The post-pandemic city: transnational cooperation and public policy (Part II)


Colleen Boland | Rafael Heiber

Dec, 2020*
Mar, 2021

The second number of the inaugural volume of metapolis further explores the titular theme «The post-pandemic city: transnational cooperation and public policy» in light of almost a year of experience. Communities have confronted not only the public health and economic impacts of the global crisis, but also a dramatic social reckoning precipitated by increasing inequalities, made poignantly visible via the effects and measures surrounding the pandemic.

The year 2020 began with the COVID-19 pandemic but did not end with traditional December holidays. While we find ourselves in March of 2021, to an extent we somewhat feel the spirit remains besieged by 2020. We cite this figurative chronos to kairós temporal transition as justification for the delayed closure of this second issue; to a degree it is, as we sought additional material. A year ago, there was incredulity as to this pandemic’s impact. As recently as six months ago, there was doubt as to the short-term availability of a vaccine for the Sars-Cov2 virus. And finally, today, armed with available vaccines, essential tasks still remain: how to use the current tools at hand in continued response to the pandemic, and how to recapitulate and analyze the immense span of events and information with regards to what has been done so far.


A quick overview

In fact, this period marks the more difficult part of the whole pandemic for many countries and communities. The practical impossibility of maintaining a permanent lockdown has led to relaxed protective measures over several weeks and months. This situation is then compounded by end of year holidays, particularly in Western countries, and all of these factors have led to a loss of control in the management of several health systems. Countries able and willing to access COVID-19 vaccines unsurprisingly include those that possess sufficient resources and infrastructure, as part of unequal and unbalanced globalized markets and development. And, as always, the intensifying of North-South asymmetries continues.

Photo_ Tony Vacas_ Warnes Shelter

China’s supposed success in controlling the pandemic enables the country to use its vaccines as a geopolitical element, offering them to its strategic allies rather than to its own population. On the other hand, Sweden, which committed the structural heritage of a social democratic paradigm, has already faced defeat as a result of the ultra-liberal move to transfer a decision of high complexity and collective consequences to one of individual choice. The remaining Scandinavian countries coordinated their measures, imposing restrictions and avoiding thousands of deaths.

In the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson finally desisted in his denialism when he realized that proper management of the pandemic would potentially strengthen support for Brexit as freedom from European bureaucracy. Summer vacation could represent political redemption, with vaccinated Britons enjoying the Mediterranean Sea while the Dutch and German watch the islands on television, unless Europe establishes a new mobility protocol for its non-vaccinated citizens. The new Biden government, following the invasion of the Capitol, inherited the calamity of a country that has experienced in excess of half a million deaths. The government is mobilizing to quickly administer vaccines, even banning the local manufacturers from exporting them. And finally, with Trump now retired in Florida, Brazil has become the latest epicentre of pandemic and denialist far-right politics. One year ago, the Brazilian backward elite [1][1] This phrase is used by Jessé Souza to describe the historical role of Brazilian elite. See: Souza, J. (2018). A Elite do Atraso: da Escravidão a Bolsonaro [The Backward Elite: from Slavery to Bolsonaro]. Estação Brasil. were convinced that the economy could not be sacrificed for a disease that would kill at most three thousand people. At present, even with considerable underreporting, three thousand deaths from COVID-19 occur daily. This country is led by Jair Bolsonaro and guided by the military, via a strategy of minimizing the pandemic, deceiving the population with unregulated drugs, and sabotaging local governments that seek alternatives in access to testing and vaccines.

The final weeks of 2020 and those beginning 2021 seem to be the synthesis of the current era: there are still old configurations lingering form the past, but the aspirational future has not yet materialized in the present. The mission of administering vaccines against the COVID-19 disease lies ahead; at the same time, it is no less important to pursue figurative vaccination against other forms of viruses that threaten democracy.

As such, the final weeks of 2020 and those beginning 2021 seem to be the synthesis of the current era: there are still old configurations lingering form the past, but the aspirational future has not yet materialized in the present. The mission of administering vaccines against the COVID-19 disease lies ahead; at the same time, it is no less important to pursue figurative vaccination against other forms of viruses that threaten democracy, as citizens become hosts of such illnesses by both their own hand, and as inscribed in failure of hegemonic neoliberalism and emerging populism.


Far-right populism, the extreme center and bureaucracy as an end in itself during pandemic times

From the standpoint of international justice and politics, two situations will require a serious reckoning. First and most obviously, there are the devastating effects of reactionary populism, which has forcefully emerged in several countries throughout the world, with some populist parties even assuming government leadership. These agendas and leaderships entail the premeditated, increased exposure of vulnerable groups to the virus, intentional misinformation leading to further infections, and the neglect of basic treatments (such as oxygen, in Brazil). The end result of thousands of preventable deaths constitutes a true post-modern holocaust, where killing takes the form of leaving for dead.

The second, graver situation (as it facilitated the conditions for the rise in the abovementioned far-right ideals and assumptions) is the recapitulation of the ultra-liberal maneuvers characteristic of the «old normal» and extreme center. [2][2] The idea of «extreme center» was adopted by Tariq Ali in a critique of financial capitalism, which since the fall of communism has rhetorically and politically taken over Western society. See: Ali, T. (2018). The extreme centre: a second warning, Verso. These include utilizing bureaucracy as a tool to control, as a market field, and finally, treating bureaucracy as an end in itself.

If the «old normal» already merited intense critique, the pandemic even further exposed its ethical deviations, and the malfunctioning hegemonic model. Germany (the heartland of the extreme center [3][3] Ibid.) is an emblematic case of thinking and acting in a manner that is steeped in bureaucracy as an end in itself. From an individual point of view, to abide by mundane disciplinary rules is an efficient strategy with which to reaffirm a sense of everything in its right place. From the collective standpoint, an obscure framework becomes generated, where notions of law and order operate with cunning. There is obviously no need for pedestrians to wait for the green light on small streets where no cars pass, as the only reason for the existence of a traffic light is to address what physics teaches us: two bodies cannot occupy the same space. However, this type of disciplinary obedience threads through our social universe, suspending contextual understanding, inhibiting situational empathies, and reducing individual autonomy to simple, prescriptive operations. Societies cannot be restricted to that famous principle of general systems theory, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. On the contrary, in the universe of human practices, the complexity of the parts makes their sum greater than a whole, the latter of which will always be arranged in a provisional and unstable way.

While some countries use bureaucratic tools as a means to ensure an effective vaccination process (each dose costs between €3 and €30, depending on the manufacturer), in Germany all the operative procedures of vaccination can bring the cost of fully vaccinating an individual close to €1000. Bureaucracy as an end in itself increases spending by corporate sectors with vested interests, reduces the speed of vaccination itself, and results in more unnecessarily unprotected people that entails further infection and death. Since societal modes of operation conform to this prescriptive, bureaucratic mode, a narrative bolstered by supposed ideals of quality, confidentiality, and safety legitimizes all of these procedures, which ultimately obscure the objective reality. Business as usual, even during a pandemic emergency.

Recently, Denmark and Norway suspended the use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine due to potentially related cases of thrombosis. Immediately, the World Health Organization and the European Medicines Agency issued statements pleading for continued administration of this vaccine, which had been approved in three phases of testing; they noted how its efficacy highly outweighed any eventual risk. Around 20 million doses of the vaccine have been administered worldwide. In Europe alone, out of 5 million doses, only 30 cases of thrombosis were detected, which does not exceed the rate of the thrombosis in populations who have not received the vaccine. Perhaps Norway, with its 5 million inhabitants and total of 600 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, was comfortably positioned to suspend vaccination. However, France, Italy, Spain, and Germany, countries that have suffered daily deaths in the thousands, have also suspended their vaccine administration. Even with such measures being repealed a few days later, it is clear that protection of interests is prioritized over preservation of life. It can be simply put in terms of accountability: the virus cannot be prosecuted for continuing to infect and kill thousands, despite its clear potential eradication via vaccination; a country, government or local agency will not be held accountable for slow vaccination systems or for preserving more doses than administering; yet finally, the bureaucratic, legal or economic risk of being held responsible for death that has not even been evidenced as linked to the vaccine, is sufficient to justify depriving millions of people of evidence-based protection, maintaining the wave of infections and death.

Weeks before, several countries including Germany had already debated first-class (Pfizer mRNA technology) versus second-class vaccines (AstraZeneca with traditional Vector technology), with the former above 90% effective and the latter below 80%. This resulted in AstraZeneca vaccines being refused. However, effectiveness simply means the possibility of avoiding COVID-19 infection. Even if an infection occurs, both types of vaccine would achieve 100% protection against severe symptoms and death. In other words, a finite portion of the population unnecessarily applied the individual logic of consumption to a situation that demands a citizenship role. The problem should be solved collectively in the face of a highly contagious but not such a lethal disease: vaccinate as much as possible with what vaccines are available, relieve overburdened hospitals, and recover social and professional life.

More than a century ago, Max Weber had already coined the concept «iron cage» in analyzing the bureaucratization of the social order. Today, dysfunction in terms of security, privacy, liability, compliance and so many other dimensions characterize the anti-rational bureaucratic-financial model that constitutes an end in itself: a well-behaved neoliberal version of the reactionary and barbaric Thanatos of Trump and Bolsonaro.


Contributions to the current issue of metapolis

Indeed, lessons from a year of COVID-19 crisis ramifications have demonstrated how a global meta-crisis can accelerate and exacerbate inequalities, further highlighting and jeopardizing societal wellbeing. At the same time, our contributors have observed and revealed how communal action and participation, grounded in local level experiences, initiatives and policy, has facilitated real change and initiated new processes. All of this points towards groundbreaking societal transformation, made both necessary and possible by unprecedented new technologies, as well as the mobility and exchange of knowledge and resources. In light of this, cities and local communities have been positioned to recognize and respond in the most tailored and sensitive way to the experiences and needs of their citizens, which arise in the context of this global connectedness marked by the intensification of both failures and opportunities; while this is most obvious in the case of immediate response to the COVID-19 crisis, it is not restricted to this scenario.

Urban life is not condemned to this restrictive relationship with capital, and in conceiving of new urban possibility it is important to divorce the urban from financial capitalism; power can and must be restored to space as public, for the wellbeing of all the forms of life that currently or potentially can dwell within the city.

Undeniably, the pandemic raises questions about the current neoliberal patterns of globalization highlighted in our first number, but has also shed invaluable light and offered new perspective on potential solutions to systemic societal inequalities and injustice, rigid structural and authoritarian hierarchies, stagnant political will and environmental decline. Examples of concrete micro and meso level change within local states over the course of the past year have demonstrated how reshaping the urban landscape can have transnational implications that are key in rectifying or recharting human solidarity and progress. This turn to the potential of rooted social participation taking place at the local level avoids what Patterson describes as «the conventional orthodoxies, one-sided agendas, and intellectually paralyzing post-whatnot fads of recent decades.» [4][4] Patterson, O. (2014). Making Sense of Culture. Annual Review of Sociology 40(1): 1-30. Enlightened by both hindsight and lived, diverse experience, our contributors have noted how local frameworks usher in an opportunistic public space, societal mobilization and authentic practices of solidarity with the potential to achieve a collective progress that has recently seemed a neglected and unobtainable objective.


The public space: an opportunity for wellbeing

The potential of the city has not been lost in the history of thought and our community life to date. In a broader sense, it is understood that public spaces create a sense of place and even belonging, linking community members to opportunities that directly affect their wellbeing, and thus the community as a whole. [5][5] Baumann, G. (1999). The Multicultural Riddle. Routledge. In a world that is increasingly globalized with diverse urban environments, even the way a neighborhood is designed and the spaces it offers its members can contribute to overall improved inclusion and outcomes for both established and more recent residents, as has been cited in much of the literature on migration studies and integration in recent years. [6][6] Caponio, T., & Bokert, M. (2011). The Local Dimension of Migration Policymaking. IMISCOE. At the same time, with the context of the COVID-19 pandemic fresh on the public consciousness, the public space’s true potential has undeniably come to the forefront. Governance, local leadership and community interaction shaping the use of and access to public space can clearly be directed for the betterment of public wellbeing and social equity, or their obstruction and decline.

Leticia Merino, Professor at the Institute of Social Research (IIS/UNAM), Mexico, and Simone Buratti, former Executive Director of The International Association for the Study of the Commons, address the significance of the urban public space as interlinked with the notion of the common good. They provide our readers with illustrative examples from the Latin American experience of the COVID-19 crisis in «Cities, COVID-19 and Commons in Latin America.» In particular, they signal the effects that elite capture has had on the most urbanized region in the world. Hierarchical, detached governments and privatization can mean that urban spaces are deprived of access to important and basic public goods and services. The impact of privatization in creating further concentration of wealth among an already rich and privileged elite is obvious; at the same time, urban commons can also be exclusively coopted by the middle class, as they can better afford participation than more vulnerable populations. The pandemic brings high fatality rates to the region, as it compounds the situation for those already affected by poor health services, informal employment, lack of social security and comorbidities. While the effects of neo-liberalization and chronic inequalities are dire, the authors outline the necessary measures to halt privatization and exclusion from public goods, for a post-pandemic Latin America that pursues and benefits from the wellbeing of the entirety of its urban populations.

In his contribution, «Work After Coronavirus,» American author and anarchist Bob Black offers a specific manner in which to address wellbeing, in the form of reimagined «work.» In this exercise, he notes the COVID-19 crisis impact on the labor market, before delving into a problematization of work, explaining how its traditional conceptualization is critiqued as an authoritarian social formation. He argues that until now, the economy has been virtually and arbitrarily divided into a primary agricultural and extractive industry, a secondary manufacturing sector, and a tertiary and increasingly bloated «service» sector. He explains that in addition to the constrictive nature of this old formation, unjustified jobs become an increasing burden (or the «bullshit jobs,» as coined by David Graeber). The pandemic, he observes, serves to exemplify how such authoritarian labor systems are not, in fact, a necessity. A healthier society and improved wellbeing can be achieved, he concludes, with an alternative «productive play,» nested in communities of local autonomy alongside regional diversity.

A final point integral to a discussion of the public space and wellbeing, especially in relation to the urban environment, includes resisting the city space in terms of a product for consumption, characterized by soaring and prohibitive real estate prices. In this vein, Saskia Sassen, Professor of Sociology at Columbia University in the United States, explores how the financial sector, with its various capacities for extraction, has taken on a global dimension that surpasses traditional banking and corporations. Such high finance profoundly impacts and influences local and household economies, as well as the organization and flow of urban space. Indeed, urbanization and the accumulation of capital has seemed to represent one and the same, and the «urban revivification» efforts of past decades have involved «public-private partnerships» that led to gentrification and intensification of inequalities. While COVID-19 also seems to resemble a global actor in the same manner as high finance, it should not disguise the financialization systems and processes that were already in place, directly affecting and driving the dynamics of cities.

However, urban life is not condemned to this restrictive relationship with capital, and in conceiving of new urban possibility it is important to divorce the urban from financial capitalism; power can and must be restored to space as public, for the wellbeing of all the forms of life that currently or potentially can dwell within the city. [7][7] Moreno, L. (2018). Always crashing in the same city. City 22(1): 152-168.


Participatory networks and mobilization

Of course, as the authors throughout this volume have pointed out and demonstrated, the social and economic effects of COVID-19 have inspired collective action in various communities. In addition to and as part of this, social and political action can be fostered by and built on clear avenues of communication and participation. The public space must be decided upon by the public forum, grounding its legitimacy and success in the real and diverse needs of its community, rather than overarching, detached interests. The ongoing, reciprocal relationships that occur when participating in an urban community can allow for networks based in commitment, rather than sole reliance on fixed, regulatory norms. Indeed, transforming and reclaiming the public space is a dynamic process that requires a mobilization of energies.

In recognizing the potential of the public space for improved wellbeing, and exploring how to shape it for the benefit of all, the question and challenge includes how to connect it. Here again, the city emerges as a promising potential actor, perhaps reconstituting traditional power hierarchies. As Allen notes, in conceiving of multilateral city networks, rather than conceding to a commonly accepted paradigm that some global cities dominate others, the power behind city networks could rather be characterized by its capacity «to forge the connections and to bridge the gaps» or «secure networked relationships across tracts of space and time.» [8][8] Allen, J. (2010). Powerful City Networks: More than Connections, Less than Domination and Control. Urban Studies 47(13): 2895–2911. This harnessed power could be directed towards achieving sustainable development, as is attempted with the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group project. [9][9] See: Such initiatives do not escape critique, however, as accomplishing this configuration and leverage of power remains susceptible to traditional challenges, including insufficient collaboration, poor knowledge sharing, or lack of financial and political support.

Architect Fernando Carrion, President of the Research Center CIUDAD and General Coordinator of the Latin American Cities Network, speaks to the existence of and questions surrounding these networks in his article «The global transurban system: forms it takes and new challenges.» Also using Latin America as a springboard to a broader perspective, he maps out the current configuration of global distribution, and the role of local, autonomous entities. Essentially, he argues that growing municipal empowerment is marked by the territorialization of both national and international politics, leading to a network of self-governing cities that engage in an integration process in order to pursue the best interest of their populations.

Multilateralism is now an essential tool in configuring institutional change and overall cooperation at the international, national and local levels. With an aim to addressing the environmental crisis forming a crucial part, constructing a new, «glocal» social contract for future civilization is imperative.

Carrion describes how this assembly of city networks maintains relationships, as well as how it allows for facilitation of both horizontal cooperation as well as enhancement of social movements. In particular, he outlines the various forms of association that these cities and local governments take. Carrion believes that multilateralism as understood in the post-war era of the past century is no longer relevant, but has transformed into a hybrid multilateralism; this creates order from below as a result of local to global links underpinning power networks and relations. While warning against the trap of privatized homogeneous city platforms, he urges a revival of urban planning that embraces a heterogeneous, global transurban system.


Coexistence and solidarity for a sustainable future

From the local to the global, the fissures caused by a lack of solidarity, exclusive interests and the allowing of inequity appear as multiple and amplified. National responses to the current crisis have included isolation and separatism. At the same time, collectivity and solidarity have also brought many populations through an otherwise debilitating world pandemic. To this point, Felipe Llamas, Madrid City Councilman, brings us «Old challenges in a new context: the pandemic accelerating city multilateralism.» He highlights how in many cases, local and regional communities and their leaders have ensured the continuity of public services and protected the public space. He also notes how this solidarity must extend to the ecological realm in order to truly, sustainable coexist. Llamas calls for transnational cooperation among these diverse localities in order to achieve this.

Finally, in Ibero-American Secretary General Rebeca Grynspan’s «A new glocal social pact for recovery,» she also points to the mounting destruction of the environment as one of the systemic crises in parallel with the current one. Explaining that the COVID-19 crisis can serve as a wake-up call for humanity, she asserts that the pandemic clearly signals how long-term action and transformation have become inevitably necessary. In light of this increasingly obvious new reality, institutions are not configured to meet the new challenge. She urges to look beyond temporary political cycles, building institutions that are capable of adaptation, receptivity and resilience. Recognizing that multilateralism has had its defects up until this point, Grynspan notes that it is now an essential tool in configuring institutional change and overall cooperation at the international, national and local levels. With an aim to addressing the environmental crisis forming a crucial part, constructing a new, «glocal» social contract for future civilization is imperative.

Photo_ Elke Mader_ White spring_ CC BY 4.0

Our authors have illustrated how in today’s modern and increasingly diverse society, albeit marked by new frictions and fragmentations, it is still possible to encounter cohesion, commonalities in shared space. This past year’s world crisis accentuates how homogeneous, hegemonic thought and systems, and their accompanying public policies, can exclude if not actively harm the vast majority of our populations. Meanwhile, the urban space and city can serve as a space of interaction and conviviality, allowing for different contexts and diversity to thrive. Efforts towards participatory engagement in urban neighborhoods are teachable examples that must be expounded upon; moreover, they can even be mirrored by transnational cooperation, and can inspire an institutional restructuring that prioritizes representation. We must mobilize truly equal participation in the public space in order to pursue values of solidarity and coexistence, understanding that at the same time, this does not preclude embracing the multiplicity of both the human, technological and natural world.