Surviving COVID-19: Why place continues to matter

In the midst of the Covid-19 global pandemic sweeping the world, place really does matter.

This is a post from my recent newsletter on place-based economic development and job creation. Subscribe here: https://www.myplacematters.com.au/subscribe/

Over the last few weeks I’ve undertaken assignments in Jakarta, Milan and Delhi, with Covid-19 hot on my heels. As a result, I write from self-imposed quarantine. Feeling healthy, but closely watching these events unfold, as I am sure you are.

It’s clear that current models show how Covid-19 is poised to overwhelm health care resources, cut short millions of lives, ruin livelihoods, and disrupt our economies, possibly for decades to come. But, be wary of anyone who claims to have precise advice on how we will  ‘rebound’. This is not the GFC––which didn’t involve the prospect of people dying in crowded ICUs––nor is it like the bushfires––which, though significant, affected only parts of one country.

So instead of prognosticating about the unknown, I’ve pulled together a few pieces that offer insights on how place matters as we face this global pandemic.

It’s pretty obvious that where we live and work––and how we act––can affect the pace and distribution of this virus and its impact on our local economies. I was struck by the story of the small town of Vo’ in northern Italy that took matters into its own hands after finding itself in the epicentre of the pandemic. Disenchanted with the national response, Vo’ drew on its deep knowledge of resident’s behaviour and daily patterns and took action. This highly localised knowledge seems to have paid off:  the region’s governor recently declared Vo’ the ‘healthiest place in Italy’.

As we navigate between the global and the local, we’re becoming more aware that ‘people live globally’ but are committed to their localities. The Economist recently published an interesting piece on the value of local sensitivity and experimentation in the face of Covid-19, pointing to the fact that as Donald Trump flails in America, the country’s governors, mayors and sheriffs are stepping into the breach, offering solutions for local residents. This ten-point plan for cities as they prepare to reopen after the Covid-19 pandemic are also worth a look.

In the same vein, as the world becomes more urbanised, burgeoning megacities are important contributors to national economic growth. But they can also be incubators for new epidemics.  As mega-cities rise, city planning and surveillance have an important role to play in decreasing the burden of communicable diseases.

It’s ironic that the advice offered to local economies for so long––to deepen their engagement with world markets––is now being thwarted by a virus that forces us to retreat from the world around us. Sadly, the term ‘clusters’ has taken on a new meaning. Instead of economic clusters we now speak of clusters of infection. The story of party zero offers a fascinating example of how a gathering in Connecticut seeded infections that travelled as far as Johannesburg.

On a less bleak note, this crisis is also creating some unexpected positive outcomes. China, for example, has reduced its CO2 emissions by a quarter. Another welcome development is the fact that, so far,  ‘the response to Covid-19 has relied heavily on the advice of public health experts, statistical modelling and logistical planning.’ By contrast, in too many countries, political leaders have dismissed climate change as, ‘fake news or partisan politics.’ And speaking of the environment, David Attenborough––with typical British understatement––reminds us that the coronavirus is ‘just part of life.’

The societies best positioned to successfully face this pandemic are those with high levels of social cohesion and sound leadership. While nationally, low levels of trust in government undermine our response to this crisis, social capital, trust and networks of support are often strongest in local places. These are being drawn on in new and innovative ways. See, for example, how a Facebook shout out led to 400 responses and a burgeoning neighbourhood buddy system in Melbourne.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. It is in crisis that we find new ways of responding that strengthen social networks and, in turn, bolster economic recovery. It’s never been more important to go back to first principles. While there’s a lot of information out there, much of what we already know will stand us in good stead in the months to come.

Postscript: This is not the first time this has happened, even if our world is a little different than it was during the Black Plagues of the 14th century, or London’s cholera epidemic in the 1850s, or the 1918’s Spanish Flu, which killed tens of millions of people worldwide. Here’s five books about plagues and pandemics to keep you up at night from The Library of Economics and Liberty.

I was intrigued by Daniel Defoe’s, A Journal of the Plague Year, which described London in the plague of 1665. It’s a bleak story, but tells us how local councils and aldermen kept things together as their communities frayed:

This leads me again to mention the time when the plague first began; that is to say, when it became certain that it would spread over the whole town, when, as I have said, the better sort of people first took the alarm and began to hurry themselves out of town. It was true, as I observed in its place, that the throng was so great, and the coaches, horses, waggons, and carts were so many, driving and dragging the people away, that it looked as if all the city was running away; and had any regulations been published that had been terrifying at that time, especially such as would pretend to dispose of the people otherwise than they would dispose of themselves, it would have put both the city and suburbs into the utmost confusion.

But the magistrates wisely caused the people to be encouraged, made very good bye-laws for the regulating the citizens, keeping good order in the streets, and making everything as eligible as possible to all sorts of people.

In the first place, the Lord Mayor and the sheriffs, the Court of Aldermen, and a certain number of the Common Council men, or their deputies, came to a resolution and published it, viz., that they would not quit the city themselves, but that they would be always at hand for the preserving good order in every place and for the doing justice on all occasions; as also for the distributing the public charity to the poor; and, in a word, for the doing the duty and discharging the trust reposed in them by the citizens to the utmost of their power.

In pursuance of these orders, the Lord Mayor, sheriffs, &c., held councils every day, more or less, for making such dispositions as they found needful for preserving the civil peace; and though they used the people with all possible gentleness and clemency, yet all manner of presumptuous rogues such as thieves, housebreakers, plunderers of the dead or of the sick, were duly punished, and several declarations were continually published by the Lord Mayor and Court of Aldermen against such.

 

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