By Sharon M. Meagher, Ph.D., Marymount Manhattan College

I joined a multidisciplinary global network of researchers, The Global Pandemic Network and recently participated in its webinar and launch of working groups on “COVID-19 and Cities, Building Resilience on Human Rights and Environmental Protection.”  This is but one of many opportunities for philosophers to collaborate with others to develop more just cities as we plan to not only survive the COVID-19 pandemic but to rebuild and recover cities in ways that better meet the needs of all inhabitants, measuring our progress by the welfare of those who  have been historically marginalized.  In this brief article, I outline research questions for philosophers that I hope will both inform a public philosophical agenda on pandemic cities and justice (and extend the excellent work already published here in Phi on New York) as well as provide non-philosophers with a sense of the issues on which they can turn to philosophers for help in doing this critical, collaborative work that must necessarily cross disciplinary boundaries and bridge the academic, policy, and planning communities.

Why focus on cities?  We know from both the data being collected as well as anecdotal reports from the media that the COVID-19 pandemic has had disparate impacts on the poorest and most marginalized people around the globe.  At least initially, high density population areas have been hit hardest and have had the greatest difficulty containing the virus, thus causing a growing outcry against cities as places of danger.  The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and urban development continues to grow; according to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 68% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050.  In some regions of the globe, that figure is already exceeded, as urbanization rates are much higher in the global South.  The President of the UN General Assembly recently maintained that the pandemic response must focus on “the two-thirds of the world’s population at risk of being left behind”  While the UN is rightly calling for the need for global, international collaboration to address the harms caused by COVID-19 and to protect the world’s inhabitants from future pandemics, we also have witnessed the catastrophic failure of nations and international bodies to address the current pandemic, through failure of will, lack of capacity, and in some cases corruption.  We also know that local context matters in terms of developing solutions, so while cities in many nations have had no choice but to play key roles in the pandemic, they should continue to do so even with greater international and national support.

Why philosophy?  Both existing initiatives and movements and new ones are growing to help rethink what post-COVID-19 recovery will look like, especially as both socio-economic and political inequalities have become more visible to those whose privilege allowed them to look the other way.  The pandemic is further exacerbating those inequalities as those who are poor and lack access to basic necessities like water and healthcare suffer the most.  These initiatives and movements are shaped by principles and other commitments that can and should be developed and clarified by philosophers in dialogue with those engaged in policy and relief and those who are most impacted.

As Damian Short argued in the Global Pandemic Network webinar, “In cities, COVID-19 has highlighted the link between the rights to [housing, clean water and sanitation, adequate housing, and healthy environment, and political rights] to the rights to health, dignity and life.  These connections already been made in several key international documents developed prior to the pandemic.  The 2017 Global Pact for the Environment aims to consolidate and unify prior environmental rights declarations to create internationally recognized legal principles that can be invoked in international, regional, and national courts of law with three objectives:  to  establish a universal environmental human; to provide guiding principles for environmental law; and to “empower citizens to hold home and neighbor governments accountable for their environmental policies.”  Article 1 states “Every person has the right to live in an ecologically sound environment adequate for their health, well-being, dignity, culture and fulfillment. “ While the pact can be used to set legal precedent that carries increasing weight, philosophers can and should continue to work to explain the moral legitimacy of this pact and how or why it can be useful in connection to the pandemic, given the connections between pandemics, decreasing biodiversity, and other environmental challenges.  In 2019, the One World One Health organization developed the Berlin Principles that make these connections explicit and call for coordinated global collaboration to address environmental and health challenges. Environmental philosophers can amplify these connections, while social and political philosophers can help strengthen our understanding of the principles and practices of solidarity and collaboration needed to do this work.

Dory Reeves has argued that evidence is emerging that those nations that have made progress on the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development are those that have best coped with the COVID-19 pandemic and notes that there are three overriding principles that unite the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), namely “leave no one behind, safe and inclusive economies, and environmental sustainability.”  While these might seem like obvious moral imperatives, they are not ones that organize most of our institutions, laws, or policies.  Philosophers can and should develop more robust moral arguments in support of these imperatives.

The COVID-19 pandemic is testing both our moral and political commitments.  On this we can learn from the past as we remain vigilant about our future.  In his The History of the Peloponnesian War, ancient Greek historian Thucydides documents the impact of a plague that affected Athens around 430-426 BCE, arguing that the losses in terms of death but also mental health and trauma were so great that it threatened the greatness of Athenian democracy celebrated by Pericles.  In his funeral oration, Pericles outlines the key features of Athens’ success: its democratic constitution, its openness to the world, and its active citizenry.  Thucydides argues that the plague caused Athenians to turn inward, focusing on their individual suffering rather than the common good, creating lawlessness, lack of hope, and civil unrest.  While I think that the  civil unrest we see on our streets today is decidedly not caused by an individualist or inward turn but rather the more brutal unveiling of a long history of inequality and injustice, philosophers can and should think about the past, present, and future on issues that have long concerned us but on which a brighter light now shines.

This includes continuing the excellent work of postcolonial, feminist, and anti-racist philosophers (there are too many important works to cite, but see e.g., Gayatri Spivak’s A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present; Charles Mills’ Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism; Jose Medina’s The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations; Linda Alcoff’s The Future of Whiteness) in unpacking and criticizing philosophical concepts in our intellectual and cultural history that have fostered or at least exacerbated inequality and white supremacy and imagining inclusive alternatives.  This work does not only belong to political philosophers, but to those doing epistemology, ethics, identity theory, environmental philosophy, etc.  In short, most subfields of philosophy have affected how we view and live in the world, and we must interrogate the way that philosophy has shaped our practices if we are to change them.  We must also think about the ways that philosophy has “othered” important philosophical works that have not neatly fit “our” canon.  Justice and the continued legitimacy of philosophy demands that philosophers take the time to learn from philosophical traditions and cultures other than their own as well as from those most affected by injustice and inequality.  Historically philosophical works that take seriously the voices of the oppressed and/or have engaged in dialogue with policy makers have been discounted as “not philosophical.”

One of the projects that I am working on is an analysis of what I call philosophy’s historical failed relationship with the city and its recent reconnection (see e.g., The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of the City.)  I am concerned about the ways that President Trump and his followers are tapping into an American history of anti-urban thinking  that has been easy to re-energize during the pandemic, as the city is cast as a place of danger inhabited by know-nothing elites and a criminal underclass.  One important role that philosophers and activists can play is in what Linda Alcoff, following Jose Medina, calls “echoing”: “aim for a world in which the patterns in which our speech circulates can become more perspicuous as well as subject to critical analysis,” repeatedly questioning and repositioning speech claims that cast protestors as “rioters”, marginalized victims of COVID-19 as “careless”, and non-mask wearers as “liberators”.

Current events invite philosophers to rethink some of their assumptions and to imagine more robust ways of thinking.  What follows is a list of some of the questions that should rise to the forefront of our thinking, as these issues have immediate and future policy implications that will impact people’s lives.

First, we need to expand our understanding of claims to justice and equitable access to resources and social goods, among them: healthcare, water, food, safe housing and transportation, and space including green space.  The pandemic is shining a bright light on the real consequences of social, political, and economic inequalities in the rates of illness, death, and poverty for those who lack access to these necessities.  We might therefore think that no argument is necessary, but there is work for philosophers to do to help us both better understand moral and political failures and make connections to specific context and policy.  For example, philosophers should build on the excellent research on the physical and mental health benefits of publicly accessible green space to make moral arguments for its inclusion in urban design and continue to build critiques of the privatization of public space, contextualizing this issue within the larger context of wealth and inequality.  As researchers on Stockholm’s Centre for Resilience argue: “If the coronavirus has taught urban planners anything, it is that public access to green areas is more important than ever” and that public access is NOT currently equitably allocated.   They argue that ownership of resources usually determines access.

But changing design and ownership demands that we must resist those who are willing to sacrifice our most vulnerable urban inhabitants to secure their own privilege and access. Some optimistically think that we can expand access to goods without those who have more making any sacrifices, but there are finite resources.  How do we help all to understand the illegitimacy of goods secured at the expense of the dignity and life of others?  In response to Asheville, North Carolina’s recent passage of a black reparations program,  many asked aloud why they had to pay now for slavery?  While the City Council defended its action by noting that the reparations are not only for past injustices but for the patterns of discrimination that have accumulated to this day and create tremendous economic disadvantages in housing and employment, this debate is indicative of the larger problem  of helping those in more privileged positions find a moral stance that enables them to recognize that their privilege has depended on the sacrifices and disparate treatment of others.

Second, while there are real and complicated conflicts between individual rights and the common good that have been raised by the pandemic, for example, the conflict between the right to privacy and the need for data collection and contact tracing to stem the spread of the virus, there are other apparent conflicts between individual and social goods caused by impoverished and wrong-headed understandings of freedom. In the United States, we have resorted to legal remedies to compel mask wearing because we have not won the moral argument that people can and should make the sacrifice of making the masks to protect others.  This is highly problematic because in some places we are now enlisting the police for another social task that we should not be funding the police to do.  We must find more social cooperative means for enforcement.

Third, we see a growing crisis in democracy and governance.  While no democracy has ever realized the ideals of the full and open society that Pericles pretends Ancient Athens had realized (when only about 1/9 of the population qualified for citizenship), the lack of participation of all—or even consideration of all—has been made starkly clear in much COVID-19 policy-making.  For example, the determination of “essential work” made it more possible for most white, middle and upper-middle class persons to stay at home while browner poor and working-class people remained dangerously exposed to the virus or lost their jobs.  Yet policies of economic support such as rent relief and sick leave have been woefully lacking for those taking the greatest risks to ensure the safety of wealthier white.  Globally this is being replicated as nation-states fight for access to COVID-19 vaccinations and critical medical supplies without concern for how those in less resource rich nations will survive.

If philosophers engage in the work of critical re-examination and reconnection, then we enable the growth of new ideas that will allow us to rethink and reshape the city in positive ways.  Which concepts of justice, solidarity, collaboration, human rights, urban resilience, the right to the city, governance, equality, freedom, the good life, health and well-being will help us realize a more just and inclusive city?  How can philosophers develop these concepts by learning from those who have suffered under our inadequate theories and practices and from those who are leading these fights in international organizations, governmental and nongovernmental agencies, and in the streets with Black Lives Matter and related movements?

What I have outlined here is more a provocation and invitation for dialogue than a complete agenda, as a fuller agenda needs to be developed and expanded through global collaboration and discourse.  And it does not rule out other topics on which philosophers can and should weigh in on the pandemic that are less directly related to philosophy of the city—some of which has been published on this site (see, e.g., Joseph Biehl’s writing on care and the value of life; Ian Olasov’s reflections on social distancing ).  But the pandemic has made the imperative to reconnect philosophy to the city even greater, as  cities—our quintessential places of diversity—must remain at the forefront of our philosophical imaginations if we are to not only imagine but build a world that is truly just.  And justice must be measured by the undoing of the conditions that marginalize people oppressed by white supremacist, colonial, and patriarchal ideas and practices.

Dr. Meagher is Professor of Philosophy at Marymount Manhattan College and former Vice-President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty at Marymount Manhattan College. She is the author of articles on philosophy of the city, urban geography, feminist theory and practice, and ethics, and the editor of two books, a feminist analysis of public policy (Women and Children First, Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2005) (co-edited with Patrice DiQuinzio) and Philosophy and the City: Classic to Contemporary Writings (Albany: SUNY Press, 2008). She is completing a monograph on the relationship between Western philosophy and the city entitled Philosophical Streetwalking: Grounding Philosophy and the City and is co-editor of The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of the City (Routledge, 2019). She serves on the editorial board of the journal CITY.

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