Building climate, health and economic resilience in the Covid 19 crisis and beyond
Cities are facing the triple threat of COVID-19, climate change and economic recession. Some are already responding to climate-related hazards alongside local outbreaks of the virus, and with the pandemic likely to be with us for the foreseeable future, more cities will inevitably follow. The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the lack of resilience in our cities and the dearth of preparedness for major events of governments and public health systems the world over. With the early impacts of climate change already with us – 98% of C40 cities have already experienced climate change-related events that jeopardise their economic and social prosperity – it is critical that resilience-building against climate change and future pandemics be a priority of post-COVID recovery packages, to protect our societies and our economies.
This article outlines how cities can adapt strategies to reduce risk during the pandemic, in accordance with physical-distancing requirements and other new norms, and enhance public health, climate and economic resilience for the long term through COVID-19 recovery packages.
Responding to climate risk during the pandemic
The risks posed by climate change and climate hazards have not stopped during the pandemic. Already, COVID-19 is interacting with cities’ protocols and capacity for keeping people safe from extreme heat and other events. Conversely, these hazards risk exacerbating the effects of the pandemic. Floods and the scarcity of clean water, for example, lead to inadequate sanitation, increasing the risk of community transmission of COVID-19. With 2020 set to be one of the hottest years on record, this is likely to place extra stress on hospitals and health centres as the incidence of heat-related illness rises. In May, Bangladesh and India faced the challenge of evacuating people from the path of Cyclone Amphan, the first super-cyclone to form in the Bay of Bengal since 1999, in the midst of local COVID-19 outbreaks. In June, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico faced a similar dual challenge during Tropical Storm Cristobal, which also caused severe flooding in New Orleans and other cities across the US state of Louisiana. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts a record-breaking hurricane season due to unusually warm water temperatures in the Atlantic and the Caribbean.
As we live through the COVID-19 pandemic, cities need to adapt strategies to mitigate risk from natural hazards to accommodate physical-distancing requirements and new norms, such as the increased time that many people are spending at home.
In particular, cities should:
Understand how those communities most at risk from local hazards intersect with those at risk from COVID-19. The wider socioeconomic impact of COVID-19 means that some populations not considered vulnerable to natural hazards before the pandemic will now become more vulnerable, depending on the local policy response. To keep residents safe, cities must urgently develop an understanding of their risks and most exposed populations, mapping and identifying populations that are vulnerable to both COVID-19 and to natural hazards, such as extreme heat and floods. In many cities, this is likely to include older people, those with underlying health conditions, and low-income and marginalised groups.
- The Hague used overlaying maps of social deprivation and heatwave temperatures, finding that citizens living in the city centre were at higher risk during the pandemic. The city and the Red Cross are now leafleting vulnerable residents, warning about the health risks in food deliveries.
- Protect incomes, access to food and more to reduce vulnerability during the pandemic. COVID-19 and the measures implemented to curb the spread of the virus are together increasing vulnerability to climate hazards, as well as hunger and malnutrition. The World Food Programme is forecasting the impact of COVID-19 to double acute hunger globally by the end of 2020, putting 130 million lives and livelihoods at risk. This is especially true for informal-sector workers, migrant workers, daily-wage earners, homeless people and other low-income and marginalised groups. Protecting their incomes and access to housing, and providing food aid and other critical services are critical to reduce the vulnerability of individuals and communities to both the pandemic and climate hazards.
- Update hazard emergency plans and guidance for evacuation procedures, shelters and other elements of local response. For example, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released this interim guidance on managing disaster shelters during the pandemic.
Ramp up efforts to keep people cool in their homes, especially those who are most at risk. The Global Heat Health Information Network has developed the Heat and COVID-19 series, with guidance for heat action planners and city authorities on managing heat risk during the pandemic. It includes information on adapting cooling centres for physical distancing, low-tech cooling options, mobilising social services, vulnerable populations, and communications and outreach. In cities with informal settlements, staying at home may be a health risk in and of itself as temperatures rise. The series includes useful tools for cities, such as a technical brief on Protecting health from hot weather during the COVID-19 pandemic and a planning checklist for Managing heat risk during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cities facing heat risks can also incorporate cool roofs, green roofs and other cooling measures as part of any building retrofit programmes implemented as part of post-pandemic stimulus packages.
- New York City has announced a ‘cooling benefit’ to help low-income residents buy and install home air-conditioning. People on low incomes will also receive discounts on their utility bills between June and October 2020 to protect them from heat waves, which is the city’s most deadly weather event, and to safeguard them from economic insecurity during the pandemic. Phoenix, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Miami and Toronto are among other North American cities to have introduced home energy assistance programmes to subsidise air-conditioning for people on low incomes.
- Communicate now about how hazard protocols will change during the pandemic. Due to the pandemic, compliance with evacuation orders is likely to be impacted by people’s fear of catching COVID-19 – particularly for those most vulnerable to the virus. Sudden advice to leave home ahead of a dangerous hazard event is also likely to be met with confusion, as it contradicts advice to stay at home during COVID-19 outbreaks. Cities that face hazards requiring evacuation should communicate now with residents about what they should do in an emergency, ahead of any potential event, highlighting any changes in protocol due to COVID-19, to keep people safe from the virus. Cities can also work with local media to ensure that news about incoming hazards is broadcast prominently and not buried by reporting on COVID-19.
Reducing risk from climate change and future pandemics
COVID-19 has exacerbated and exposed the vulnerability of cities, their residents and essential supply chains, and demonstrated the high cost of being ill-prepared. It is critical that stimulus packages are designed to build long-term climate and pandemic resilience. This will help to create jobs now and to ensure that cities are prepared for future risks, saving money and protecting jobs in the longer term. For example, in the United States, every $1 invested in disaster resilience saves an average of $6 in future recovery costs.
Investments to boost climate, health and economic resilience should prioritise critical infrastructure and services, and the needs of the most vulnerable populations.
Invest in public health services and emergency services. During emergency response periods, cities around the world have found creative ways to temporarily boost healthcare capacity, for example, by seconding medically trained staff from closed airports to the local COVID-19 response or using stadiums and other closed facilities as temporary hospitals and isolation centres. Read Protecting and expanding the healthcare workforce and Meeting demand for PPE, hospital beds and other equipment for more. By channelling recovery funds to bolster public health systems, to provide more hospital and healthcare spaces, equipment, digital infrastructure and trained health workers, cities can better manage the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as future pandemics, climate risks and health more broadly. By providing healthcare training and expanding the healthcare workforce, cities can also reduce unemployment and mitigate the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic.
Invest in water and sanitation. This provides the foundations for improved public health, reducing exposure to and transmission of COVID-19, as well as more common diseases and those associated with increased flooding, such as malaria. Investing in water and sanitation not only builds more resilient communities, but can also boost local economies. For example, in Antananarivo, investments in water access, sanitation and hygiene – such as the construction of water kiosks, fixing pipe leaks and clearing drains – created jobs, increased profits and wages, yielding benefits worth US $2 million.
In response to COVID-19, Freetown has provided water in public places such as markets and health centres, purchased and distributed donations of handwashing stations and soap, and installed water tanks and rainwater-harvesting systems in informal settlements to help provide sustainable water supplies during and after the pandemic. Read about Freetown’s response in How Freetown is enabling behaviour change to manage COVID-19.
As well as investing in water-management infrastructure projects, Bangladesh is providing citizens with solar home kits that can be used to filter contaminated water to stop disease spread following cyclones.
- Climate-proof critical infrastructure and new investments made to stimulate economies after COVID-19 outbreaks. Climate-proofing infrastructure and taking into account the interdependency of infrastructure and services will improve the city resilience and reduce disruption and losses from future climate or extreme weather events. There is a solid economic case for climate-proofing critical infrastructure, with a significant volume of research demonstrating high cost-benefit ratios. For instance, actions to protect, elevate and relocate wastewater infrastructure, such as waste pipes and sewage treatment plants, in the United States has seen returns of up to $31 for every $1 invested. Climate-proofing and maintaining infrastructure will also create local jobs, particularly in the construction sector. In addition to climate-proofing existing infrastructure, it is critical that investments made in clean energy, buildings, transport, waste and other key sectors as part of COVID-19 stimulus packages are adapted for the city’s current and future climate. See Reducing climate impacts on urban sectors for a series of short, sectoral briefs on how cities can adapt investments in buildings (including private, municipal and new buildings), walking and cycling, mass transit, clean energy, waste systems and food systems to the climate impacts they face.
- Invest in nature-based solutions. Preserving or restoring natural areas in cities provides essential ecosystem services and effective, cheap protection against floods, drought, extreme heat and storms, and the risks of vector- and water-borne disease. Mangrove forests alone save more than $80 billion a year by preventing losses from coastal flooding, protecting 18 million people. There is a significant body of evidence demonstrating that the economic return on investment in green infrastructure and nature-based solutions is greater than that on traditional ‘grey’ engineered infrastructure. Green spaces have also proved critical during the pandemic to help facilitate physical distancing, provide safe spaces for outdoor physical exercise and play, and to support people’s mental health. They are a core component of the ‘15-minute city’, a hyper-local approach to urban development that aims to enable everyone to meet their basic needs within a short walk or bike ride from home. Investments in green infrastructure and to expand green space also generate fast, local job growth. Worker training requirements are relatively low and projects can be launched quickly.
- Pakistan’s green stimulus scheme is prioritising employment opportunities for women and for labourers who are out of work due to the pandemic in its massive, five-year tree-planting scheme. The scheme was granted an exemption from lockdown closures and has created more than 60,000 jobs for of out-of-work labourers, planting billions of trees across the country to reduce risks from flooding, heat and other climate-related threats.
- Paris has committed to increasing tree cover and public green space by creating small parks in school playgrounds, which would be open to the public outside of school hours, and converting car parking spaces. These measures are part of the city’s 15-minute city strategy, a key pillar of Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s successful re-election campaign in June 2020.
- Invest in early-warning systems. Early-warning systems are critical for protecting lives and avoiding critical disaster situations. Just 24 hours warning of a storm or heatwave can cut the ensuing damage by 30% and spending $800 million on these early-warning systems in developing countries would avoid losses of $3–16 billion per year.