The pandemic city (by Martin Sokol)

The Covid-19 pandemic has reignited debates about the future of cities. Optimists hope that – in response to the pandemic – our cities can become greener, healthier, smarter, more pleasant to work and live in, more economically resilient and more sustainable. But let’s just imagine for a moment that, for whatever reason (vaccine supply delays; vaccine hesitancy; new virus variant; etc.), the pandemic is not going to be brought under control as hoped. What happens then?

In the ‘pandemic city’ scenario outlined in this blog post, coronavirus will continue to cause a major health crisis (both directly and indirectly). The continuing health crisis will in turn inflict further economic and financial damage, with severe implications for people’s jobs (and joblessness) and homes (and homelessness). The economic and financial hardship will not be felt equally across society, however. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that parts of society will be hit much harder than others and, as a consequence, social polarisation will grow. This social polarisation will go hand in hand with spatial polarisation – both within and between cities. Simply put, some cities and some parts of cities will do much better than others. The financialised nature of property markets will only exacerbate this process. Uneven social and economic impacts will, in turn, fuel political polarisation. Extremist forces will become mainstream within an increasingly fragmented and unstable political scene. Amid such political polarisation, it will be impossible to find a much-needed consensus on how to tackle the climate emergency. As a result, the environmental crisis will deepen. It is not inconceivable that amid growing environmental chaos (compounded by the economic, financial, social and political crisis), law and order will disintegrate. The collapse of law and order in cities (or parts of cities) will also mean that it will become increasingly impossible to impose any public health measures to control the spread of the virus. This will only serve to accelerate the pandemic and will further deepen the multiple aspects of the crisis.

Faced with such a dire situation, attempts will undoubtedly be made to implement technological solutions. However, these ‘solutions’ will only cause further polarisation within cities. A ‘technological apartheid’ may emerge where some people will enjoy a growing range of exciting online services and technology-enabled solutions, while others will be completely disconnected from digital services and face increasing social and economic marginalisation. The divide will not just be digital. Technology will also act as a spatial barrier: physical access to certain facilities, transport systems, particular zones or whole neighbourhoods of cities will be controlled by ‘smart’ IT systems (using digitalised personal health records and increasingly intrusive surveillance methods). However, it is unlikely that such a ‘technological apartheid’ will succeed in ending the pandemic. Indeed, as long as pockets of disease continue to persist in parts of the community, Covid-19 and its mutations will continue to threaten to reinfect the whole city. Under this scenario, there will be no such thing as a post-pandemic city. Instead, the pandemic will become permanent, and cities will be epicentres of its perpetuation. The vicious circle will continue with devastating consequences.

This ‘pandemic city’ scenario may appear rather extreme and disturbingly dystopian. But it would be hard to completely dismiss it as unrealistic. In fact, it is possible that various elements of the vicious circle described above are already in operation in many cities. The longer the pandemic lasts, the harder it will be to reinstate anything resembling the ‘normal’, let alone achieving the more optimistic and more sustainable visions. In order to break the emerging vicious circle, bold actions are needed. In the context of financialised economies, the critical players are central banks. Indeed, it is only gargantuan monetary interventions by central banks that have so far prevented a total economic and financial meltdown (by propping up financial markets). We now urgently need central banks not only to provide financial muscle to beat the pandemic, but also to devise ways to support green recovery and just transition, in which cities will be key battlegrounds.

[Note: This is an abridged version of a GEOFIN blog #11 “The post-pandemic city: what could possibly go wrong” which can be read in full here:]

Martin Sokol is an Associate Professor in Geography at Trinity College Dublin and the Principal Investigator of GEOFIN research. GEOFIN is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grant under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant Agreement No. 683197).



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