Pandemic Urbanism

May 14, 2020

Safety in the Viral City

By Jess Myers (website)

The author will give this presentation at the Pandemic Urbanism Symposium in a session titled “Public Spheres, Public Fears,” from 11:30 AM – 12:30 PM on May 29, 2020.

It is not a new concept that urban residents each have very tailored individual understandings of safety and security. These understandings are built on identity, culture, media, and many other influences. They also trigger individual strategies for keeping oneself safe in the city. These strategies may involve changing into an outfit at one’s final destination, avoiding eye contact, affecting an aggressive stance, etc. As the novel coronavirus sweeps the globe, it has become increasingly obvious that health (the perception of hygiene or cleanliness) will become a more important influence in urban residents’ perceptions of safety. The narrative constructs associated with the virus will also impact who is seen as safe and who is seen as dangerous, in the same ways these narratives effected perceptions of safety during the Spanish influenza and HIV/AIDS outbreaks. In current pandemic, identities and behaviors are being associated with a danger of infection, whether they be as common as not wearing a mask or having recently traveled or as insidious as systems of anti-Asian racism. As we adopt precautions to safeguard ourselves against the next waves of illness, it is vital that we build new narratives of security before dangerous ones have been fully socialized. When authorities see a man without a mask should they beat and arrest him as they did New York or should they hand him a clean mask as they did in Hanoi? This and questions like it must be addressed immediately, as illness becomes yet another vector in the spread of exclusionary and brutish social behavior.