Reorientation time: How Indian cities are using their existing infrastructure to battle COVID-19

Cities and towns in India continue to be the hot spot for the coronavirus infection; at the same time, it is our cities that have the maximum potential to fight this most effectively. Several steps have been taken to utilise the physical and digital infrastructure of the cities creatively to assist in the fight against COVID-19. 

The world currently faces one of the most devastating and unprecedented health and human crises ever in the form of the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 outbreak. Even as this piece is being written, COVID-19 has claimed close to 70 lives in our country and has seen over 2600 positive cases. The central government, state governments and local governments have ramped up their efforts and are fighting the infection on a war footing. The entire country has been locked down for a period of 21 days starting March 25th. In such a scenario, cities and towns in India continue to be the hot spot for the infection; at the same time, it is our cities that have the maximum potential to fight this emergency effectively. 

As per Census 2011, 31% of India is urban. With the Smart City Mission launched in 100 cities of India, the use of modern ICT tools and big data analytics and robust surveillance systems have been able to bring about some degree of change in the way these cities operate. It has also equipped the city administrators to make much more informed decisions. In a crisis situation such as the present, this also leaves urban India with many alternative approaches to beat the pandemic and emerge as a positive case study. 

Sanitation and hygiene 

After the launch of Swachh Bharat Mission, a few Indian cities really stood out for displaying exemplary models of waste management, recycling, cleanliness and eradication of waste dumping points. Cities like Indore, Ambikapur, Chandigarh, Alappuzha have set shining examples in keeping streets and neighbourhoods clean. 

Now is the time for all municipalities to replicate these efforts and conduct extensive sanitation and cleanliness drives in public spaces, colonies and streets. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) and Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban) have been sharing videos and photos of municipalities from all over the country engaged in intensive cleanliness efforts amidst the Coronavirus crisis. 

Municipalities should thus see the Coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to promote source segregation and efficient recycling of various wastes at the city level. During these times, communities must be educated and urged to segregate their waste responsibly and participate in building a streamlined waste management system. Proper waste management will significantly reduce the burden on municipal systems grappling with the community threat posed by the disease outbreak. Experts have already shared that source segregation of waste can surely help in breaking the chain of transmission of COVID infection. 

Urban local governments can also ensure capacity building of manpower in dealing with such cases of humanitarian relief and medical emergency. These measures may not only help them tide over the crisis but prepare them for the long term.

Utilising physical infrastructure 

Cities at this point of time can address the COVID crisis by utilising the existing infrastructure creatively.  Many cities are in fact doing that. Facilities like schools, colleges and working hostels are being used for addressing the additional demand for isolation/quarantine facilities. Nashik in Maharashtra has also initiated the identification of hotels and colleges for creation of quarantine facilities.

Cities having mega infrastructural facilities such as stadiums, sports complexes, soccer fields can also consider transforming them to temporary quarantine facilities. In fact, all SAI regional centres, stadiums and hostels that were closed in the wake of the disease outbreak could be used as quarantine facilities, according to a release from the sports ministry on March 22nd.

Rohtak, a city in Haryana, will use National Boxing Academy by Sports Authority of India (SAI) for creating a quarantine facility. In West Bengal’s Howrah, the Dumurjala Stadium was converted into a 150-bed quarantine centre to facilitate the rising number of patients, under the initiative of the District Administration and Howrah Municipality. On March 30th, the SAI announced that it would be handing over the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium to the Delhi government for using it as a quarantine facility 

Similarly, religious institutes can be used for providing temporary shelters to the homeless and migrant populations who have nowhere to go now. Major food joints in a city — such as cafes, restaurants — can be utilized for providing food services to the elderly and daily wage workers, who are worst hit by the lockdown. 

Public transport infrastructure can be used in limited, appropriate ways to curb the pressure on the existing network of emergency transport services in the city, such as ambulances, critical care mobile units etc. App cab service provider Ola, for example, recently agreed to give 500 of its fleet to the Karnataka state government to transport doctors and for other COVID-19 related activities.

Water services play a crucial role in such a situation. Ensuring equitable and clean access to water services will support the application of other services like routine municipal operations, health services, manufacturing hubs, transport services etc. Especially, during times when our cities struggle to manage the water sources, crisis like Corona will only worsen the situation. Focus should be on treating waste water so that a major part of it can be used for dealing with non-drinking purposes like agriculture, recycling etc.     

Making the most of digital connectivity

Several cities in India, under the Smart City Mission, were awarded with tenders for establishing an Integrated Command and Control Centre (ICCC). The function of an ICCC is really simple but extremely significant. It can be seen as the nervous system of a city that streamlines the delivery of urban services.

ICCC with its most advanced tools like CCTV cameras, GPS tracking, GIS mapping, drone surveillance, real time information and automated analysis can help decode some of the most complex challenges posed by the COVID crisis. 

Dehradun Smart City Limited is using the network of CCTV cameras to keep an eye on suspected cases. South Korea used tools like GPS, credit card swapping history and cab riding history to carry out the contract tracing process for the suspected cases. 

The Surat Municipal Corporation has also started a helpline number 1-800-123-800 where citizens can share details about travellers or suspects. The details are verified by the SMC team including health officials. A field team visits the location and if the details provided on the helpline are verified, the individual/family is asked to stay in home quarantine and they are also assigned a unique Tracker ID and are asked to download SMC COVID-19 Tracker Mobile. 

Pune has also undertaken a unique initiative, with the Pune Municipal Corporation, under the Smart City initiative, extending its wi-fi coverage specifically to isolation & quarantine centres. This helps patients stay connected with their loved ones virtually and fight mental stress. 

Even without the ICCC, cities are equipped with improved digital connectivity and a major part of its functions are carried out in the online space. Cab aggregators, food delivery apps, online grocery apps, online shopping apps and more such options have augmented the digital capability of our cities. District authorities can leverage existing networks like these and streamline the supplies of essentials to the vulnerable sections residing in different corners of the city. 

Dehradun, for example, has roped in Zomato delivery boys for delivering grocery supplies to citizens at their doorstep. The district administration and department of food safety has reached out to NGOs for rolling out a strategy to deliver food to senior citizens prepared by top restaurants and bakeries based in the city. 

In these tough and extraordinary times, Indian cities hold immense potential to convert the crisis into an opportunity, by using the physical, virtual and social infrastructure that they already have to protect and support citizens in the wake of the pandemic. 

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