Photo of LISTEN TO THE CITY’s disaster-preparedness workshop with persons with hearing disorders, at Yonsei University, Seoul, 2020. Courtesy Listen to the City.

Post-Covid-19 Art and Urbanism

Also available in:  Chinese

In 2021, the Point asks writers about the deep-seated issues that Covid-19 has brought into view, and how they might tackle these problems to create better post-pandemic futures. Below, Eunseon Park, director of the collective Listen to the City, outlines the importance of resilient urban networks.

Many say that they want to return to life before Covid-19. However, if we continue to live the way we have until now, even greater catastrophes will arise. Art and urbanism can start to chart a different course for a post-Covid-19 future by understanding the complex interrelations that the pandemic has surfaced between the environment, discrimination, racism, and culture.

Epidemiologists have linked the destruction of wildlife habitats to the transmission of pathogens from animals to humans.
High-density cities are particularly vulnerable to the spread of diseases that emerge from this phenomenon. In tandem, cities have become increasingly dangerous as a result of fear and hatred. In South Korea, because of Covid-19, people have shown hostility toward overseas Koreans from Wuhan. In the United States, Australia, Russia, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, hate crimes against Asians have sharply increased since 2020. 

More importantly, disasters have unequal impacts in that vulnerable people such as women, persons with disabilities, children, the elderly, and low-income households are disproportionally affected. In the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, for example, two to three times as many females died in comparison to men because they were forbidden from entering certain shelters for religious reasons; many women also missed opportunities to escape while saving their children and could not climb trees or swim, according to a 2012 paper by researcher Luke Juran. In the case of the 2011 earthquake in Miyagi Prefecture, the Japan Disabilities Forum revealed in 2015 that the death rate of persons with disabilities was 2.4 times higher than the able-bodied. 

Likewise, persons with disabilities have been heavily affected by Covid-19. According to the United Nations Human Rights Office of the Commissioner, in 21 countries, the average number of deaths from Covid-19 in social care and psychiatric institutions is a staggering 42–47 percent of all cases. In South Korea, half of those who have died from Covid-19 were infected in social or psychiatric institutions. The first person who died from the virus in South Korea was a male who had lived in a psychiatric institution in Cheongdo County for over 30 years. He weighed only 40 kilograms when he died. Of the 123 people in the institution, 122 eventually became infected. In June 2020, a mother and her son, who had a developmental disorder, committed suicide. A similar incident had happened in March. The deaths were connected to the closure of welfare centers. If there had been better systems to help the integration of persons with developmental disorders in society, these tragedies might have been avoided. If the families of persons with developmental disorders have more connections within their neighborhoods, they might experience less pressure from the difficult responsibilities of caretaking.

Against this backdrop, the inclusive city is an essential concept for overcoming discrimination and exclusion. An inclusive city means all members of society have the same chance to participate in economic, social, and cultural activities, regardless of race, disabilities, or sexual orientation. We have to alleviate the burden on vulnerable populations, including minorities, and work to empower them.

Listen to the City started the “Leave No One Behind” project in this context. We interviewed persons with disabilities who experienced the 2017 Pohang earthquake and the 2019 Goseong wildfire in South Korea; and the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake and 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan. This project aims to include persons with disabilities in disaster planning in order to create a resilient urban environment where persons with limited mobility, as well as persons who cannot understand the local language, can live without being excluded. 

One of the keys to creating a resilient city is developing social capital because persons with robust social capital are more
likely to survive disasters. This ties into the initiative’s slogan, “Your Neighborhood Saves You.” Vulnerable populations oftentimes have less social capital and fewer acquaintances. Listen to the City’s project is designed to help facilitate better relations between these vulnerable people and others. Creating networks does not necessarily mean bonding a community. A number of researchers have posited communities as an ideal alternative to neoliberal society. However, feminist scholars such as Iris Young have criticized conventional communities for too often suppressing minorities and exploiting the female labor force. Therefore, we need to imaginatively create different types of urban communities in which everyone is treated equally and diversity is respected.
We can achieve this only when imagination meets daily life. Changing public policies alone is not enough.

There are already artists working to shape alternative urban networks that contrast the brutality of neoliberal society. In
Hong Kong, for example, Michael Leung and his colleagues fight with farmers in Wang Chau Village against developers who pursue
only profits. As a result of efforts in the spheres of art and culture, I hope that post-Covid-19 cities will be better places than those we knew before.

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Massimo de Carlo ARNDT SAM