Covid’s reckoning

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India's most populous city, Mumbai, boasts the largest collection of Art Deco buildings in the world after Miami. Designed around airy courtyards, and fitted with balconies that catch sea breezes, they are a legacy of a disaster that befell the city under the British Raj in 1896: Bubonic plague.

Art Deco, it turns out, is a highly effective architectural antidote to diseases that spread through overcrowding. Other cities have been similarly reshaped by pandemics. To ward off recurring bouts of cholera and yellow fever, Paris tore down dank tenements and replaced them with wide boulevards and open squares. London dug a sewerage system. New York laid out a vast green oasis—Central Park—and installed a system for heating Manhattan buildings that was so efficient it allowed office workers to open windows for ventilation in the depths of winter.

So how will Covid-19 refashion our cityscapes?

Social distancing in Domino Park, in Brooklyn, New York, on May 17.

Photographer: Johannes Eisele/AFP

This week in the New Economy

We'll be debating this and other critical questions at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum, an all-digital gathering spread over four days that kicks off Monday, Nov. 16. Our discussions will focus on the future of cities, finance, trade, climate and public health, responding to a challenge by Michael R. Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, to imagine a fairer and greener post-pandemic global economy.

As always, the Bloomberg New Economy Forum will bring together leaders from East and West in search of solutions. This year, we'll welcome Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan as well as Yi Gang, the Governor of the People's Bank of China.

China Vice President Wang Qishan

As editorial director of the forum, I welcome the digital format, which has two key advantages. First, it's far easier to gather the world's movers and shakers when they don't have to pack luggage and navigate airports to attend an in-person event. Indeed, we've assembled a who's who of global leaders from United Nations Secretary General Antonio Gutierrez to the head of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, to some of the biggest names in global business—Larry Fink of BlackRock, Ruth Porat of Alphabet and Jean Liu of Didi Chuxing.

But digitalization also allows us to democratize the conversation—to speak truth to power. Over the past several months we've been asking grassroots community organizers, social activists, and worker rights advocates around the world to record messages to global leaders on their smartphones and send them to us. We'll be playing these out ahead of our panels. Moreover, we'll livestream the entire event on and social media, inviting questions from a global audience. 

Appropriately enough, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will introduce our Cities Day on Tuesday, Nov. 17. Mumbai has been badly hit by Covid-19—not in the Art Deco neighborhoods where the wealthy now live, mind you, but the packed, informal settlements like those of the Dharavi district, made famous by the Oscar-winning film "Slumdog Millionaire."

India Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Images of residents streaming out of Dharavi during lockdowns and walking home to villages hundreds of miles away focused the world on the grotesque inequality afflicting Mumbai and cities everywhere. In New York, susceptibility to the coronavirus has everything to do with zip codes, as the pandemic preys on poor and marginalized communities.

This time, architectural fixes won't be enough, although it's encouraging to see how cities like Paris and London have responded to the immediate imperatives of social distancing—and the longer-term necessity to address climate change—by building additional bicycle lanes. (We'll be hearing from Bogotá's "Bicycle Mayor" at the forum as he explains his vision for post-pandemic cities.)

Addressing the roots of inequality is the challenge of our era. That's why we'll start our forum by talking about a "new deal" for low-paid workers. We'll conclude by discussing vaccine distribution amid fears that only rich countries will be able to afford immunization, although this is the rare moment when the self-interest of the wealthy should align with their would-be altruism. Nobody in the world will be safe until everyone is safe.

But the battle against inequality will be won or lost in cities. It's worth noting that the Art Deco movement reached its heyday in the 1920s—a period when wealth inequality exploded in America—and that social disparities in the U.S. today are nearing those same levels. Will digitalization trends, accelerated by Covid-19, widen that gap even further? Will the Amazons and Alibabas and Tencents of the modern age create jobs or destroy them? Will they spread wealth or monopolize it further? Tune in to our panel "Digital Cities" for answers.


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