Urban Health in the Time of COVID-19

April 6th, 2020 | Viewpoint


As the COVID-19 pandemic surges, cities, which are home to so many of us, are facing overwhelming challenges to keep residents safe and services functioning, and to control disease spread while mitigating the effects of economic devastation. As local and national leaders struggle with these challenges, it is critical that their responses promote equity among all citizens.

In addition to promoting social distancing and supporting health facilities with supplies and other physical resources, local officials have established shelter-in-place orders, quarantines, and curfews. They have also launched hotlines and public information campaigns; officials in Da Nang set up a hotline in February that now has 11 sector-specific (including food safety and tourism) lines for COVID-19-related inquiries.

High-traffic areas across our project cities are being sanitized to prevent the virus’ further spread. Indore public health officials deployed two drones to spray sanitizer over emptied public areas, including markets, parks, and bus stops.  In Makassar, firefighters sprayed disinfectant in and around public facilities including hospitals and houses of worship. In Da Nang, a tourism hub, municipal officials introduced infection-control guidelines and recommendations that include wearing face masks; washing hands using antibacterial liquid; cleaning public toilets and shower areas frequently; and placing COVID-19 warning signs in English and Vietnamese along coastal walks and paths.

Continuity of services is critical for vulnerable populations. In Indore, the Municipal Corporation plans to start home delivery of vegetables and has identified more than 450 routes to reach all colonies and slums. The national government is advancing a 3-month ration of wheat and rice to 800 million citizens. And at the end of March, in anticipation of a surge in the number of cases, the state-owned Indian Railways announced that some coaches would be retrofitted as isolation wards. These rolling facilities will travel to cities that are most affected by COVID-19. Meanwhile in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, the Department of Health is facilitating care for senior citizens through home visits that include examinations and drug distribution.

Governments are also working with the private sector to ensure access to essential goods and services. In response to panic buying, supermarkets in Da Nang limited sales of staple items, and the Municipal Department of Industry and Trade is helping retailers and distributers ensure access to goods like rice, instant noodles, canned food, and alcohol-based hand sanitizer. In Indonesia, the Ministry of Health signed a memorandum of understanding with two private companies to launch telemedicine services to allow health workers to screen people for COVID-19 remotely. In Jaipur, India, a government hospital tested a robot’s abilities to deliver food and medicines to patients. If the trial is successful, this robot, developed by a private Indian company, could reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 to hospital staff and save valuable personal protection equipment.

The JSI-implemented Building Healthy Cities (BHC) project is dedicated to healthy urban planning in three Asian cities. While the project is not directly involved in the COVID-19 response, our in-country staff are collecting local guidance and documenting actions being implemented in the cities of Da Nang, Vietnam; Makassar, Indonesia; and Indore, India. This pandemic is highlighting the critical role of municipal decision makers to guide and inspire the people they represent. Through projects like Building Healthy Cities, JSI and partners will document their COVID-19 responses and continue to support strengthening of urban systems that improve equity for all.

Written by: Karin Christianson

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