The Sick City

Giovanni Perea

Sickness is an unstable condition. When we are sick we feel weak, vulnerable, depressed. In the etymological sense of the word, the sickness (enfermedad in Spanish) reveals itself as the state of infirmity, in other words, one who suffers from the infirm.[1] Thereby, being ill implies a state of instability and little strength. He who is ill lacks firmness and solidity.

The city is like a body in constant unstable equilibrium, both for its complexity and multiple diversity, and for the space and time shared by the variability of its inhabitants. It is common for us to think of the city as a great body made up of members, that can range from the human to the architectural or the organic components of its green spaces. In this sense, the city is also a body in that in order to stay healthy and firm, it needs supplies, energy and to drain its wastes. In addition, it must generate its own defenses because it is also prone to attack, disease, destruction or death.

However, there are moments, like those of illness, when the city loses that balance; it becomes more unstable, weak and infirm. Then a sick city appears. And no, it is not a metaphor. The city during an epidemic or a pandemic like the one caused by the current coronavirus COVID-19, is getting sick along with all of  its inhabitants.

During a pandemic, the city becomes contagious and ill, and without the necessary balances for its proper functioning it can, in some cases, die slowly. The current pandemic is occurring due to the proliferation of contagion from inhabitant to inhabitant in an interconnected world. It is an event that makes the city sick precisely because it affects common and collective dimensions. The city suffers from it, and its suffering is shared among its inhabitants, whether they are children, elders, workers, among others, regardless of class or status. Because, as is the case with  any disease, the patient’s suffering is shared with family, friends and anyone connected to him by human ties, emotional and social. Sharing that materializes in the care, comprehension and attention of the other who suffers directly from being sick. In short, the city, unstable and infirm in the disease, seems to sustain itself with the mutual care of its members. Although in said care, the risk of contagion is also at stake.

For this reason, isolation to avoid contagion is proper according to the common sense of those who seek to protect themselves, although through this practice the ontological condition of any city is also lost: that of contact, promoted by being and living in common with others in a common space. The pandemic presents a particular form of damage to the city, precisely because it breaks and paralyzes, through justified fear, interpersonal relationships, which in the best of cases are isolated in houses, or with the help of techniques of our century, are mediated and maintained through the screens of an internet interface.[2] In short, the city resists with its own means so the pandemic does not break our relations.

Epidemics throughout history have had fatal results, but above all, lasting social implications. It is undeniable that the current coronavirus is a purely biological matter of clinical treatment, but it is equally permissible to point out that the pandemic is political and social. It is a potential[1]  disease whose contagion is a matter of interpersonal relationships.

Cities around the world, some more than others, are sick and unstable. This is what pandemic is about, in a global conception of the city,[3] in which cities function  in an interconnected manner, although the result is a global crisis. Large, mid-size and small cities, paradoxically, isolate themselves in their communal contagion, and their elements, which seemed to have inhabited in a coordinated way,[4] are now concentrated on taking care of themselves, on healing and not dying. They resist, as much as possible, the unstable condition of a sick social space.

What remains, as long as there are no effective vaccines or cures, at the city level, is to appeal to the old Aristotelian premise of making the polis a fortress.[5] In the face of an epidemic this implies limiting the dimensions of the city by withdrawing and isolating at home. Thus configuring a strategy and fortresses in the medieval style, which promise that the city will return, after its quarantine, to being healthy, strong and firm.

[1] The word disease (enfermedad in Spanish) comes from the Latin word infirmitas, which is negation or the opposite of the adjective firmus, that which is strong, thus meaning that which is weak and not very solid. See DEEL, Diccionario etimológico español en línea On

[2] The subject of social life in times of pandemic is referenced in this same blog “A través de las pantallas”. On

[3] Cf. Saskia Sassen, The Global City, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1998.

[4] Ildefons Cerdà, Teoría general de la urbanización (1859), Barcelona, Ajuntament de Barcelona, 1991.

[5] Aristóteles, Política, 1265a.

not sure the word potential makes sense here


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