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OPINION: How Resilience Hubs in cities could help coronavirus response

by Kristin Baja | Urban Sustainability Directors Network
Friday, 27 March 2020 14:30 GMT

A man walks along 3rd avenue in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, U.S., March 26, 2020. REUTERS/Stephen Yang

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Resilience Hubs can help vulnerable communities without overloading local governments during crises such as COVID-19 outbreak

Kristin Baja is programs director, Climate Resilience for The Urban Sustainability Directors Network.

COVID-19 is quickly exposing countries’ fragile social fabric. As individuals struggle to stay afloat, a lack of healthcare, childcare, living wages, and paid leave are worsening glaring inequalities around the world. And because governments prioritize response once a crisis hits, rather than strengthening communities beforehand, many cities lack needed resources and support. Anticipating disruptions more effectively – including outbreaks like COVID-19 or disasters such as floods, hurricanes or wildfires – requires a rethink in how we proactively prepare for crises. That’s why many cities are now working to set up Resilience Hubs, to better build community resilience. 

Here’s the concept: Resilience Hubs are partnerships between local governments and community-based organizations (sometimes partially funded by foundations) that provide services such as job training and childcare, community programming, resource distribution, communications coordination and generally enhance quality of life. Based in trusted community-serving facilities (e.g. recreation centers or faith-based institutions), they enhance capabilities in crisis, including solar and battery backup systems, access to potable water and healthy food, and supply distribution. Resilience Hubs can be activated to serve vulnerable communities without overloading local governments. 

So that’s the concept. In practice, how would they handle the coronavirus?

First, Resilience Hubs could provide community-based testing sites for medical personnel. One of the primary concerns for many cities, for example, is overloading emergency rooms. In Seattle, individuals that suspect they have COVID-19 are urged to call their doctor first while hospitals scramble to set up drive-thru testing sites. Because Hubs are local by design, they could provide free testing in a trusted space, minimizing public transportation and worry of health insurance or citizenship proof. With widely available testing this would increase access to testing and reduce the number of carriers spreading COVID-19.

Second, Hubs could be neighborhood distribution centers that provide residents with access to healthy food, clean water, soap, and items that are routinely selling out such as toilet paper, antibacterial wipes, sanitizers, and basic medical supplies. Sold-out items and crowded grocery stores have become such a problem that global retailers have established at-risk and senior-only shopping hours. If Hubs had been established in their neighborhoods, these folks would’ve had safer access to supplies earlier.

Third, as schools close around the world, Hubs could be locations to coordinate childcare and meals to ensure children have access to healthy food and clean water throughout the day, while supporting parents that still have to work. They could act as spaces to bring in people that are without work to fill the gaps for those who still have to go to work – a win-win.

Fourth, Hubs could organize virtual platforms to connect neighborhoods, coordinate volunteers, and share response funds among individuals who lost jobs or small businesses forced to close. Communities are attempting this informally with mutual aid networks. In London, Every One, Every Day, a Hub-style project in an underserved borough, has transitioned in-person events and programming to online support, information sharing, storytelling and activities to keep people connected, all of which helps combat isolation.

Fifth, Hubs could offer equity-centered proactive planning, providing opportunities to anticipate what’s next, while prioritizing the needs of those with the most risk and least resources – all the while supporting different language, ethnic and cultural differences. Currently, community members are stepping up to fill this gap. 

Lastly, Hubs could provide redundancy. Many systems we rely on to support physical distancing – power, water, internet, etc. – are intact in developed countries (less so in developing countries). In crises such as earthquakes or hurricanes, these systems are often undermined, creating a need for Hub-like backup. In Puerto Rico, a community-led Hub is developing community capacity and response to hurricanes and is outfitting the space with solar, water purification, communications and other elements of disaster-support. 

If we had Resilience Hubs in underserved communities, we could have this more coordinated approach. We could reduce the strain on our medical and emergency management system. We could improve dissemination of accurate information, resources and supplies. We could enhance community connectivity and social cohesion. Now, as governments invest in recovery, let’s prioritize holistic solutions that build stronger communities rather than rebuilding broken systems. That’s how you build resilience.