Urban governments have a key role to play in the COVID-19 pandemic

Sharelle Polack, Braulio Eduardo Morera, Alex Ryan and Laura Platenkamp


Low-income urban communities have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, it is much harder to socially distance in poor urban neighbourhoods than wealthy ones.(1) Take a city like Dhaka, Bangladesh. With a population of over 21 million, a density of 23,234 people per square kilometre, keeping a distance is incredibly challenging, particularly in slum areas. 

Cities, especially in low- and middle-income countries are also highly vulnerable to food system disruptions: cities have to bring in food from outside their boundaries since most people rely on the market for food, typically purchasing prepared food and food ingredients regularly throughout the week. Since many(2) people have limited access to refrigeration, food storage and cooking facilities and scarce income, they cannot store fresh food, making them even more vulnerable to disruption.

Moreover, they buy a lot of their food from street food vendors(3) and wet markets,(4) which many city authorities are now closing down as part of the lockdowns.(5) There also have been measures taken on street food vendors – and workers in the informal sector(6) have been hit hard by mandatory lockdowns.(7) Some authorities are even closing down their municipal borders(8), and in other instances food transport from rural areas to city markets is restricted.(9) This has severe consequences as low-income communities lose access to their regular source of food and livelihoods.

During this Covid-19 crisis it is critical that city governments strike a balance between the necessary lockdown measures and the necessary access to nutritious and safe food, including maintaining livelihoods, for those on low incomes. They have a fundamental role to play in responding by ensuring access to all basic needs such as energy, water, food supply  and livelihoods, as well as leading the recovery in a resilient and equitable manner. Indeed, they have a large range of tools at hand in which they can quickly and effectively influence people’s food environment. Areas that require attention include:

  • Food systems logistics: The logistics of moving food around are(10)  typically managed by the private sector with the goal of economic efficiency, leaving them fragile to systemic shocks like the COVID-19 pandemic. Rethinking of food system logistics requires a balanced and human-centred approach that considers the necessary resilience of supply chains, the active role of local governments during periods of disruption, the sustainability of SMEs during a crisis, and the long-term economic prosperity of all actors participating in supply chains.  
  • Wet markets: Cities are in a unique position to engage with local communities and develop contingency plans around their food supply assets. Local governments need to rethink the critical role of local markets and shops during emergencies; engaging SMEs and communities to ensure safe flow of people through the market, spacing of market vendors, ensuring access to soap and water, alternating the days when vendors sell and decentralising markets to smaller, local selling points.
  • Affordability and availability of food, especially for low-income consumers: City governments are implementing social protection measures such as cash transfers, provision, and in some cases delivery, of staple foods and medicines to low income and vulnerable communities, stockpiling food and essential goods and distributing it to retail outlets, free lunches for school students and grocery vouchers.(11)  

Some cities have started to create ideas to address such challenges. For example, the city of Quito, Ecuador, included an action in its Resilience Strategy called “Sustainable Urban Agriculture Production”. Quito imports roughly 85% of its food supply(12), which increases food vulnerabilities in underserved communities, often located on the rural-urban fringe. Such land on Quito’s periphery is fertile and well-suited to agricultural production. So the city wants to ensure that communities are able to produce their own food, predominantly fresh fruit and vegetables. This provides a supply of nutritious food and ensures that underserved communities are less reliant on imported food products and the larger supply chain, more generally, leading to a more reliable food supply and a healthier community.

In the UK, the Northern Roots project is a large-scale initiative, creating the UK’s largest urban farm and eco-park across 160 acres of green space in Oldham, Greater Manchester. The project is multifaceted, but a key aim of the urban farm is to provide communities with a reliable supply of locally produced food, grown by the community, for the community. As well as increasing the supply of nutritious food in Oldham, the project will educate communities about how to cultivate and prepare healthy foods and meals; this will ensure that Oldham’s food supply is reliable and creates co-benefits around relating to health and education. These examples show that cities and their governments, in collaboration with communities, can take an active role in the food supply chain. However, their role is not limited to testing innovative initiatives in urban agriculture; they should put into place measures to ensure adequate and nutritious food supplies through greater resilience in supply chains and markets so they are better prepared for future disruptions.(13) Learning from this crisis and its impacts is an opportunity to engage new actors in civil society, government and business on how to build more resilient cities.


1. Adiga A, Chu S, Eubank S, et al Disparities in spread and control of influenza in slums of Delhi: findings from an agent-based modelling studyBMJ Open 2018;8:e017353. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2017-017353 and see for example: 


2. See for example https://snv.org/cms/sites/default/files/explore/download/paper_-_the_urban_agenda_0.pdf

3. See for example https://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/454961511210702794/pdf/Food-Systems-for-an-Urbanizing-World.pdf;  Baker JL, Gadgil GU. East Asia and Pacific Cities: Expanding Opportunities for the Urban Poor. Washington D.C.: The World Bank; 2017. (Urban Development Series). Available from: https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/27614/9781464810930.pdf?sequence=13&isAllowed=y; Steyn NP, Mchiza Z, Hill J, Davids YD, Venter I, Hinrichsen E, et al. Nutritional contribution of street foods to the diet of people in developing countries: a systematic review. (6):17. Available from: https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/2B44AB4E6EF5D992DAD8AEE39B5E5F0F/S1368980013001158a.pdf/nutritional_contribution_of_street_foods_to_the_diet_of_people_in_developing_countries_a_systematic_review.pdf; HLPE. Nutrition and Food Systems [Internet]. Rome: Food Systems Transformations, Ultra-Processed Food Markets and the Nutrition Transition in Asia; 2017. Available from: www.fao.org/cfs/cfs-hlpe

4. Zhong, S., Crang, M. & Zeng, G. Constructing freshness: the vitality of wet markets in urban China. Agric Hum Values 37, 175–185 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-019-09987-2; Wet markets are not to be confused with wildlife markets, see https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/apr/16/what-is-a-wet-market-coronavirus#maincontent

5. See for example the impacts of lockdown measures on food access for low-income communities of Hanoi, Vietnam. https://www.iied.org/impact-covid-19-lockdown-diets-hanois-urban-poor; And https://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/coronavirus/la-mayor-talks-covid-19-testing-updates-city-on-coronavirus-spread/2337996/; There have been closures of open-air markets in Tanzania and restrictions on open-air markets in Nigeria (Source: GAIN compilation of Covid-19 impact in GAIN countries.)

6. The ILO estimates that 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy are currently at risk of losing their livelihoods, see: https://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS_743036/lang–en/index.htm

7. For example in India, Bangladesh and Mozambique (Source: GAIN compilation of Covid-19 impact in GAIN countries.)

8. President Uhuru Kenyatta issued a 21-day ban on movement in and out of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kwale and Kilifi from Monday, April 6, at 7 pm to control the spread of coronavirus.

9. See for example: https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/world/asia/2020-03-28-indias-farmers-feed-produce-to-animals-as-covid-19-lockdown-halts-deliveries/; In Kenya there are restrictions on food transport into urban areas, resulting among other things in a lack of fish, which is generally eaten by low- and middle-income consumers (Source: GAIN compilation of Covid-19 impact in GAIN countries.)

10. See for example: https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/home/downloads/pdf/reports/2020/Feeding-New-York.pdf and https://www.wired.co.uk/article/stockpiling-supermarkets-coronavirus

11. https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/socialprotection/brief/social-protec…  Weekly Updates: Social Protection and Jobs Responses to COVID-19 : A Real-Time Review of Country Measures by Ugo Gentilini, et al (April 24th issue)

12. Quito Resilience Strategy, p91, 100 Resilient Cities.

13. The Rockefeller Foundation & Arup (2016). City Resilience Index: Measurement Guide. p. 21 Available at: https://www.cityresilienceindex.org/#/resources

Urban governments have a key role to play in the COVID-19 pandemic