1. Home
  2. /
  3. Research Spotlights
  4. /
  5. Urban life in the...

Urban life in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic

Urban life in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic

Roger Keil

In an article in The Conversation on February 17, Professors Roger Keil, Creighton Connolly, and S. Harris Ali, stressed that “[o]utbreaks like coronavirus start in and spread from the edges of cities,” noting that merging infectious disease has much to do with how and where we live, and that the ongoing coronavirus is an example of the close relationships between urbanization and new or re-emerging infectious diseases.

Keil and his colleagues were not surprised by the current pandemic. Their research has explored the structural conditions of emerging infectious disease for years prior to the current health emergency, especially the relationships of urbanization and infectious disease. Ali’s and Keil’s Networked Disease about the spread of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in global cities such as Toronto, Singapore and Hong Kong in 2003 was called one of “ten books that offer lessons from past pandemics,” by the Globe and Mail. In this line of thought, the spread of the current coronavirus which is said to have originated from Wuhan, China in December 2019 is somehow a predictable consequence with infrastructures of globalization such as international air, sea, and land transport networks serving as conduits for the rapid spread of newly emerging infections and pandemics. In fact, during an academic roundtable in December 2019 at the University of Melbourne, just weeks before we learned about the virus that brought the world to a standstill in early 2020, Keil anticipated the probable consequences of a widespread disease outbreak for the global urban world in conversation with Australian colleagues.

In a March 2020 Urban Studies article on “Extended urbanisation and the spatialities of infectious disease,” Connolly, Keil and Ali posit the need to comprehend the landscapes of extended urbanisation to better predict, avoid and react to emerging disease outbreaks. They identified three dimensions to understand the relationship between extended urbanisation and infectious disease — population change and mobility, infrastructure and governance — to develop efficient and innovative methods of confronting emerging infectious disease. They also underscored the need for an interdisciplinary approach to the study of infectious diseases to provide improved perspectives on the relationship between extended urbanisation and spatialities of health and disease.

The authors further provided their views in an interesting podcast on The Urbanization of COVID 19 emphasizing the need to understand urban dynamics to explain the political responses to the current coronavirus outbreak. They discussed the different policies and actions of containment adopted by different jurisdictions from nation-states down to the local level to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and shed light on the practices of urban solidarity as the key to overcoming the public health threat.

“Community, family structures, and civic solidarity are important,” says Keil. “Non-institutionalized, innovative, community-based responses, as well as civic commitment to neighborhood and finding solutions at the local community level play a huge role in pandemic responses,“ he observes.

In an article published by the Ontario Professional Planners Institute in April,  Keil and Hertel (MES alumnus and CITY Institute research fellow), focusing on urban planning and the COVID 19 pandemic, emphasized the need for planners to refocus their thinking and action according to the reality of the times. Given the racial and social inequities COVID 19 has brought to light — resulting in vulnerable people’s isolation following stay-at-home measures, food insecurity and housing instability as well as polarization and discrimination of marginalized groups —  there is accordingly no other way but for planning to be tuned to the demands of a changing reality.

“These spaces, these places, these people need to be on our mind as the post-pandemic engines are being restarted, as we are making plans for a future, more resilient city,” they conclude.

Keil researches global suburbanization, urban political ecology, cities and infectious disease, and regional governance. Along with Ali and others, he is a co-investigator in an IDRC Rapid Research on Ebola Virus Outbreaks (2018-2020) in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and a co-investigator in an earlier SSHRC research on SARS and the Global City: The Case of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in Toronto.