Coronavirus presents an opportunity to rethink the status quo

Issue 128

Hey urbanists,

I feel like so much has happened in the past week. My travel plans are on hold as I see how the COVID-19 coronavirus spreads and efforts to contain it develop in the coming weeks.

I put together some links that stood out to me in recent days re: COVID-19 below, and there are more stories relating to it in the news roundup. Can I please just say though, I really don’t understand how anyone retains any respect for Elon Musk with the Trumpian downplaying tactics he’s employing right now. It’s very irresponsible.

With that said, the piece on why this crisis should be used to transform the economy by the authors of “A Planet to Win” is a must-read. The past week has shown that the levels of spending and state action we were told weren’t realistic or possible are now happening — just to retain the status quo instead of fundamentally altering it. Plus, I recommend the excerpt from Nicole Aschoff’s book, Lizzie O’Shea on ‘unskilled’ work, tech hating history, Aaron Gordon on U.S. transit construction, and the backlash to highway expansions.

Stay safe and try not to spread this virus — but feel free to spread the newsletter!


P.S. — If you like this issue, press the heart below the title or at the end of the issue.

Rachel Maddow had a really informative interview with Donald McNeil, NYT’s science and health reporter, who explained why China’s COVID-19 response was so effective and why family self-isolation has risks we don’t currently seem to be considering in North America.

Obviously, I can’t recap everything on COVID-19 here, nor am I an expert. However, I do want to draw attention to a few news stories which caught my attention:

  • After being criticized for speaking about a ‘herd immunity’ strategy that would require 40-60% of the population to be infected and potentially collapse the NHS, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government seem to be preparing sweeping measures that would include four months of isolation for the elderly, forced requisition of private hospitals and hotels, emergency manufacture of respirators, and the closure of schools with minimal staff kept on to care for the children of emergency workers.

  • After injecting $1.5 trillion into financial markets for a temporary bump, even CNBC’s Jim Cramer agrees with Elizabeth Warren that student debt should be canceled (it would cost $1.5 trillion). And Newt Gingrich is calling for a WWII- style mobilization against the coronavirus, despite Republicans saying a similar program against climate change was crazy. As Donald Trump fails to address the crisis, Joe Biden’s response has been underwhelming, while Bernie Sanders has illustrated why his platform (and approach to politics) is essential. The Democrats passed a coronavirus bill, but it only gives sick pay to 20% of Americans.

  • Canada is placing limitations on travel and provinces are starting to close public facilities. The government is also preparing a stimulus package to assist businesses and provide “income support” to people — though it remains to be seen what exactly that will look like and whether it will be designed in a forward-thinking way (seems unlikely). Unlike the United States, Canada does seem to be adequately testing people suspected of having COVID-19.

  • COVID-19 has spread quickly in Iran, with a rising death toll. Part of the problem was a lack of preparedness by officials, but the country’s efforts are also hampered by heavy U.S. sanctions, leading U.S Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and President Hassan Rouhani to call for them to be lifted.

News roundup

🚨✊ Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos, authors of “A Planet to Win,” make the case for using this crisis to fundamentally overhaul the economy: “Political change is uneven and multifaceted. There are long slogs of workaday organizing, sudden bursts of acceleration when opportunities appear, slow grinds of governance, defeats that send us back to the drawing board, and moments of rupture when everything is up for grabs. Right now, we’re in one of those rare times when sharp, structural change is possible in the heat of the crisis. We’re not in the position we hoped we’d be a few weeks ago. But we can’t let it slip away regardless.”

Tech dystopia

“Business insiders say they are valuable because of their network potential. This is true, but also obfuscatory. Instagram’s or WhatsApp’s value, just like the value of so many other tech companies, is in the unpaid work they command, their ability to appropriate life — your life.” An excerpt from Nicole Aschoff’s new book, “The Smartphone Society” (I haven’t read it yet, but looking forward to it):

The appropriation of unpaid work isn’t new. In Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici illuminates how, in the long transition from feudalism to capitalism, women’s unpaid labor became concealed, transforming the process of accumulation, and thus power relations for both men and women.

In the development of the digital frontier, we are once again seeing a redefinition of life activities and the emergence of new power dynamics. In the making of the digital frontier, a new combination of appropriation and exploitation has been formulated, a model that has generated unimaginable wealth for the tech titans.

Once again, we are witnessing the concealment of unpaid, appropriated work. Except today, it’s not just women’s work that is being appropriated, being made to appear as a natural resource, a “labor of love.” It is all of our work — the hours we spend every day on our smartphones creating content and generating data through our constant connection to our hand machines. In these hours, our lives become ever more deeply enmeshed in the circuits of capital. Our appropriated work, and our digital selves more broadly, are the key to the digital frontier.

🦠🙄 After declaring “the coronavirus panic is dumb,” unparalleled genius Elon Musk sent a memo to all SpaceX employees downplaying the growing threat of COVID-19: “As a basis for comparison, the risk of death from C19 is *vastly* less than the risk of death from driving your car home. There are about 36 thousand automotive deaths per deaths [sic], as compared to 36 so far this year for C19.” It’s further proof that we should all be more critical about what Musk says on topics he doesn’t actually know much about — including the future of urban transportation.

👩‍⚕️👨‍🔧 Lizzie O’Shea breaks down our misconceptions about ‘unskilled’ work: “We are told these jobs are unskilled, but the work is actually skilled; we are told it is often pointless and superfluous, and yet many workers find it to be meaningful. Unskilled jobs may be miserable and alienating, but it is the task of critical thinkers to ask: To what extent is this a regrettable, inevitable reality rather than a socially constructed phenomenon? To what extent does the category of unskilled work bolster the idea that we live in a meritocracy and therefore justify egregious exploitation? If the meritocracy is illusory, then so is the idea of unskilled work.”

🚗😷 Safety drivers for Waymo’s autonomous taxi service feel they’re being put at risk as the company expects them to keep reporting for work: “It feels like the drivers are treated like second class citizens, having to report to work and serve ‘hails’ while the full-time employees are required to work from home to stay safe. Safety for some.”

📚 Why does tech hate history? “If the past has no relevance, everything is innovation. […] This anti-history bias is not merely a curious quirk of a group of people that has drastically shaped the modern world. It is a foundational principle.”

Critical urbanism

🇺🇸🚇 Aaron Gordon dissects why the U.S. sucks at building transit, and the problem goes right to the top: “Ultimately, this is not about trains and buses. This is about a political system uninterested in reform, a system unconcerned with fixing what’s broken. If we can understand how politics failed American transportation systems, perhaps we can make the solution part of broader reform that must occur if American government is to start addressing the needs of the people in all aspects of life, from health care to criminal justice to housing to employment law to digital privacy to climate change.”

🇨🇦🚄 Canada’s public rail company, Via Rail, is struggling due to delays and low ridership because the tracks it uses are owned by a private company that gives freight priority. The government is considering a plan for Via to build its own tracks between Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal-Quebec City, but it’s not clear if that will be enough to revive it. CN Rail, which owns the tracks used by Via, was privatized in 1995 and, as of 2011, Bill Gates was its largest single shareholder.

🦠🇪🇺 As Europe shuts down schools, bans large gatherings, and takes even more extreme measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19, even neoliberal French President Emmanuel Macron says, “There are goods and services that must be placed outside the laws of the market. To delegate our food, our protection, our ability to care, our living environment, basically to others, is madness. What this pandemic is already revealing is that free health care [and] our welfare state are not costs or charges, but precious goods, essential assets when fate strikes.”

🦠🏘 “While infectious disease spreads faster where people are more densely clustered — hence the strategy of social distancing to contain the coronavirus — that doesn’t necessarily make suburban or rural areas safer, health experts say.”

🚫🛣 Laura Bliss details the growing U.S. backlash to highway expansion, with a focus on how the new age of freeway revolts is playing out in Houston and Portland

🚇🚲 New York City transit ridership is declining as COVID-19 spreads, but more in wealthier neighborhoods than poorer ones. Meanwhile, bike ridership is surging: Citi Bike is up 67% y/y and traffic on bridges from Manhattan to Queens and Brooklyn is up 50% y/y.

🇬🇧🌳 All the trees in London don’t just look nice. They reduce the need for air conditioning in the summer, and increase productivity because summer temperatures are more bearable.

🦠🇮🇹🇺🇸 As part of Italy’s coronavirus response, people won’t have to pay their mortgages. Some U.S. cities are banning evictions.

Climate crisis

📺🦠 Why won’t the media cover climate change like COVID-19? “More than 3,000 people have succumbed to coronavirus yet, according to the World Health Organization, air pollution alone – just one aspect of our central planetary crisis – kills seven million people every year. […] Urgent action to prevent a pandemic is of course necessary and pressing. But the climate crisis represents a far graver and deadlier existential threat, and yet the same sense of urgency is absent.”

🌎 “Climate dystopia isn’t the immeasurable winds or the towering infernos erasing entire cities. It’s the fact that when these things happen, we choose not to change. And that is a dystopia that could end any time we want it to.” — Eric Holthaus

🇮🇹🏭 Air pollution and GHG emissions plummeted in Italy after strict measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 were implemented

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