“After Covid-19 we should watch three areas of change”


COVID-19 is taking its toll on the world, causing deaths, illnesses and economic despair. The impact of the virus is more visible in crowded cities. The coronavirus crisis revealed the importance of the health infrastructure of cities. People in cities during coronavirus are having difficulty living.

The pandemic did not affect the population equally; it hit the poor, workers, the unemployed and migrants.

Professor at YORKE University Dr. Roger Keill interviewed by Uğur Şahin for BirGün

Keill said, “I personally think we should watch three areas of change. One is housing, the second one is climate change, and the third is making sure that the advances women have made in public space!”

First of all, I wonder what story of first “meeting” with the coronavirus is as a community. When did your country realize that this virus was “serious”? What is your observation of the latest situation in the your country?

I lived in Germany from December 2019 to the end of March 2020 and didn’t experience the onset of the pandemic in Canada first hand. When I returned to Toronto, I went straight into quarantine and have been in home isolation for the past two months. I captured my early experience for a podcast contribution that meant to capture the alienation I felt on my return to the city where I have lived for almost 30 years.

Canada, especially the Toronto region which is located in the province of Ontario, were fairly well prepared due to the experience of the 2003 SARS outbreak. But austerity-minded conservative governments at all levels had considerably weakened the public health infrastructure in recent years, just as it happened also before the collapse of surge capacities and widespread governance failure in the SARS outbreak. The country – large in area but inhabited by a majority urban population (80 percent), concentrated along the American border -- has suffered most of its infections and deaths in institutional settings, long term care homes in particular. The provinces of Ontario and Quebec have been hardest hit. The province of British Columbia, where the virus had appeared early, is credited with having successfully fought the pandemic with focused measures coordinated by the provincial health officer. The federal differences are typical for the constitutional architecture and governance practice of the country more generally. While the government of the country, led by Liberal Justin Trudeau, has demonstrated calm and responsible leadership for the most part (especially compared with its counterpart in Washington), its reach does not cover the day-to-day operations of testing, contact tracing and care that are the responsibilities of provinces and regions. As the country is now contemplating opening its economy and society up, the federal, and even inter-municipal differences are an important object of debate. A cause for concern, in those final days of the month of May, has been the sudden reappearance of unexpected community infections, seen by some as a result of lax adherence to lockdown measures during the Mother’s Day and Victoria Day weekends that traditionally involve family gatherings.

after-covid-19-we-should-watch-three-areas-of-change-739033-1.Istanbul is the most affected city in Turkey because of coronavirus. There are many reasons for this. As far as I know, you know Istanbul. In terms of urban design, how do you compare Toronto and Istanbul in the coronavirus period?

From what I can see large urban centres are mostly affected – at first – as they tend to be the mobility hubs of their countries. Economic travel, tourism, students but also refugees are concentrated here. The large airports are in the main urban centres. How and whether the virus spreads through the city once it has arrived can have all kinds of reasons and pathways.

If we look at some of the most affected centres from Wuhan, to Milan, Madrid, New York and Montreal, there is no one pattern of transmission that would allow us to make simple connections to urban form and design. Toronto and Istanbul share a few similarities, especially the massive forms of suburbanization that have spread into agricultural and forested areas surrounding the traditional urban cores. Murat Güney and Murat Üçoğlu and I have examined this in a book by the title Massive Suburbanization in international comparison with cities around the globe. It is true that this urban landscape with its extensive suburban settlements provides a generally more expanded set of points of attack for the virus. Often, we find a lower availability of public health infrastructures and medical establishments in those new peripheries. Sometimes, we find the poorest populations in the highrise neighbourhoods at the fringes of the city. They are not well connected to the infrastructural fabric of the urban region and hence vulnerable to all manner of service deserts from food to transportation to health. But there is no indication that in either Istanbul or Toronto there is a direct relationship of the spread of the virus to density of urban form per se. There is some evidence that in overcrowded and poor areas of cities like New York and Chicago, where there is a concentration of marginalized, often racialized populations, that the virus has claimed a higher proportion of residents than in the more wealthy and whiter neighbourhoods in other parts of those cities. But there is scant relationship to built urban form and dense design. The virus has rather claimed most of its victims in institutional environments – care homes, prisons, camps, reserves -- where populations have been massed and sequestered under conditions of austerity and underfunding.

In history, pandemics have caused many changes globally. What do you think will change in terms of cities after this epidemic?

It is too early to tell. Beyond the obvious changes that are on everyone’s mind, like returning more of the city to active transportation and transit and pushing back the automobile, I personally think we should watch three areas of change. One is housing, where we need to make more efforts to provide safe, healthy and affordable residences for our urban populations; the second one is climate change where we need to make sure that the agenda of sustainability is not pushed off the table as we are trying to build healthier cities that are more resilient to disease; and the third is making sure that the advances women have made in public space, in urban labour markets and in terms of their roles in urban society – more equity – are not reversed in an urban landscape where more of us, especially the children, are staying home. We cannot make this the burden of women as it used to be the case in previous decades.

In one of your articles, “COVID-19 is the first pandemic that affects the population of an urbanized planet, but it is the peripheral pandemic. The virus spreads to the least protected, scattered and least visible regions. ” Can you elaborate on this a little bit? Because, for example, according to a study by the National Statistical Office (ONS), in the UK, where at least 28,446 deaths due to coronavirus are recorded, the mortality rates are higher in the poorer regions of the country.The UK is just one example. What can you say about the virüs-infected groups?

What I meant was exactly that: the virus arrives in the global city but it tends to do most damage to peripheral populations and institutions of our fundamentally urbanized society. This can be peripheral or smaller and poorer cities. You mention the UK. In that context, we can think of Wolverhampton but also of tourist regions such as the Lake District or other places that are in direct connection with cities elsewhere, and that are susceptible to contagion from casual visitors. But mainly, we need to have our eyes on the institutions that have been peripheralized socially in decades of “austerian realism” as the British urban scholar Jonathan Davies has called it. This could be racialized neighbourhoods, Indigenous reserves, or care homes of all kind.

The coronavirus crisis revealed the importance of the health infrastructure of cities. However, the role of cities in global health management is still not at the expected level. What do you think is the reason for this?

Nation states have a hard grip on global health governance. Realist international diplomacy and the role of the United Nations organizations, especially the World Health Organizations, to deal only or mostly with national governments is behind this. That makes sense to some degree as the sovereignty of nation states still reigns supreme at the international scale. But the role of cities has, clearly grown nonetheless. This is true inside countries, as we could see from the self-confident politics of mayors in the United States, for example, vis-à-vis a federal government that had largely abdicated its responsibility throughout much of the pandemic; and it is true globally, as organizations such as the C40 organization of mayors have rallied to join forces in their fight against the impact of the pandemic on their cities. Two areas will need our attention. First, can civil society and grassroots initiatives be made a stronger part of municipal governance strategies and, second, will municipalities be supported by higher level governments when they inevitably fall into a deep fiscal hole after the crisis is over? Both questions are important in Canada but I assume also elsewhere.

The COVID epidemic is also important for the visibility of workplace health safety errors. Often this issue was considered insignificant. The low purchasing power of the people and the lack of a saving or an additional budget that can combat the virus makes it impossible for the poor to apply quarantine conditions in the long term. What is your opinion about this topic for Canada ? What is the majority and feature of the groups that survive under these conditions?

This is a complex and complicated question and I may not be the best person to answer it. Yes, health and safety issues are now central in exactly those areas of work that used to be considered less important and marginal and were often least protected and worst paid. I am thinking here in particular of personal service work and nursing, but also generally the kind of essential service and manufacturing work that is performed in the public domain, such as transit operators, bus drivers, and so forth. Job security has also been an issue in these professions as many positions have been casualized as public employers have cut cost, and profit-seeking private companies have taken over entire sections of the welfare state and have further weakened the positions of their employees. Better incomes for these marginal groups of labour market participants are now a top priority and majorities of people are now willing to support that. We cannot stop our support at banging our cooking utensils at one time every night. We need to have the political will to bring real change to these workers and their communities.

In a study with Connolly and S. Harris Ali, you examined the current status of cities and infectious diseases. What were the results of the study? Could you please summarize it?

Our argument is basically that we need to see the spread of emerging infectious diseases – those that are new to humankind – in relation to the immense expansion of urban life around the globe. We are now a majority urban planet but even if we don’t technically live in cities, the tentacles of urban society reach to far flung mining camps, logging operations, agricultural regions and the like that make urban life possible elsewhere. We can see the connectivity of the urban world clearly in terms of its governance, infrastructure and population dynamics.

When concluding the interview, how did the states and local governments around the world fight against coronavirus to provide social helps to disadvantaged groups living on the periphery of cities?

Well, we shall see. There are some good initiatives under way. Renters have been protected in many cities. Low wage service workers have seen a boost and recognition of their dangerous work. But we have a long way to go until we can say that subnational governments have made a real difference here. Much will depend on whether specific urban social movements can turn on the heat on their municipal and regional governments. Again, I think housing will be a battleground as the financialized real estate industry will have to be forced to change its evil ways that sees turning a profit as more important than providing affordable housing as an accessible use value to the majority.

Finally, what steps should be taken for “more livable cities” after the coronavirus crisis? What to do and not to do? Because there are many global crises waiting for us after this epidemic: For example: Climate crisis… What would you say about a new city imagination?

I would say, dream big. The connection to the pre-existing agenda of the climate emergency is central to any post-Covid urban political program. On a conceptual and experiential level, we now understand better that climate and health are related. We have also seen our cities slow down and many of us have liked it. Rather than structuring our cities according to the goals of competitiveness and creativity, we need to look at quality of life issues, health and sustainability as prime drivers of urban policy. Now, of course, the tech giants and the real estate lobby, let alone the automobile interests, will do everything in their power to quickly return to the status-quo-ante. We must do our utmost to not let them succeed.

The revolting students of May 1968 in Paris noticed that "Sous les pavés, la plage!" – meaning that under pavement, they found the sandy beach!" It is time for us to – metaphorically – rip up that street again and discover the endless possibilities of the beach beneath.