The health crisis that is plaguing the world today and particularly the large metropolises, forces us to ask ourselves, what should be the next actions to be taken after the quarantine ends and the COVID 19 pandemic has been controlled? Measures from an urban approach are crucial, as the disease spread pattern in large cities has revealed — again — the great disadvantages of high density and coexistence with our peers in less km2.
It is important to take into account that each city is unrepeatable, with unique economic, social, physical and urban dynamics and with its own contingencies. This offers different scenarios where standardized strategies cannot be applied to combat a crisis like the current one. An example of this is Santiago de Chile, a fragmented capital at an urban level, of a country with deep social and economic inequalities, which recently led to one of the largest social outbursts in its history.
Social outburst in Chile. October, 2019. Photo taken from Google
How is it that Santiago faces a pandemic under these conditions?
There are two main strategies by which the affected countries decided to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 in their territories. Strategy A resorts to a total quarantine, admitting the impossibility of tracking the infected and giving an adequate follow-up to the contagion curve. Strategy B is based on carrying out a high number of daily tests, and on the definition of local and dynamic quarantines. (Gonzales, R., Kiwi, M. 2020)
Chile adopted strategy B from the beginning, since according to government, it reduces the long-term economic impact. However, for this strategy to fulfill its function, it is necessary to carry out a massive number of daily tests, which in Chile are not offered for free to all citizens.
Preventive measures also included school and universities closure, delimitation of “sanitary zones” (no one enters, no one leaves certain territories) where militaries and police officers make sure quarantines are met. Likewise, public transport operations per day are being limited, requiring social distancing and use of masks.
Recently, the government has launched the “Coronapp” application, created to facilitate detection of possibly infected people according to their symptoms. Geolocation and ID registration, are required. However, its effectiveness has been defined by the Latin American Organization for Digital Rights as “problematic, risky and very little useful” (Derechos Digitales, 2020). Beyond technical issues, the app has a major problem: its target users profile. Government is asking too much from a society that, in addition to being scared and tense by the confinement, is wary of voluntarily handing over private information that later could be used for other purposes and violate the rights for which it has been fighting so hard.
To date, Chile’s health minister ensures that the curve remains controlled, however, academics assure that since the beginning of April, the contagion curve has been lost sight of (Gonzales, R., Kiwi, M. 2020). This makes us question whether these measures have been and will be enough to maintain the impact that the government needs to keep its strategy viable.
With 34 districts, and a population of more than 6 million inhabitants that extends over 640 square kilometers, Santiago de Chile is characterized by urban segregation and low mix of social classes within its territory, leading the ranking of urban segregation among OECD member cities. (Tiznado-Aitkens, I. et al, 2019) With this background, it is being studied how people is operating in a city with wide social, economic, urban and even digital gaps.
“The two Santiagos”: Residential segregation in Santiago. In blue and light blue, the wealthiest residence areas. Author: Teodoro Dannemann, Boris Sotomayor-Gómez y Horacio Samaniego. Observatorio UC, 2018
To contextualize, total quarantines, (by districts) and partial quarantines (by specific areas inside districts), began in the central eastern sector (the wealthiest in the city), and then gradually began to be implemented in the central south and south zone.
However, partial quarantine has been questioned, especially in vulnerable districts, whose quarantined areas have a large population at risk, but little availability of supply (Inostroza, V. 2020). If a person needs to buy products and can’t find a grocery store, won’t they be forced to leave the closed area?
The same happened when schools were closed and the online education system began, revealing lots of students lack of broadband internet access, specially those living in areas with high crime rates. As internet provider companies do not access there, students and their families must leave their homes searching for Internet cafes in order to complete their homeworks.
Likewise, it is curious that total quarantines only consider residents to remain at their homes, but they do not prohibit the entry of workers whose workplaces are located in quarantined districts. This makes us doubt on the effectiveness of quarantines, and the lack of certainty that floating population has not been moving the virus to their districts of residence.
Twitter capture: pictures showing government’s failed attempt to safeguard social distancing in the subway
Yet the call is to stay at home if it is not necessary to leave, not everyone can be quarantined, either because they must go far to get basic supplies, or because they need to get to their workplaces without the sanitary measures assured from the beginning, thus having greater possibilities of contagion.
Although mobility is not restricted, measures taken by the government regarding urban mobility systems, are not aimed at guaranteeing a safe service for those who still need to continue moving, which in fact is not the minority.
To study this factor in depth, it must be considered that there is a high rate of urban mobility due to travels to local labor markets, which are concentrated in the eastern center of the city, creating a dependent urban structure. (Fuentes, L. et al. 2017)
Labor market clusters in Santiago. In pink, the eastern center cluster. Author: Fuentes, L. et al. 2017, modified for your understanding.
This area is not only characterized by having the highest level of income in Santiago, but gathering the largest number of high-class services jobs and professionals, who do not need to leave their districts to go to work. In other words, it is the rest of Santiago, with workers offering low-level services or unskilled manual jobs, therefore with less income, that has to move mostly towards the eastern center.
Taking this reality into account, how can safe transportation alternatives be generated for the ones who really need them right now?
As a precedent, even before the pandemic, the government’s attention in urban mobility has not only been centralized at a national level, but also sectorized at a metropolitan one. And it is that the Subway, which along with the highways receives most of the transportation investments, has not yet reached all areas in Santiago. Therefore, the bus represents the most frequent transportation alternative among Santiago residents who live in the most remote areas.
Adding the hygiene measures that are currently being implemented in surface transportation means (such buses and taxis) as a way to prevent contagion, it is necessary to look out for other transportation alternatives.
Santiago has great advantage since its urban fabric is structured by large collector and arterial roads, which could be enabled as temporary bikepaths. Neighbour countries such Colombia and Peru are already implementing non-polluting mobility plans.
This would be a short-term solution to many citizens, decongesting the collective transport system and representing an optimal alternative to safeguard social distancing.
Even better, it also represents an excellent opportunity to carry out some stand-by projects, which seek to expand the city’s bikepath network, and discover new areas with high demand that are surely overlooked today.
Santiago city´s bikepath network. In yellow: existing routes, concentrated in the central eastern area, while gray dotted lines represent projected paths. Author: Metropolitan Mayor
The Government has just announced its plan to return to a “New normal”. This implies that people will gradually resume their routine, of course, under new rules. Regardless of any measures taken to avoid contagion within the districts, as long as people continue travelling to their workplaces, it is imperative to focus attention on integrated urban mobility plans, which are not only reduced to desinfection and public transport offer regulation.
In these moments of crisis, it is perhaps the mobility smart management, that can not only allow these two Santiagos to become a single and cohesive great metropolis, but can also position the city one step ahead of new mobility trends that will surely emerge in a post Covid-19 world .
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