack of adequate infrastructure often means shared spaces like washrooms or water pumps are easily crowded and violate the 2m distancing guidelines. As a result, these areas are often COVID hotspots in cities.

Prior to COVID-19, Native Hawaiian women were significantly more at-risk than other populations. They had the lowest life expectancy of any race/ethnic group in the state, the highest asthma rates, and nearly 20% had experienced domestic partner violence. In Salvador, Brazil there was a documented 54% increase in domestic violence cases between March and April 2020, while 30% of families are headed by a single mother who is the sole source of income. Women in Salvador are about 65% of healthcare workers, and 52% of informal sector workers—sectors that have been hardest hit by the crisis.

In Medellin, Colombia, vulnerable people hung red flags from their homes to signify a need for assistance leading to a rise in ad hoc voluntary contributions. In response, the City created an integrated programme of support to vulnerable people that combined contributions from civil society and business. This approach included: Creating a single point of donation for all resources (human, in kind and financial), combining private and civil society donations to create a substantial, long-term resource; using big data including population age, location, data on links to existing social support to capture voluntary work undertaken, needs of individuals, and areas served; and linked data to a centralised donation system, enabling an economic committee comprised of local government, businesses, voluntary sector and charity sector to jointly decide financial allocations to support voluntary organisations.

In Los Angeles, disruption of social networks due to COVID-19 has increased socio-economic vulnerabilities among refugees. However financial subsidies and medical care are being provided by the Los Angeles County government to the uninsured and underinsured regardless of immigration status, with information on available support being shared in languages and formats accessible to these communities. Furthermore, the Los Angeles School District is being used to open 63 ‘Grab and Go’ food centers to feed each child two meals daily.

In Pune, India, around 3,500 waste pickers are increasingly exposed as they continue to work through the pandemic. In Pune, India, waste pickers are providing an essential service, enabling city wide waste collection and disposal. Reliant on day wages, the waste pickers continue to work during lockdown to ensure continuous income, putting themselves at higher risk of infection. The municipality, like many cities, was struggling to come up with solutions. In this time of limited resources, civil society has stepped forward, citizens, corporations etc who helped by directly providing the waste pickers with personal protective equipment (PPE).

Further resources

Lesson: Hear from Lakhsmi on the increased vulnerability of waste pickers in Pune on Cities on the Frontline #13 – Waste Management  Waste pickers in Pune are an essential service of 3,500 pickers who cover 70% of the city. Since most waste pickers are impoverished and of lower caste, civil society groups and corporations banded together to provide them with PPE to ensure safety. Despite this, many slums where waste pickers live had higher case counts.

Practice: LA’s Inclusive Response to COVID-19 As COVID-19 has disproportionate impact on communities of colour & immigrants, inclusive actions are needed. Recovery measures should be as broad-reaching as possible with a focus on underserved communities.

Practice: Centering Gender for Hawaii’s Resilient Recovery Based on the Hawai’i’s traditional cultures, the feminist COVID-19 response team, which is composed of 40 women, develops resilience programs and the feminist economy recovery plan for COVID-19. This is based on data which shows how women are disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19, as they consist of 55% of the unemployed population. Specifically, Native Hawaiian women are vulnerable to COVID as they have the highest asthma rates of any group in the state

Practice: Decrease Gender Inequality in Salvador Salvador has created a two pronged approach to combatting increased vulnerabilities. First, it has received permission from the courts to extend urgent protective measures to victims of domestic violence for the duration of the lockdown and retooled the municipal women’s attention reference center to provide the legal, psychological, and social assistance remotely. Second, it is providing economic and food support to vulnerable families through food baskets (over 200,000 per month) and monthly assistance of about 270 BRL.

Lesson: Manchester Briefing #7 – In Colombia, there has been a novel approach to seeking assistance; hanging a red flag from the home. Using this approach, the local government created an integrated relief system that collected donations of all resources (financial, human, etc.) and combined it with data on existing social support to enable the community to provide for the most vulnerable households. 

Opinion: (Im)mobility and social networks: the impact of COVID-19 on critical coping mechanisms for urban refugees– Disruption of social networks due to COVID-19 has increased refugee socio-economic vulnerabilities. But society cannot afford to exclude refugees as critical contributors in implementing responses to COVID-19.

Responding to changing vulnerability and disproportionate impacts