The COVID-19 pandemic currently spreading its tentacles to all four corners of the globe has demonstrated how critical strong national governance and international cooperation are when the world faces a colossal crisis. But local neighbourhoods, and the families and communities living within them, could be one of the more important tools in the box to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, say Dr Ramjee Bhandari and Dr Yulia Nesterova in this new blog post.

Top down – facing the fight together

COVID-19 clearly has no respect for borders. Current statistics show the virus has now reached 209 countries/territories and infected over one million people worldwide. It is a fight that, yes, we must all face together. In an increasingly nationalist and populist world, a la Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’, it is refreshing to see collective cooperation. International communities are coming together to share resources and expertise to stop the spread of the pandemic and minimise  the potentially catastrophic health, social, and economic impacts.

At a national level, governments have leapt into action (some more belatedly than others). We have seen a diversity of responses, with some adopting stringent travel bans and lockdowns in pursuit of either containing the spread or stopping first cases.

Preparedness and the response of national governments and the resilience of the services, most importantly healthcare system, are crucial. But this may not be enough: international advice and government instruction are easily disregarded and their support may not reach everyone, especially most deprived and vulnerable.

Our neighbourhood research shows that what is needed when dealing with threats posed by pandemics such as COVID-19 is a whole-society approach, including action that can and needs to be taken by local – city and neighbourhood level – authorities and networks.

Bottom up – neighbourhood matters

The pandemic is “getting national emergency attention, so we don’t hear much about city preparedness”, says our Johannesburg colleague Professor David Everatt. But during an outbreak of an infectious disease, cities in particular are an important part of the problem. Although they may have the means to tackle the situation, they can also intensify the spread through increased human contact. Thinking about the response in Cape Town, our research partner Professor Ivan Turok is concerned that:

“The threat posed by Covid-19 is particularly relevant to cities because human interaction is at the heart of what makes cities tick, especially successful cities. So, the virus undermines the very basis for the prosperity of cities and therefore presents a major challenge.”

When it comes to crisis response, we can learn a lot about resilience and solidarity from other cities and neighbourhoods in the Global South. In the middle of February this year, when the outbreak was still brewing, we visited different local authorities in the Filipino cities of Manila and Batangas. We saw neighbourhood level administrative units, called ‘Barangays, in action and it was very clear to see the hugely important role they play in creating awareness of the diseases and taking necessary measures to tackle its spread.

COVID19 health information posters, Philippines. Credit: Ramjee Bhandari, University of Glasgow.
COVID19 health information posters, Philippines. Credit: Ramjee Bhandari, University of Glasgow.

But the ‘Barangays’ are not merely an information service. Their local governance model has shown that they can help communities come together, strengthen grassroots citizen engagement, and cope with adversity. Such a close-knit neighbourhood means they know exactly who lives in their community, what support and protection they may need, and who can provide that vital support and care. They also know what measure are likely to succeed and what cultural resources and social capital, like grassroots networks built on trust and cooperation, they can pool together the measures to tackle the virus head on and the consequences that may follow (including those caused by the measures taken to fight it.

The role of local governments, small administrative units, and social networks at neighbourhood level could be crucial. Neighbourhoods can be mobilised to communicate health and ‘behavioural’ messages. In China, our colleague Dr. Lei Zhai explained that “publicity materials are printed and distributed by the communities, and residents can get them at the community gate by themselves.” The experience in China has shown us that preventive and control measures should be aided by communities and encourage household responsibility.

The UK Government is similarly turning to local communities to help support the country’s vulnerable people. Across the country, 2.5 million people had generously signed up to grassroots groups formed in streets, villages, and towns as community volunteers to help vulnerable people who are self-isolating with food parcels, medicines and even a phone call to help boost spirits.

Not all neighbourhoods are equal – a deepening inequality beckons

It is important to remember that cities and areas within cities are not all the same. Different neighbourhoods have different resources, opportunities, and networks. And they are not all equal. Socio-economic status of neighbourhoods’ residents, and the infrastructure available to them, play a hugely significant role in people’s ability to prepare, respond, and recover.

As our colleagues in India, Dr. Debolina Kundu and her team shared:

“Infrastructure and basic servicesthe of cities in the Global South are already under stressed. The dense built-up areas, especially in the lower-income neighbourhoods like slums and informal settlements, heightens the risk of the spread of the disease. Considering the congestion factor of 38.3% in urban India, social distancing is hardly possible in these densely populated neighbourhoods.”

Similarly in South Africa, Professor David Everatt explains:

“Most at risk - the poor, already suffering from compromised health systems, poor sanitation, poor air quality, high TB and pneumonia and HIV incidence, lowest health insurance, highest unemployment - pretty obvious who will be hardest hit.”

Economists are already sounding the alarm about a global economic recession, which unfortunately could only serve to widen and deepen economic inequalities in our societies. We can already see a mutually reinforcing cycle between economic deprivation and the outcome of the outbreak. While the most effective preventive measure for the outbreak is to maintain social distance, this approach is putting extra pressure on those living on lower wages or working in informal sectors as costs are rising and jobs are lost when businesses close. Most of these people are already living in the most deprived neighbourhoods.

Celebrate the locals

We often think about lower-income neighbourhoods as lacking what it takes to live a healthy and prosperous lifestyle. Instead, we need to look at local assets, including human capital, and social relations, that can be marshalled and celebrated to overcome and bounce back from crisis.

Shocks and crises can certainly tear communities apart, disrupt their development, and bring the worst in their members. But communities can also withstand challenges, adapt to a new reality, and re-establish a sense of stability if strong, locally-driven institutions are in place.

Yes, international cooperation, a strong national response and adequate resourcing of healthcare are, of course, vital. But the strong social ties such as trust, reciprocity, cooperation, and communication in neighbourhoods and local communities, including some of the most marginalised, is also going to help us survive and thrive through this global pandemic.