Metropolitan life in a time of malady

Covid-19 will not be the end of cities, nor will it be a brand new beginning
People are seen practising social distancing in white circles in Domino Park, during the Covid-19 pandemic on May 17, 2020 the in Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP)

How is Covid-19 transforming the world’s cities and what does it mean for the future of urban life? These are questions that have exercised us all with increasing urgency ever since the Sars-Cov-2 virus rampaged west from its beginnings in Wuhan, China, in the dying days of 2019. By July, 2021, it had killed 3.97 million people worldwide, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in history.

Before we think about cities, let’s take a step back and think about ourselves for a moment. As a species we are prone to hysteria, exaggeration and chronic levels of self-regard. We tend to view our own era as distinct, all-important, almost as if it is separate from the rest of history because, look, we’re here now, it’s all about us. When good things happen, they are the best ever known. When we are beset by crises – global warming, wars, environmental degradation and the current pandemic, to name just four – they are the worst ever experienced by mankind.

We see these same tendencies in our response to the coronavirus and how we imagine its long-term effects. It’s the death of cities, scream the doom-mongers. “What will happen to London?” Rod Liddle frets in The Spectator. “Will it go the way of Detroit?” No, the optimists respond, far from being the end of cities, it’s going to bring about their glorious rebirth.

“Time and again cities have proved to be resilient and have emerged stronger, showing they can build back better and improve the lives of city dwellers,” writes Abha Joshi-Ghani, director for knowledge and learning at the World Bank. She points to the South Korean capital of Seoul, which successfully controlled the spread of Covid-19 through rigorous contact tracing, widespread testing and mandatory isolation, made possible through transparency, accountability and good governance.

You don’t have to be a great believer in “build back better” to side with Ms Joshi-Ghani. I spent four years charting the history of some of the most important and illustrious cities in the Muslim world, from seventh-century Makkah to 15th-century Constantinople, from 12th-century Cairo to 21st-century Dubai. One lesson from that research is that while pandemics may devastate in the short term, their longer-term impact can be negligible. This is not unique to the Islamic world.

A man on a bike wears a mask to protect him from Covid-19 in Bur Dubai on June 1st, 2021. Chris Whiteoak / The National. 
Reporter: N/A for News
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While pandemics may devastate in the short term, their longer-term impact can be negligible

Recall the plague that struck Athens in 430 BC. It may, possibly, have contributed to the city’s defeat in the Peloponnesian War, but Athens bounced back before too long as a booming metropolis. From 541–542, the Plague of Justinian wiped out between 30 million and 50 million people. This may have ended the emperor’s vainglorious ambition to rebuild the empire in all its glory, but it certainly didn’t destroy Constantinople, its peerless metropolis – now called Istanbul and one of the world’s greatest cities. That’s not what pandemics do. Nor did the plague that attacked Tripoli from 1785 to 1786 have long-term negative effects for the Libyan capital.

Sometimes pandemics have unexpected and far-reaching consequences. Had it not been for the bubonic plague of 638 to 639 in Syria which killed his brother, the ambitious conqueror Muawiya might never have been appointed commander of Arab forces, then governor of Syria and, from 661 to 680, Caliph of the Islamic world. The Black Death of 1347 to 1351 may have carried off 200 million and, in the process, devastated European demographics, but it certainly did not spell the end of the continent’s greatest cities. Neither, just a century ago, hard on the heels of the catastrophe that was the First World War, did the Spanish Flu of 1918 to 1919, which added to Europe’s woes by eliminating another 2.6 million and 40 million to 50 million worldwide.

None of this is to deny the horror of the short-term apocalypse that has ripped through so many of the world’s cities, from Delhi to London, New York to Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro to Johannesburg. The retail, hospitality and travel sectors in the UK and far beyond have been completely hammered. Once again, it is the poor and lower-skilled who have been hit hardest. The World Bank estimates that around 150 million people worldwide have been pushed back into poverty due to Covid-19.

Those without the luxury of being able to retreat to their homes and work remotely, who have been furloughed or, worse still, lost their jobs altogether, will take little comfort in knowing that the city in which they live, and until recently worked, will soon recover. For every white-collar, middle-class professional who tells you what a good pandemic they have had, spare a thought for the many, many more who are facing financial ruin.

We must take some consolation from history, from the knowledge that our ancestors have been here before. The 19th century was one of industrialisation and warp-speed urbanisation, despite the fact that high-density populations had to contend with water-borne illnesses like cholera and typhoid. Smallpox and flu added to the pressing dangers of city life. Yet still people flocked to these giant economic engines of growth, as they do today – right up until Covid-19 called a sudden halt to population movements.

A city is not just a place. It is an idea. It is the realisation, however imperfect, of humankind’s aspiration for a better future. “When a man rides a long time through wild regions he feels the desire for a city,” the Italian novelist Italo Calvino wrote in Invisible Cities. Every day, migrants all over the world make this journey from wild regions to untold numbers of cities in search of this elusive promise. For the great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun in the 14th century, the city may have been “a culturally refined but morally corruptive space”, but that did not prevent countless millions of men and women from responding to the irresistible centripetal pull of Islamic cities over many centuries.

Empires rise and fall, great cities diminish over time, minnows grow and prosper. At the very beginning of his landmark Histories, the fourth-century BC Greek historian Herodotus announced that he would write of “small cities of men no less than of great. For most of those which were great once are small today; and those which used to be small were great in my own time”. In other words, however bleak it may be in the summer of 2021, for the world’s cities and all the billions who live in them, this too shall soon pass.

Published: July 8th 2021, 2:00 PM
Justin Marozzi

Justin Marozzi

Justin Marozzi is a historian of the Middle East