It would not be wrong to say that the manifestation of COVID-19 in India has an urban bias. As of 4 May, of the 42,533 people who had tested positive for COVID-19, a disproportionately large number were in large cities. Mumbai alone had 8,800 cases, while the National Capital Territory of Delhi had 4,549. In most states, major cities were the epicentres of the pandemic, with 472 of the 1,082 cases in Telangana being from Hyderabad alone and 1,458 of the 3,023 cases in Tamil Nadu being from Chennai. Since the lockdown measures were enacted, it has been easy to slip into catastrophic thinking about cities. The economies of cities have ground to a halt. It seems natural to ask: will Indian cities survive this onslaught?
Health and the spread of disease are very closely linked to how we live and how our cities operate. The good news is that cities are incredibly resilient. Many cities have experienced epidemics in the past and have not only survived, but prospered. Before the rise of modern medicine, disease spread was often addressed by changes to the urban environment through infrastructure, better designed buildings, sanitation and decongestion.
During the lockdown, government efforts are rightly placing emphasis on vaccines, physical separation and emergency healthcare. When the lockdown ends, however, not everything will go back to the way things were—the fabric and infrastructure of our cities will have to adapt to a new normal. What lessons can we learn from the past about how cities have adapted their architecture and infrastructure after epidemics? What can we apply to make cities even more healthy and liveable?