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The Urban Dimension of COVID-19: COVID Outbreak and Lessons for Future Cities

Living through the COVID-19 pandemic feels like the worst nightmares of our lifetime. But it is also an opportunity for us to reflect and re-visit the infrastructure priorities of cities, their governance processes, and more broadly, the vulnerabilities of urban communities in an increasingly globalized and connected world. As the pandemic expands its footprint across India, it has become apparent that the megacities are worst affected, with half of the country’s COVID cases reported from just the four cities of Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, and Ahmedabad. With the “engines of economic growth” coming to a halt and authorities struggling to deal with the health emergency, it is incumbent on us to re-imagine our city planning principles and approaches. We also need to enforce resilient urban development models that could prepare cities to adapt to various kinds of shocks and stresses (e.g. floods, pandemics, heatwaves, droughts) that are becoming the new normal.

This article aims to emphasize and translate the urban dimension of the COVID-19 outbreak in India and identifies key trends across geographies and time. It offers a hierarchical- State-district-city level analysis, combining demographic data from the Census of India 2011, COVID-19 statistics from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFWA), Government of India and (a volunteer-driven open COVID data initiative). To begin with, a longitudinal analysis of State level COVID cases is presented to provide an understanding of how the States have performed over time in their effort to stabilize the growth of cases and “flattening the curve”. The paper maps the share of cases contributed by megacities within each State, highlighting how the location of large urban centres impacted their performance. It, then present, a district- level outlook of COVID-19 spread and a correlation analysis examining whether the districts with higher urbanization rate has experienced more intense outburst in cases. The article also engages with the Top 100 cities by Census population to examine the intensity of outbreaks across megacities, and also maps the houseless population and families living in slums who are most vulnerable to the pandemic and severely impacted by the ongoing lockdown. The concluding section offers key recommendations for re- imagining Indian cities and their planning standards in the post-COVID era.