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Commentary: Growth of big cities turbo-charged the spread of the COVID-19

Health and disease tend to coincide with prolific urban growth and urban ways of life, say three experts.

Commentary: Growth of big cities turbo-charged the spread of the COVID-19

Travellers are seen at the Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station on the last day of the Spring Festival travel rush, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, in Shanghai, China February 18, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song

TORONTO: Emerging infectious disease has much to do with how and where we live. The ongoing coronavirus is an example of the close relationships between urban development and new or re-emerging infectious diseases.

Like the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) pandemic of 2003, the connections between accelerated urbanisation, more far-reaching and faster means of transportation, and less distance between urban life and non-human nature due to continued growth at the city’s outskirts became immediately apparent.

The new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, seem to have first crossed the animal-human divide at a market in Wuhan, one of the largest Chinese cities and a major transportation node with national and international connections.

The sprawling megacity has since been the stage for the largest quarantine in human history, and its periphery has seen the pop-up construction of two hospitals to deal with infected patients.

When the outbreak halts and travel bans are lifted, we still need to understand the conditions under which new infectious diseases emerge and spread through urbanisation.

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Infectious disease outbreaks are global events. Increasingly, health and disease tend to be urban as they coincide with prolific urban growth and urban ways of life. The increased emergence of infectious diseases is to be expected.

SARS hit global cities like Beijing, Hong Kong, Toronto and Singapore hard in 2003. COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, goes beyond select global financial centres and lays bare a global production and consumption network that sprawls across urban regions on several continents.

To study the spread of disease today, we have to look beyond airports to the European automobile and parts industry that has taken root in central China; Chinese financed belt-and-road infrastructure across Asia, Europe and Africa, and regional transportation hubs like Wuhan.

Wuhan, the global epicetre of the new coronavirus, remains locked down AFP/STR

While the current COVID-19 outbreak exposes China’s multiple economic connectivities, this phenomenon is not unique to that country. The recent outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, shone a light on the myriad strategic, economic and demographic relations of that country.


In January 2020, four workers were infected with SARS-CoV-2 during a training session at car parts company Webasto headquartered near Munich, Germany, revealing a connection with the company’s Chinese production site in Wuhan.

The training was provided by a colleague from the Chinese branch of the firm who didn’t know she was infected. At the time of the training session in Germany, she did not feel sick and only fell ill on her flight back to Wuhan.

Four colleagues who had participated in the same training event showed symptoms and soon were confirmed to have contracted the virus and infected other colleagues and family members.

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Eventually, Webasto and other German producers stopped fabrication in China temporarily. The German airline Lufthansa, like other airlines, cancelled all flights to that country.

About 110 individuals who had been contact traced to have been in touch with the four infected patients in Germany were advised by health officials to observe “domestic isolation” or “home quarantine”.

This outbreak will likely be stopped. Until then, it will continue to cause human suffering and economic damage. The disease may further contribute to the unravelling of civility as the disease has been pinned to certain places or people.

But when it’s over, the next such outbreak is waiting in the wings.


A delivery worker walks at a commercial and residential complex, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, in Beijing's central business district, China February 18, 2020. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

We need to understand the landscapes of emerging extended urbanisation better if we want to predict, avoid and react to emerging disease outbreaks more efficiently.

First, we need to grasp where disease outbreaks occur and how they relate to the physical, spatial, economic, social and ecological changes brought on by urbanisation.

Second, we need to learn more about how the newly emerging urban landscapes can themselves play a role in stemming potential outbreaks.

Rapid urbanisation enables the spread of infectious disease, with peripheral sites being particularly susceptible to disease vectors like mosquitoes or ticks and diseases that jump the animal-to-human species boundary.

Our research identifies three dimensions of the relationships between extended urbanisation and infectious disease that need better understanding: Population change and mobility, infrastructure, and governance.

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Population change and mobility are immediately connected. The coronavirus travelled from the periphery of Wuhan – where 1.6 million cars were produced last year – to a distant German suburb specialising in certain auto parts.

Quarantined megacities and cruise ships demonstrate what happens when our globalised urban lives come grinding to a halt.

Infrastructure is central: Diseases can spread rapidly between cities through infrastructures of globalisation such as global air travel networks.

Singapore Airlines flight attendants wearing masks at Changi Airport Terminal 3's arrivals hall. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

Airports are often located at the edges of urban areas, raising complex governance and jurisdictional issues with regards to who has responsibility to control disease outbreaks in large urban regions.

We can also assume that disease outbreaks reinforce existing inequalities in access to and benefits from mobility infrastructures. These imbalances also influence the reactions to an outbreak.

Rapid urban growth, unaccompanied by the appropriate development of social and technical infrastructure, add to the picture.

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Lastly, SARS-CoV-2 has exposed both the shortcomings and potential opportunities of governance at different levels.

While it is awe-inspiring to see entire megacities quarantined, it is unlikely that such drastic measures would be accepted in most countries.

But even in China, multilevel governance threatened to break down as local, regional and central government units were not sufficiently coordinated at the beginning of the crisis.

This mirrored the intergovernmental confusion in Canada during SARS.


A man wearing a face mask rides a bicycle with a passenger on the back, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, on a street in Beijing, China February 18, 2020. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

As we enter another wave of mega-urbanisation, urban regions will need to develop efficient and innovative methods of confronting emerging infectious disease, without relying on drastic top-down state measures that can be globally disruptive and counter-productive.

This may be especially relevant in fighting racism and intercultural conflict.

The massive increase of the global urban population over the past few decades has increased exposure to diseases and posed new challenges to the control of outbreaks. Urban researchers need to explore these new relationships between urbanisation and infectious disease.

This will require an interdisciplinary approach that includes geographers, public health scientists, sociologists and others to develop possible solutions to prevent and mitigate future disease outbreaks.

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Roger Keil is a professor at the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University in Toronto, Canda. Creighton Connolly is a senior lecturer at the University of Lincoln. S Harris Ali is a sociology professor at York University in Toronto, Canada. This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Source: CNA/el


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