The city after COVID-19: Vulnerability and urban governance in Chicago, Toronto, and Johannesburg

Blog 14th February 2024

In this guest post, Profs Roger Keil, Xuefei Ren, and Philip Harrison discuss their research on the nexus between vulnerabilities, urban governance, and COVID-19, which was supported by a Pandemics and Cities grant from the USF. 

This project emerged from previous bi- and trilateral collaborations among the partners linked to the specific topic of this endeavour and other related previous urban studies research collaborations. Housed at York University in Toronto, its partners were Michigan State University and the University of the Witwatersrand. 

The urgency felt in urban communities worldwide to react to the COVID pandemic led to scholarly activity among urban studies colleagues. Keil already had a history of studying cities and infectious diseases since SARS in Toronto in 2003 (in collaboration with Harris Ali), had published a relevant article on extended urbanization and infectious disease (with Ali and Connolly), and had been working on COVID from the beginning of the pandemic, work that has culminated in a co-authored monograph on Pandemic Urbanism; Harrison, with whom Keil had previously worked on questions on urban density, had written a comprehensive history of planning and public health responses to previous disease outbreaks in Johannesburg and had been collaborating with scholars across BRICS countries on related matters since the beginning of COVID; Ren was the co-editor, with Keil, of the Globalizing Cities Reader, a prime collection of research on global urbanization, a process often associated with the rapid spread of infectious disease today.

Xuefei Ren, Philip Harrison and Hillary Birch at the Dahdaleh Institute, York University, May 24, 2023, during the event Addressing the Aftermath: The Governance of Urban Inequality During and After COVID-19. (Credit: Roger Keil)

Xuefei Ren, Philip Harrison and Hillary Birch at the Dahdaleh Institute, York University, May 24, 2023, during the event Addressing the Aftermath: The Governance of Urban Inequality During and After COVID-19. (Credit: Roger Keil)

Ren was also in China at the start of the pandemic and wrote early about that country’s lockdown measures that influenced the overall response worldwide. The core team’s work was complemented by colleagues like Graeme Götz at Witwatersrand and student team members, especially York University’s Hillary Birch, who coordinated the research across the three sites and participated in the important team meetings and public events in South Africa as well as in the panel discussion at York University’s Dahdaleh Institute. 

Building on these previous experiences and collaborations, the partnership for this current work sprang into action quickly and enthusiastically when the opportunity arose. All three partners had previously been well versed in comparative urban research (documented and expanded, for example, in Roger Keil, Covid, contagion and comparative urban research). In: Patrick Le Galès and Jennifer Robinson, eds., Routledge Handbook of Comparative Urban Studies. London: Routledge). The cases of Toronto, Chicago, and Johannesburg offered challenging but possibly rewarding canvasses on which to develop a fruitful comparative strategy to look at post-pandemic urban governance in the face of the social vulnerabilities the pandemic had exposed. It was challenging as the three cities do not “naturally” fall into the same class of urban experiences, with two cities in North America and one in Africa, two in high-income countries, one in a developing economy, etc. However, rewarding results could be expected from meeting those challenges and from building a sound comparative perspective on the basis of those metropolitan centres’ shared experiences.

The inside of Johannesburg's Ponte City highrise building (Credit: Philip Harrison)
The inside of Johannesburg’s Ponte City highrise building (Credit: Philip Harrison)

This starts from their existence in settler colonial countries, all marked by significant albeit very different socio-racial and socio-economic divisions and diversities, their position in federated political systems, their high level of public health preparedness and activities during the pandemic and their generally “progressive” outlook on solving the crises that presented themselves to their communities. As we will detail in the existing and forthcoming publications from this project, the comparison allows for unique insights that reflect both the similarities and divergences of the individual cases with a variable catalogue of lessons that will be valuable beyond those specific urban experiences.

Our project had significant results in the areas we had identified at the outset of the study. As discussed in a brief article on the politics and effects of lockdowns early into our project, we were able to identify significant differences in the effects of state responses. In evolving and forthcoming work on two journal articles (see A2 for more information), we detail the variations and commonalities in both state and community responses to the vulnerabilities created or exacerbated by the pandemic. We were able to document a broad range of official, institutional, and state-driven responses to the COVID-19 challenge that was, in all cases, complemented, completed, and even initiated by community activities at the grassroots level by a variety of actors. In all cases, the lessons from historical precedents influenced the overall response; the particularities of the metropolitan regions studies showed themselves to be relevant in comparing the three cases (and possibly others); the existing and emerging architectures of public health and pandemic governance mattered; and urban politics often made a difference in guiding the response and the aftermath. The COVID-19 pandemic was a crisis that revealed the limitations of municipal boundaries and hidden geographies, such as migrant mobilities and the operation of logistics systems and value chains, stressing the need for a regional view of the pandemic. The pandemic also highly revealed government forms and capacities and relationships between government and civil society. Like Chicago, and unlike Johannesburg, Toronto municipal governments played a strong role in managing the pandemic, establishing a ‘war-time cabinet’ to coordinate responses and “tables” among third-sector welfare providers to manage the crisis effectively (see further below). Through the implementation of an emergency management strategy, there was an attempt to create a whole-of-government approach, but municipal governments had to negotiate blurred lines of accountability and varying approaches within federal and provincial health jurisdictions, including a provincial government reluctant to deal with social protections. The degree to which Toronto achieved a whole-of-society approach is debated. Civil society was invited to participate with the city government in coordinating hyper-local pandemic responses in a community cluster table approach. However, views on the approach’s success are varied, with community activists arguing, for example, that the focus was on social services rather than community capacity building, which would strengthen community resilience. Rather than using community-level data to achieve greater equity in response, there was a bureaucratic tendency towards non-differentiated approaches. There were also contradictions which emerged in the process. For example, in Johannesburg, there was a moratorium on housing evictions, but landlords were still able to file eviction requests. Hence, when the moratorium was lifted, there was a surge in evictions across the city, with an increase in tent encampments and municipal government responses to encampments, which included police forcibly removing tents and their occupants, were highly contested throughout the pandemic (and became a hot button issue in subsequent political debates and elections). 

Food bank, Chicago, Illinois (Credit: Xuefei Ren).
Food bank, Chicago, Illinois (Credit: Xuefei Ren).

Unlike Chicago, Johannesburg was embedded within a highly centralised response to the pandemic. Despite the quasi-federal nature of South Africa’s governmental system, a National Coronavirus Command Council was set up, which controlled the pandemic response, and an undifferentiated system of national lockdowns was introduced in terms of the declaration of a National State of Disaster. There was a short period of local government creativity before the national response was implemented, but beyond that, municipal government had little role in decision-making, although it carried a major operational burden during the pandemic. Major flaws in the response across South Africa was the lack of reach into local communities (despite the earlier lessons of the HIV/Aids pandemic), and the emphasis on regulation rather than behavioural change.  The pandemic was highly revealing of state capacities and behaviours and, in the case of the provincial government responsible for the urban region around Johannesburg, there was an impressive mobilisation of capacities in the early stages of the pandemic, but there was a draining of capacities over time as prior pathologies, including widespread corruption, resurfaced. Civil society played a critical role in filling the gaps left by the government, but the pandemic did not, overall, lead to a strengthening of state-civil society relationships. As South Africa exited the pandemic, it was struck by a series of further crises, including a critical energy shortage and their effects interacted with the legacy impacts of the pandemic.

The project was motivated and guided by a high degree of interaction with the frontline communities that had been active in the pandemic response. We interviewed key representatives of organizations and institutions in the care and public health sectors and provided feedback to them with high-profile public events where we reported back from our preliminary findings. Among those events were public presentations with community involvement in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Toronto, all detailed elsewhere in this report. We anticipate further publications geared towards publicly distributing our findings, including a follow-up piece in the science magazine The Conversation.