Cause to the expected deepest world recession since World War Two, the COVID-19 (the outbreak caused by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-COV-2)) pandemic has had a detrimental effect on global healthcare systems with a ripple effect on every aspect of human life. In a response to ‘flatten the curve’ to avoid collapse of healthcare systems, governments have enforced several measures to contain the spread of the disease, sparking fears of an impending economic crisis and recession.
Containment measures have a local nature as their effectiveness and suitability depend on the local context, socio-economically and regarding the disease spread status. When it comes to governance, metropolitan regions face challenges to tackle the disease due to the interface of different jurisdictions in the same urban system and consequent need of coordination.
In Brazil, the first confirmed COVID-19 case was reported on February 26th and, since, the disease spread across all states of the country. Today, Brazil has the second largest number of deaths worldwide and it is projected to be the next epicenter of the disease.
With continental dimensions and high inequality rates, the country faces the challenge to design approaches to extremely different realities in each region, state, city or even neighborhood. Recognizing the local aspect of the disease containment measures, the municipalities were granted relative autonomy to this regard accordingly to its constitutional rights.
This article examines how two city governments in the same metropolitan region – Rio de Janeiro and Niteroi – are tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and how they interact with the metropolitan ecosystem on this regard looking at the future.
Relevance of Metropolitan approach for COVID-19
Local nature of the disease
COVID-19 is still a very new disease and consequently the measures to contain its spread and the treatment for the infected are not pacified. The World Health Organization (WHO) has provided guidelines on to protect individuals, families, and the public’s health during early response to COVID-19.
Most actions are related to non-pharmacological interventions recommended to flatten the epidemic curve and gain time to prepare the health system to avoid its collapse. Such public health measures include surveillance (detection, isolation, testing, management of suspected cases and contact tracing), communication, social distancing measures, as well as restricting mobility.
These guidelines are being adopted by vast majority of countries, but each government has autonomy to adopt different approaches to tackle this challenge.
The economic impact of such measures is extensive and an economic recovery is demanded to avoid a deeper crisis considering economic recession, growth of unemployment and companies shutdown.
Relevance of metropolitan areas for COVID-19 measures effectiveness
Metropolitan areas, or Functional Urban Areas, have a deep economic and social integration. They encompass spatially integrated markets. According to the OECD and the European Union definition, they are defined by a high-density urban centers with at least 50 thousand people plus their surrounding commuting zones. The latter represent the urban centers’ areas of influence in terms of labor market flows. Similarly, the US definition is based on the spatial integration of the labor market, as workers at specific residential locations would be connected to jobs at specific workplaces. Such characteristic is believed to produce areas with spatially integrated markets for non tradables, such as housing and public transport, and tradables which constitute the metropolitan region.
This agglomeration benefits from an enhanced efficiency in production and consumption at the metropolitan level, including labor market (larger workers pool and job offers) and increased offer and efficiency of services. On the other hand, it also relies on the dependency between different jurisdictions due to this intrinsic relationship.
Mobility restrictions and closure of non-essential activities are among the main interventions for the COVID-19 outbreak control. Within a metropolis, such measures undertook by any municipality affects the whole metropolitan area due to the integration beforementioned. As such, actions’ impacts must be evaluated and coordinated.
The “new normal”
The COVID-19 pandemic will change our way of living. Behavior shifts motivated by social distancing and government enforcement have emerged, but it is still soon to understand which trends will persist after the crisis is over. Adaptation is needed, but new needs should also instigate the creation of new solutions.
One behavioral shift worth mentioning regarding cities is remote work adoption, motivated by the social distancing and closure physical of non-essential activities during the crisis. This condition has favored the acceleration of companies’ digitalization and possibility of large-scale remote work. The work-from-home movement reduces the need for mobility and may affect urban areas considering the weakening spatial link between employees and employer unbundle. Consequently, companies’ choice of headquarters may be more flexible, while housing strategies may also be affected.
It is not possible to estimate accurately the expansion and persistence of work-from-home initiatives, but several large companies have already indicated permanent or extended work-from-home options even after the pandemic is controlled, such as the multinationals Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan, Amazon and PayPal and also Brazilian companies, such as XP Investimentos. The latter has also announced a new countryside HQ, in the suburbs, more sustainable and spacious, which corroborates with the flexibility discussed above.
Although the uncertainties related to this, especially considering local specificities, this change of the labor market may affect the urban areas, particularly large urban agglomerations and consequently metropoles, if the spatial integration of labor market theory is considered.
Brazilian scenario overview and Rio de Janeiro Metropolitan Area
Brazil is a Federal State with approximately 200 million inhabitants and a population density of 24 inhabitants per km². Although in absolute numbers it is a sparsely populated country, most of this population is agglomerated in cities, which have high density rates.
Brazil is a country of continental size, with great inequalities between regions and social classes and a latent political polarization. As a Federal State, the federal, state and municipality governments have a concurrent competence to stablish actions regarding COVID-19, accordingly to their constitutional rights. Misalignment of the federal government to the WHO guidelines provoked a political clash, which, associated with the decentralization power, resulted in very different approaches to the pandemic.
Although this article does not aim to discuss the political scenario, it is worth to compare the timeline of the spread of the pandemic with the health and sanitary measures, socioeconomic measures and main political decisions taken at the federal level to face the crisis.
The timeline shows changes in protocol for wearing masks, and using chloroquine, purchases of equipment to treat critically ill patients, resources transferred to the Ministry of Health to deal with the pandemic. Financial aid for states and municipalities. Financial aid to small entrepreneurs, informal workers, vulnerable citizens. Tax relief for essential items to deal with the pandemic. The main political decisions such as the autonomy of states and municipalities, changes of command in the Ministry of Health and decisions to relax social distance and economic recovery.
Figure 01: Timeline of the spread of the pandemic, with the health and sanitary measures, socioeconomic measures, and main political decisions in Brazil.
Rio de Janeiro and Niteroi
The Rio de Janeiro metropolitan region is the second largest of the country and comprises 21 municipalities. It is characterized by a high level of conurbation between some municipalities, with Rio de Janeiro–Baixada Fluminense and Niteroi–São Gonçalo being the most evident. Rio de Janeiro as the main city concentrates the main commuting fluxes of the region followed by Niteroi, which receives the second most intense commuting axis of the country, with São Gonçalo municipality. Rio de Janeiro and Niteroi are also the ones with higher HDI. Due to the relevance of Niteroi in the metropolitan region and the similarities to Rio, the contrast between Niteroi and Rio’s actions was chosen for this article. The figure and table below show the location, indexes and macro information comparing both cities.
Figure XX: Commuting intensity within the Rio de Janeiro metropolitan area
Disease evolution and governance measures in Rio de Janeiro and Niteroi cities
In January, when Wuhan’s closure was announced, the Niteroi municipality government created the rapid response office to monitor and plan how the city should react in case of virus outbreak. A contingency plan to react to the eventual contamination of its residents and to train health workers was developed based on academic publications. The municipality targeted both health/sanitary and socio-economic measures.
The health and sanitary measures began on March 7th, when the municipality introduced measures for enforcing social distancing, such as closing schools, leisure areas and non-essential commerce. Other hygiene related actions to contain the spread of the pandemic were sanitizing public spaces, free hygiene and cleaning kits distribution to residents of informal settlements and masks distribution. Sanitary barriers were stablished on the borders with other municipalities. It prevented taxi and application drivers from neighboring municipalities from circulating in Niteroi. On April 10th, a COVID-19 dedicated hospital started operation and mass testing of citizen began on April 17th. In the following week, the use of a mask became mandatory in public spaces, with a BRL 180 fine, for those who are not wearing it. Finally, on May 11, the lockdown was decreed, in coordination with São Gonçalo municipality and lasted 10 days.
Today, the municipality has 226 dedicated hospital beds for COVID-19 patients and a current occupation rate of 55%. Besides, 80 new respirators were acquired for the public hospitals system.
The socioeconomic actions started in parallel. They include distribution of food baskets to the 32 thousand public school students, hotel rooms rentals to accommodate the homeless people and the financial aid of BRL 500 to 35 thousand families for two months. Such program was stablished 2 weeks before the federal government announced the national financial aid program of BRL 600 (March 30). Furthermore, the city supported small companies based in the city with the payment of a minimum wage for three months for up to nine employees.
The plan for gradual opening was created, with colors: black (extremely serious situation of the pandemic), red (very serious situation, with stricter circulation restrictions), orange (maximum attention) and yellow (alert). The green light should only be adopted when a vaccine against Covid-19 is available. The colors are based on two sets of indicators: (i) transmission of the COVID-19, based on the speed of disease progression, stage of disease progression, number of cases and mortality rate; and (ii) hospital care capacity, which consists on the number of beds, occupancy rate and capacity to expand the hospital network.
On May 21st, the city changed from red to orange. However, with the worsening of the indicators on June 5th, it backed out of the flexibility process.
Rio de Janeiro
The city hall of Rio took measures similar to the ones of Niteroi. However, the city has shown itself to be more lethargic in the combat COVID-19.
Social isolation measures began on March 13, a week after Niteroi. As in Niteroi, the hygiene and sanitary actions included the closure of leisure areas, schools and non-essential commerce, sanitation of streets and masks distribution. The municipality additionally anticipated the Influenza vaccination program for easier diagnosis, it purchased 800 respirators, reduced the maximum capacity of public transport to avoid agglomeration.
Industries activities were maintained. In order to avoid agglomeration in public transport, shifts of industry and essential trade were changed to create a 3-hour gap between sector’s peak hours. The field hospital built in partnership with the federal government was ready on May 2nd with 500 beds, 100 in the ICU. 500 thousand tests were imported and donated by the private initiative to the city, in the program “United against the coronavirus”, which represents solely 8% of the population.
Like Niteroi, the city of Rio also took socioeconomic measures, but to a lesser extent. Distribution of basic food baskets to street vendors, taxi drivers and self-employed professionals and 400 hotel rooms available for homeless people.
The gradual reopening was released in early June. The plan is divided in 6 phases which are defined by indicators of disease transmission and hospital capacity, similar to those in Niteroi, in parallel to economic factors.
The table below summarizes the main measures taken by the two municipalities.
The graph below shows the number of confirmed cases and the number of deaths from COVID-19 per 100 thousand inhabitants in the two municipalities. It is noticed that in the beginning Niteroi had more deaths. However, at the end of the second month the curve started to decrease the slope while in Rio the rate of deaths per day increased. The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Niteroi surged in the The table below summarizes the main measures taken by the two municipalities.
The graph reflects the measures adopted by city halls. The city of Niteroi has taken a more active attitude both in efforts to contain the spread of the disease and in efforts to increase the responsiveness of health systems.
Although both recovery plans consider the indicators of disease contamination and hospital capacities, Niteroi has been more cautions with the reopening. Despite reopening commercial activities a week earlier than Rio, Niteroi had relevantly better indicators than Rio at the moment of such the decision.
Niteroi has the characteristic of receiving the second largest commuters’ flux from another municipality of the country. In addition, a relevant part of the population (XX%) works or studies in another surrounding municipality. The economic reopening of the cities in the metropolitan area, specially Rio as the capital city, will increase again this intermunicipal flux of people. Despite being the municipality with lowest deceases rates in the metropolitan area, the reopening should make local control actions ineffective, unless if coordinated with the other municipalities.
Municipalities had autonomy to act in the pandemic containment accordingly to its administrative responsibilities. Within a metropolitan area, the intrinsic connection of the urban systems interferes and have impact on the other jurisdictions, in particular in regards to the capital city. How will Rio de Janeiro and Niteroi contain the disease with the reestablishment of the commuting displacements?
The Supreme Court decision to protect municipality’s autonomy can be considered appropriate. Brazil as a continental country, had different impacts and timing of the disease outbreak is the different regions. While some cities already demonstrate an inflexion of the contamination and deceases rates related to COVID-19, others have just had the first cases. Besides, each location has its own specificities and characteristics which must be considered by local authorities to develop the strategy that suits the best the local reality.
Adversely, local systems and characteristics often go beyond one jurisdiction, which is the case of metropolitan regions. In this context, who should define the measures? Can a mayor forbid the entrance of another municipality dweller in the city boundaries for disagreeing about the pandemic containment actions of the other municipality or for the citizen depart from a neighboring city with a more critical stage of the disease dissemination, similarly to the countries border closures?
Municipalities actions regarding the pandemic were essential to define a local approach to this challenge, crucial to an early stage of the pandemic control. When it comes to basic recovery and reopening, the lack of coordination of municipalities within a metropolitan area may lead to a second wave and consequent loss of effectiveness of local actions or even delay in the recovery plan, as these municipalities are interdependent and the reestablishment of activities within these urban areas represents the mobility of people across these jurisdictions.
Nation-States are no longer the relevant geographical entities for dealing with today’s global and local challenges – rather, metropolitan areas are. The challenges of metropolitan areas are innumerous, and they are not new. Metropolitan region governance is under discussion for a long time, including the decision-making process for transport integration, water distribution, sewage treatment and waste management. The pandemic highlights one more challenge to be coordinated at the metropolitan level: the reestablishment of activities. The competitiveness of the metropolitan areas, economic recovery and health safety will depend on the how the urban environment will adapt itself for the new normal and, for any metropolis, this challenge must be tackled from an agglomeration perspective.
The COVID-19 outbreak has caused nations and cities to take unprecedent agile and drastic decisions. May, the pandemic be the trigger for the strengthening of a metropolitan approach for tackling the challenges of the era post covid?
 In 2020, the GINI index, which measures social inequality, ranked Brazil 128th out of 144 countries.