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Vol. XXXI No. 2, May 1-15, 2021

Planning open spaces for Covid-19

by our Special Correspondent

Tamil Nadu is seeing a steady increase in fresh coronavirus cases, with the number of active cases in the state touching 1,05,180 on April 25. Chennai reportedly accounts for 30 per cent of all active cases in the state, recording 31,535 cases. In fact, the city’s covid positivity rate is said to be almost twice that of the state, making it a crucial battleground in the fight against the pandemic.

Tracing the surge to non-compliance of safety norms, the authorities re-introduced restrictive measures to keep the virus in check. The April 8 government order reads, “… the very reason for the increase in the number of positive cases is due non adherence COVID-19 appropriate behaviour [sic] viz., wearing of face masks in public places, maintaining social distancing, following the Standard Operating Procedures etc., by the General Public.”

The first set of restrictions introduced in early April were cautious – customer capacity at commercial and entertainment establishments such as provision stores, restaurants and theatres were capped at 50 per cent and public worship at religious centres was given a curfew of 8pm even as religious congregations were prohibited. As covid cases rose, an additional set of restrictions soon followed a couple of weeks later – night curfew is now enforced with movement prohibited between 10 pm-4 am, Sundays are designated as ‘full lockdown’ days and the public is forbidden from gathering at parks and beaches.

The closure of public open spaces is rather disappointing, especially given that they’re safer than closed commercial spaces that continue to function with a cap on seating capacity. In fact, it is the closed environments that many studies have specifically identified as potential superspreaders. Further, open spaces like parks and beaches enable citizens to breathe fresh air, exercise and refresh themselves – crucial activities that help people maintain good health and combat stress arising from quarantine, confinement and curfew norms. Readers may recall an earlier report in Madras Musings which carried similar concerns voiced by a school teacher, who worried that children may be deprived of the stimulation they need for healthy growth.

It must be mentioned that Chennai is not the only metro to shut down access to public spaces in this pandemic. Concerns over the lack of social distancing and masking practices presumably played a key role leading to the ban on parks and beaches. It is, of course, undeniable that this is a grave concern; widespread non-conformity to preventive guidelines is a big reason why the city is facing such a virulent second wave of covid-19. However, it is also true that lukewarm enforcement of anti-covid guidelines is to blame as well. In fact, the Madras High Court recently underscored the responsibility of the authorities in enforcing norms when it pulled up the Election Commission for it’s failure to maintain covid protocols during the recent elections. There is arguably a case for keeping public spaces open to the people while working towards better implementation of covid guidelines.

In fact, there is scope to go a step further and renovate open spaces to be ‘covid-proof’ – after all, our city isn’t designed to facilitate physical distancing. Our sidewalks, where functional, are narrow; most parks have precious few benches and small ones at that; our beaches don’t have enough toilets that are functional and properly maintained to serve their visitors. Given this state of affairs, it is not entirely fair to put the responsibility of social distancing wholly on the shoulders of citizens. The problem of covid may not recede completely anytime soon, either – lockdowns and prohibitions are unsustainable in the long run. The need of the hour is sensitive city planning that designs and builds the necessary infrastructure that evokes covid preventive behaviour from the public. Let’s take our city parks as an example. In addition to guideline enforcement patrols, steps can be taken to implement temporary caps on visitor capacity like the ones currently in force at closed commercial establishments. Walking or jogging trails can be designed and chalked out to help maximise distance and minimize interaction among visitors. Seats and benches can be earmarked to adhere to social distancing guidelines, like the protocols followed by public transport authorities. Surfaces which pose a risk of transmission, such as playground swings or gym equipment, can be cordoned off. Touch-proof sanitizer stations can help people implement hand hygiene.

Covid-proofing our public spaces would be a great smart city project that serves the interests of the public. Hopefully, the plan will find itself on the department’s agenda soon.

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