Urban transmission of COVID-19 reproduces territorial inequities
July 08, 2020
By Maria Fernanda Ziegler | Agência FAPESP – The COVID-19 pandemic has unequally affected urban territories in Brazil. The highest numbers of cases and deaths from the disease are in poor suburbs and areas that have always suffered from problems such as a lack of decent housing, water and sewerage, severe air pollution, and soil contamination.
“You could say COVID-19 is painfully exposing our inequities. Although the virus infects individuals indiscriminately, the impact of the pandemic isn’t the same across social groups. This has been a pattern above all in Brazil but also in the United States, where the impact of the disease on different groups is strikingly different,” said Pedro Henrique Campello Torres, a research scholar at the University of California Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management in the US.
Since the onset of the pandemic, Torres has redirected the postdoctoral research he is conducting with the support of a FAPESP Research Internship Abroad fellowship (BEPE) to focus on the social, demographic and territorial impacts of COVID-19. The original scope of the project called for a comparison of environmental policymaking processes and their social and demographic effects in the urban territories of the Global North and South.
According to Torres, the spread of the virus in Brazil and the US is intensifying the differences in the impact of environmental policies. “Urban planning and land use are directly linked to economic change,” he said. “Urban rescaling processes such as property speculation and housing policy are fundamental to an understanding of how unequal development occurs in the very same city.”
The disease and its transmission call for new thinking about territorial planning and socioenvironmental inequality. “The pandemic came to Brazil via upper-income groups but soon spread to poorer neighborhoods, which are also the most disadvantaged owing to a lack of clean water, sanitation and basic living conditions. Added to all this are underlying or preexisting conditions such as respiratory diseases, dengue and many others associated with the lack of sanitation, making these communities even more vulnerable to COVID-19,” said Pedro Jacobi, supervisor of Torres’s postdoctoral research and principal investigator of the “Environmental governance in the São Paulo macrometropolitan area considering climate variability” Thematic Project.
Not only do poor individuals lack access to health in Brazil and the US, but transmission of the disease is also directly linked to territory. “A virus that mainly attacks the respiratory system will necessarily have a more severe impact on populations exposed to higher levels of pollution and groups with comorbidities such as asthma and pneumonia, which are considered risk factors,” Torres said. “Another problem is how people without piped water, let alone money for soap, can be asked to wash their hands several times a day as a form of disease prevention.”
The unequal territorial distribution of environmental risks such as the lack of sanitation and drinking water or pollution, along with the related social problems, affected quality of life in disadvantaged neighborhoods before the pandemic. “In the US, the empirical research of social scientist Robert Bullard [currently at Texas Southern University], who first proposed the idea of environmental justice, and similar studies show that the population in areas blighted by toxic contaminants [industrial waste and environmental degradation] mainly consists of African Americans, so cities are spatially inequitable,” Torres said.
From this perspective, Brazil has similar problems, he continued, as demonstrated, for example, in communities affected by dam bursts in Minas Gerais or the uranium mine in Caetité, Bahia, as well as artisanal fishermen in Guanabara Bay, Rio de Janeiro, inhabitants of hillside favelas exposed to landslide risk, or communities living close to sanitary landfills.
In the research project, Torres will cross-reference COVID-19 infections and deaths with socioenvironmental and geolocation data to determine how factors such as precarious housing and social vulnerability affect different municipal territories in Brazil and the US.
“Underreporting is a major problem in both countries,” he said. “In Brazil, there’s also a lack of transparency in city data by region and, in the US, a lack of notification of cases among illegal immigrants, who don’t have social security and can’t get into hospitals, for example. Special care is required in analyzing the data. We plan to contrast participatory survey findings grouped by social observatories and to conduct surveys of our own based on information received from residents in an attempt to compensate for the lack of official data.”
In the case of COVID-19, Torres explained, the problem does not appear to be linked only to population density. Major cities such as Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong and Singapore have reported proportionally fewer cases than less densely populated cities in Europe and the US.
“In Brazil, we’ve seen a shocking increase in cases in densely populated areas such as Brasilândia and Paraisópolis [low-income suburbs of São Paulo City], where social vulnerability is also high,” he said. “However, different examples around the world show that population density doesn’t appear to be to blame. In cities such as Chicago or New York and in California, where I’m currently living, the most affected groups are African Americans and Latinos, neither of which is the most numerous. Inequities are the key to understanding what’s going on.”
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