New York and other metropolises must protect themselves from pandemics or our future will be far less urban.
Covid-19 has killed at least 19,000 New Yorkers and dealt a body blow with lasting consequences to the city. Two paths lie ahead. If pandemics become common, then not only New York City but all of America’s service-based economy faces a bleak future. If this terrible plague is a unique event, then things will eventually get almost back to normal. To save both the nation’s biggest and most productive metropolis and tens of millions of service jobs across the county, we must invest enormously to prevent future pandemics.
For urban areas in the global economy, pandemic risk comes with the territory. Cities like New York are the nodes of a great transportation network that spans across oceans and continents. Consequently, cities are also ports of entry for contagious disease.
Cities are defined by their density. New York exists to bring people near to one another to enable economic, social and cultural collaborations. Those collaborations have made America rich, strengthened democracy and produced great art, from the painting of Jackson Pollock to the writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jimmy Breslin.
But proximity also spreads disease.
Because New York is both hyper-connected and hyper-dense, Covid-19 hit the five boroughs hard. To date, New York City accounts for one-fourth of the total Covid-19 deaths in the United States. Gotham accounts for 0.1% of the world’s population, but over 7% of total global Covid-19 deaths.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a more terrible event for New York than the 9/11 terrorist attacks because the harm goes beyond the death toll. People come to cities to connect with other people, but fear of infection undermines the desire for connection. When contagious diseases make us terrified of strangers, then crowded city streets become hellish. For many who are sheltering in place, a meager cabin in Wyoming beats a fantastic studio in Soho.
Edward L. Glaeser is the Glimp professor of economics at Harvard University, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and contributing editor at City Journal.
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