Policy Brief: COVID-19 in an Urban World

Date published
28 Jul 2020
Plans, policy and strategy
COVID-19, Urban
United Nations (UN)

COVID-19 shutdown measures have had economic impacts far beyond city boundaries as urban economies account for 80 per cent of global GDP. The response should tackle the inequalities and long-term development deficits that have been exposed and made marginalized groups more vulnerable. National COVID-19 stimulus packages must boost the capacity of local actors - including the budgetary capacity of local governments to quickly respond to and recover from this crisis, according to the new UN Policy Brief released today.

The UN SG’s Policy Brief on COVID-19 in an Urban World estimates that urban areas are at the epicenter of the pandemic, accounting for an estimated 90 per cent of cases. However, urban density does not correlate with higher virus transmission. Overcrowding and urban areas with poor infrastructure and housing or weak local governance does.

“Now is the moment to adapt to the reality of this and future pandemics”, Secretary-General António Guterres said in his recorded message launching the new policy brief- COVID-19 in an Urban World.

“And now is our chance to recover better, by building more resilient, inclusive and sustainable cities”, he added.

UN-Habitat Executive Director Maimunah Mohd Sharif stated, “The Secretary-General’s Policy Brief is a powerful instrument to put us on the right path to deal with the crisis and also to seize the opportunity to do things differently in the recovery, so that we can create greener, healthier and more resilient cities. The transformative potential of urbanization towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals cannot be lost. This moment cannot be missed.”

The pandemic has exposed deep inequalities in how people live in cities, and how cities serve their residents. The Policy Brief prioritizes:

Investing in disaggregated data to better understand inequalities;

Guaranteeing safe shelter for everyone. Significant investments in affordable housing and slum upgrading can ensure everyone has access to shelter that facilitates physical and mental health;

Ensuring uninterrupted access to essential public services for all;

Guaranteeing equitable access to health supplies and resources and supporting the poor and other vulnerable groups with free or low-cost access to face masks, testing and treatment. Once available, it will be important to ensure equitable access to a COVID-19 vaccine;

Engaging marginalized communities as partners in response efforts; and

Embracing diversity and strengthening social cohesion.

UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner stated, “Our programmes continue to address the complex root causes as well as the manifestations of development deficits that destabilize countries and cities. In alignment with the UN’s socioeconomic response framework, UNDP has quickly made available significant resources, technical as well as financial. We have repurposed some projects to support urgent needs where they are deployed and have just launched a $100 million financing support mechanism to build on progress from funds we made available to countries when the pandemic hit.”

“We have been deepening our collaboration with UN-Habitat to enhance our support to cities to spur an inclusive and green recovery, and with associations of city and regional governments,” he further added.

The Policy Brief recognizes that there is a need to build up the resilience of cities to better cope with future shocks. This can be done by investing in sectors with potential for high ecological and digital transformation and job creation, and investing significantly in the informal economy— the backbone of economic growth in developing countries. COVID-19 is an opportunity to rethink urban living to address the climate crisis and adapt to the reality of this and future pandemics.