Residues of the changes that the global pandemic brought about can still be seen in all dimensions of city life. The mitigation strategies that were employed around the globe had strong spatial manifestations. Notably, states have practised restricting various aspects of the right to the city. Existing conflicting possibilities around the globe show varying degrees of moving toward socialism and authoritarianism. Each has the potential to produce changes in urban space and affect the ways urban space is experienced. The future city is being shaped by the lines we draw today and what we are willing to surrender.
Three years into the global pandemic, residues of the changes that it brought about can still be seen in all dimensions of city life. The mitigation strategies that were employed around the globe had strong spatial manifestations. These measures directly affected the way people interacted with urban space – or with one another through urban space.
Alike most significant moments in urban history, the long-lasting repercussions of the global pandemic are still hazed with uncertainty. On one hand, there are examples of emergent bottom-up social solidarity in the face of the unknown. On the other hand, glimpses of the governmental justifications for more control around the globe are concerning for the potential normalization of a new form of authoritarianism.
Among these, the right to the city, personal liberty, and the extent of institutional encroachment into the personal space of citizens ought to be regarded with critical care. The right to the city is not stationary by any stretch of the imagination, and so, the right to the future city is being shaped by the lines we draw today and by the extent of what we are willing to surrender.
Glimpses of social solidarity in the face of crisis
Throughout history, periods of crisis have produced change, the spatial manifestation of which resonates within the everyday life of cities. The alternatives emerging out of a crisis often prompt this process. The COVID-19 pandemic was no exception; the most vulnerable people were most affected around the globe. Minorities, slum dwellers, segregated communities, and the economically disadvantaged were hit the hardest by the pandemic.
Nevertheless, an overview of the emerging literature reveals that the most vulnerable people are not necessarily being helped by the ruling powers but by other people, communities, NGOs, and grassroots movements, particularly in the Global South. Social solidarity of the less privileged groups during crises shows the tendency to move toward more egalitarian everyday life experiences.
Encroachment of authoritarianism and the right to the city
Events such as the COVID-19 pandemic provide a temporary moment for states to exercise unprecedented control over everyday life. Nevertheless, humankind’s history indicates that ruling bodies do not favour letting go of the newly gained powers.
Such emergency powers have emerged during wars, natural disasters, pestilence, and more recently, terrorist attacks, with some measures and practices extending beyond the extent of the circumstances that made them necessary in the first place. Such applications and extensions have taken place not only in authoritarian regimes but also in democratic states that have the tendency to show authoritarian preferences in times of emergency, though it is uncertain to what extent this will occur in the latter.
Many scholars have raised the alarm regarding the new authoritarian practices concealed in the cover of COVID-19 mitigation strategies. For instance, many countries used COVID-19 as a reason to encroach on civic space and freedom of assembly. Examples of using COVID-19-related restrictions as a tool against civic movements, protests, and constitutional assemblies have been observed around the globe.
The right to assembly and peaceful demonstration were among the first rights that were suspended during the pandemic (even in many secular and egalitarian countries). That is not to say that these restrictions were not justified for the sake of public health – far from it. The concern is that in many countries, the pandemic was used as an opportunity to silence anti-authoritarian and unwelcome voices (for example, Iran, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and China, to name a few).
This has also been highlighted by Kallio and colleagues; the random normalization of control measures on two scales, self and state control, may reduce or prevent our ability to engage in constructive resistance. During the coronavirus crisis, increased surveillance was frequently used around the globe.
This penetration of the state’s watchful eye into everyday life could potentially foster nationalist division and self-isolation. These issues are urban because the spatial manifestation of liberty and freedom is materialized through complex interactions made possible by urban space. In the next two passages, two instances are presented.
Transformations of labour and city
Among the many pre-existing urban problems that were highlighted during the pandemic, the impact on different strata of the workforce needs to be addressed. Cities are made up of an intricate web of commerce, exchanges, and services, or non-farming labour. The labour market is thus one of the main dividing lines in urban space. Based on the availability of remote work, the pandemic created divisions in the labour sector.
The requirement of physical presence meant increased risk for many low-income workers, especially minorities and informal workers who may not have had equitable access to healthcare.
People who were in a position to continue working from home using digital tools were seen as privileged. The practice of measures, such as social distancing and quarantine, most benefits those who can afford it. The working classes’ physical presence at their places of employment is necessary for the middle class to be able to work remotely.
The requirement of physical presence meant increased risk for many low-income workers, especially minorities and informal workers who may not have had equitable access to healthcare. As a result, not all social strata were equally at risk of contracting an infection through the quarantine technique.
The possibility of the new normalized surveillance
Once more, it must be noted that these practices were not unnecessary or unethical in most parts (examples of successful utilization of such applications have been enumerated in the original paper), but the extent of their presence beyond the circumstances of the pandemic must be called into question. The issue is never the justified application of web or mobile devices, but rather their misuse under the guise of the greater good or the arbitrary definition of what constitutes ”justified application.”
What is more, in most cases, the data collected via these applications is considered voluntarily shared, and therefore, no further restrictions on their usage can be employed. As the structure of the digital web is becoming more and more intrinsic to modern civilization, states employ digital data for control, and private businesses exchange consumer choice data as a commodity. The pandemic showed us how far these behaviours could go.
The contemporary city is intertwined with the digital web. Therefore, the right to the contemporary city is partially digital. Just as freedom of movement, privacy, peaceful assembly, and the pursuit of a better life have been traditionally considered intrinsic parts of city life, the same should be considered regarding the digital dimensions of city life.
But there is also a silver lining in the increasing penetration of digital space into the everyday life of the city. Just as some states might use these technologies to move toward authoritarianism, people have and would find ways to harness their power to increase social solidarity and to fight against it. Recent examples of these can be seen in civic solidarity in Ukraine, Iran, and Hong Kong, to name a few, where citizens use the media to be heard both within their local communities and on a global scale.
Moving toward recovery
Our paper has tried to highlight how a crisis – or measures taken to fight one – increases the scope of many pre-existing urban problems. The planning for future similar events must not merely focus on the crisis but also on the many hidden issues that will surface when a crisis occurs.
The mitigation strategies for a pandemic would impact those who are already vulnerable more. Mobility and equal distribution of urban resources are among the main factors that should be considered by policymakers to achieve more inclusive urban planning.
The extent of states’ reach for emergency power must be closely monitored and must not be allowed to become normal practice.
Inasmuch as unequal living conditions make the lower class more vulnerable to COVID-19, an important part of post-pandemic urban recovery efforts should be to adopt policies and strategies that, by addressing socio-spatial and digital inequalities, promote inclusive and non-discriminatory spaces and cultures of everyday life.
This is an obligation for governments to ensure that all social classes can exercise their right to the city before institutionalizing any limitation on everyday urban life experiences, if they profoundly believe that we are all together in crises such as the contemporary coronavirus pandemic.
What is more, during the pandemic, examples of both moving toward social solidarity and authoritarianism were reported around the world. The extent of states’ reach for emergency power must be closely monitored and must not be allowed to become normal practice. On the other hand, grassroots and bottom-up movements need to be empowered.
These movements can address many of the aforementioned pre-existing problems via incremental processes. Moving toward equality in the right to the city, state accountability, equitable access to opportunities and resources, and social solidarity in both physical and digital space seems to be the best course of action we can take today for any future crises.
AMINREZA IRANMANESH AND PARIA VALIZADEH
Header photo: Two meters apart, social distancing during quarantine. Paria Valizadeh.
The original research article can be accessed: Valizadeh, P., & Iranmanesh, A. (2021). Covid-19: magnifying pre-existing urban problems. Fennia-International Journal of Geography, 199(2), 260-272.
Barbosa, R. B. (2020). Covid-19 and doctoral research in Brazil and Portugal: who pays the bill for confinement and remote work in research? Fennia-International Journal of Geography, 198(1-2), 239-242. doi:https://doi.org/10.11143/fennia.99208
Harari, Y. N. (2020). The world after coronavirus. Financial Times, 20.
Kallio, K. P., de Souza, M. L., Mitchell, K., Häkli, J., Tulumello, S., Meier, I., Carastathis, A., Tsilimpounidi, M., Spathopoulou, A., & Bird, G. (2020). Covid-19 discloses unequal geographies. Fennia, 198(1-2), 1-16. doi:https://doi.org/10.11143/fennia.99514
Iranmanesh, A., & A. Atun, R. (2020). Restricted Spatiality and the Inflation of Digital Space, an Urban Perspective. Space and Culture, 23(3), 320-328. doi:10.1177/1206331220938634
Valizadeh, P. (2020). Quarantine: Contradictory Spatial Practice between Abstract and Concretehttps://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1206331220938637. Space and Culture, 23(3), 329-332. doi:10.1177/1206331220938637
Iranmanesh is an associate professor at Final International University, located in Cyprus. His research explores urban network analytics, social media, GIS science, urban geography, and architecture pedagogy. His current work addresses the emerging relationships between digital communication mediums and urban form.
Valizadeh is an assistant professor at Nişantaşı University, located in Istanbul. Her main areas of interest are architecture and city, production of urban space, social sciences and architecture, politics and space, urban political geographies, spatialisation of identity politics, and socio-political history and theory of urban space.
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Derek Ruez is an Academy Research Fellow in the Space and Political Agency Research Group at Tampere University. They work at the intersection of urban, political, and queer geographies.
What is being normalized? And for whom?
Valizadeh and Iranmanesh raise important questions about the relationship between pandemic responses and the right to city, as well as about the potential long-term legacies of the pandemic in and for urban space. Their review reveals how the covid 19 pandemic, and responses to it, have exacerbated existing urban problems and inequalities. They also productively discuss the challenges that the normalization of pandemic control and surveillance measures can pose to people’s freedoms.
In highlighting a tension between socialist possibility and creeping authoritarianism, the researchers capture a key dynamic shaping the pandemic and responses to it. I expect this may be a tension that shapes much beyond only the pandemic for years to come. Nevertheless, I do have one nagging question, which has to do with the persisting power of a pre-pandemic ‘normal’ of racial-colonial capitalism.
More dangerous has been the relentless push to return to a normal in which the “group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death” central to Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s important definition of racism — was already so readily accepted by so many.
This normalized set of arrangements, in many contexts, has not worked primarily through an undifferentiated authoritarianism. Instead, they combine formally free and partially democratic institutions for some with deep economic unfreedom and inequality for most and exposure to violence, exclusion, and dispossession for the negatively racialized, the non-citizen, the disabled, and other devalued groups. Of course, it is altogether possible that these arrangements, already under pressure, will not last, prompting movement in the direction of either of the tendencies that the authors highlight.
Yet, without significant collective struggle tipping the balance toward social solidarity, repair, and redistribution – and to be clear such struggle already exists, but I and many others need to do much more – I worry that the oscillation between bottom-up social solidarity and authoritarian control may well tend toward a kind of compromise that repeats many of the problems of the pre-pandemic normal.
Questioning the return to normal
From this perspective, I would offer a slightly different emphasis than the authors, but not really a contradictory one. Indeed, I share the authors’ hopes for social solidarity and their fears of authoritarian developments. However, at least in the contexts that I know best – Finland and the United States – the normalization of exceptional pandemic powers has seemed less dangerous to me. More dangerous has been the relentless push to return to a normal in which the “group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death” central to Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s important definition of racism in Golden Gulag was already so readily accepted by so many.
Further, in these specific contexts, expressions of concerns about freedom in the face of pandemic surveillance or control very often simultaneously exaggerate the measures actually taken and ignore their uneven impact. Such expressions also regularly discount the freedom of those most vulnerable to bad health outcomes from a covid 19 infection to, as safely as possible, take part in public life.
To be clear, I do not see Valizadeh and Iranmanesh’s careful argument as aligned with these tendencies, nor do I wish to pull attention away from the majority world focus of their contribution. Nevertheless, across contexts, I think that there are vitally important questions about what we have been willing to accept as normal that go beyond only the potential normalization of pandemic measures. These questions touch on fundamental concerns, which I expect the authors share, about what kind of cities and what kind of world we want to live in and whose lives and whose freedoms will come to matter in them.
Simone Tulumello is an assistant research professor in Geography at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon. He is interested in urbanisation as a global process seen through the lenses of violence/security, housing, imaginaries and uneven developmental trajectories.
Ambivalence amid the pandemic
One of the most notable features of Aminreza Iranmanesh and Paria Valizadeh’s Research Debate on governmental measures applied during the Covid-19 pandemic is the attention the authors pay at carefully balancing their critique. While deeply critical of the implications of many measures for urban democracy and the right to the city, in fact, the text is paramount in framing this critique within the necessity of intervention to halt the spread of the virus.
A balanced critique
This is no easy task, as the political, social, media and even academic debate on pandemic management has tended to polarise among unproductive dichotomies: for and against lockdown; for and against digital surveillance and monitoring; for and against compulsory vaccination.
Dichotomies have been very often framed amid individualistic and problematic conceptualisations of personal liberties – or, on the other side, monolithic calls to prioritise “health” above any other consideration. These discussions have been particularly virulent in Italy, for instance with regard to the introduction of surreptitious vaccination mandates through the use of a certificate called Green Pass.
Beyond generic calls for “freedom” or “health”, indeed, a careful assessment of the actually existing implications of actually existing measures, like the one proposed by Iranmanesh and Valizadeh, is certainly fruitful for providing insights for political debate and deliberation. This approach is particularly relevant with regard to the long-term implications of measures, adopted during the pandemic, that have surreptitiously become normalised – as particularly evident with the circulation of digital surveillance techniques among health and security policies.
Ambivalence beyond the balance
And yet, I would like to add that balancing between health and freedom may not be enough, because pandemic policies, beyond magnifying urban problems, have also amplified the deep ambivalence of said problems – I am paraphrasing Ugo Rossi’s argument on the ambivalent relation between the urban and capitalism. The declaration of a crisis, Warwick Anderson reminds us by referring to Reinhart Koselleck, tends to result in the reduction of the room for manoeuvre, by forcing actors to choose among dichotomic options.
— what if, rather than attempting fundamentally impossible balances, we focused on the way critique can open up the room to manoeuvre?
In a talk inspired by Achille Mbembe, Andrea Pavoni points out how we have been literally all “breathing together” amid a respiratory disease pandemic. The specific nature of this crisis could have inspired us to change perspective vis-à-vis the dichotomies of the deeply ambivalent trade-offs of both authoritarian and “liberal” policies.
What I am suggesting is not a relativistic call or nihilistic “everything goes”: the critique of those policies is a fundamental starting point. Rather, I suggest that we may want to ultimately shift the viewpoint. I wonder, what if, rather than attempting fundamentally impossible balances, we focused on the way critique can open up the room to manoeuvre? What if we tried seeing beyond the choice on whether to live quarantined or die free?