The Pandemic’s Indoor Opportunity

Emily Anthes

How Design Affects the Safety of our Indoor Environments

In January, thousands of customers flocked to a department store in Tianjin, China, stocking up on clothes and gifts for Chinese New Year. But as the month wore on, the store’s employees began to fall ill; over the course of just a few days, three of the first-floor salespeople started showing signs of Covid-19. The store soon closed, but the damage had already been done; at least 40 cases of the disease were eventually linked to the store.

It was just one of hundreds of distinct coronavirus clusters that local health authorities reported in China in January and early February. Researchers traced these outbreaks back to a wide variety of settings: apartment buildings and shopping malls, trains and planes, offices and health clubs, hotel rooms and meeting rooms, restaurants and supermarkets. But there was one factor that they all had in common: they all occurred indoors. “The transmission of respiratory infections such as SARS-CoV-2 from the infected to the susceptible is an indoor phenomenon,” the scientists concluded.

Though it is possible to spread the disease outside, Covid-19 is primarily an illness of the indoors — a dramatic, life and death demonstration of how much the indoor environment matters. But not all environments are created equal. And the pandemic highlights the uncomfortable truth that in the world we’ve built, a healthy indoor space is a privilege, when it should be a basic human right.

It has already become clear that certain settings are especially dangerous incubators of Covid-19. When researchers investigated an outbreak of the disease at high-rise in Seoul, they discovered that of the 97 occupants who tested positive for the virus, 94 of them worked together at a densely packed, open-plan call center on the 11th floor. And the employees crammed into the double rows of desks on one side of the office were particularly hard hit, while those that worked on the other side of the floor were largely spared. Though all the building’s occupants shared elevators and a lobby, these kinds of passing interactions didn’t seem especially dangerous. Instead, it was close, extended contact in an enclosed space that posed the greatest risk.

In the U.S., the biggest outbreaks have been in jails and prisons, where people are literally confined with others for weeks, months, or years at a time. (Correctional facilities are also often poorly ventilated and unsanitary; alcohol-based hand sanitizer is typically banned, sinks don’t always work, and inmates often have to pay for soap.) Meat processing plants have also become major hotspots. At some of these facilities, as many as 1,000 employees spend ten- to twelve-hour shifts shoulder-to-shoulder, cheek-by-jowl — not just on the lightning-fast production lines but also in shared locker rooms, break rooms, and cafeterias.

Conquering Covid-19 will require rethinking these environments, and officials are already making changes. Some meatpacking plants, for instance, are creating outdoor break areas and installing partitions between line workers. Correctional facilities are cleaning more frequently and staggering meal times to reduce crowding. Offices are removing chairs from conference rooms and offering disposable desk covers.

Design is an expression of our values, and unsafe environments tell us something about what—and who—we value.

These are fine interventions, especially in the short-term. But this crisis should also prompt us to consider what’s driven our design decisions in the first place — and why we’ve created so many spaces that leave occupants vulnerable to disease. Though a crowded South Korean call center and a grisly American slaughterhouse might seem like radically different workplaces, what they have in common is that they’ve been designed to prioritize efficiency over human dignity, turning workers into replaceable cogs in all-consuming profit machines.

Design is an expression of our values, and unsafe environments tell us something about what—and who—we value. It’s no accident that the buildings that have become the biggest coronavirus hotspots are those that are occupied by some of society’s most vulnerable and marginalized people, from the low-income people of color who are incarcerated at disproportionately high rates to the immigrants who tend to perform dangerous meatpacking jobs. Covid-19 case clusters have also emerged in homeless shelters, psychiatric hospitals, nursing homes, immigration detention centers, and dorms for migrant workers.

As we try to slow the spread of the coronavirus, we could content ourselves with tinkering around the edges, by adding more hand sanitizing stations to meat packing plants and repositioning prison beds to create more distance between inmates — both of which the Centers of Disease Control recommends. Or we could think bigger, using this as an opportunity to make our indoor environments safer, more comfortable, and most of all, more humane. That will require far-reaching policy changes, like imposing stricter limits on meat processing line speeds, which would allow workers to spread out more. (The USDA has actually moved in the opposite direction in recent years, allowing companies to boost their line speeds.) We can reduce correctional facility crowding by incarcerating far fewer people in the first place. (Decriminalizing marijuana, reforming sentencing guidelines, and eliminating cash bail would all be good places to start.) And we desperately need to improve access to safe, affordable housing by changing zoning laws and expanding rental assistance programs.

These kinds of changes won’t be easy, and they’ll require serious political will. So far, officials’ responses to the pandemic do not inspire optimism. Meat processing companies have been slow to institute safeguards and have even blamed their employees for the outbreaks. And while some correctional facilities have released medically vulnerable or nonviolent inmates, these efforts have been inconsistent and ad hoc. (Prisons have also sought to reduce the spread of the virus by instituting lockdowns, curtailing group programs, and suspending visits — all actions that make incarceration more cruel, not less so.) But it’s not too late to start making different choices. As we reopen and rebuild, we have an opportunity, if we want to take it, to build not just a healthier society but also a more just and equitable one.

Emily Anthes is the author of The Great Indoors. She is an award-winning science journalist and author. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Wired, Nature, Slate, Businessweek, Scientific American, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and elsewhere. Her previous book, Frankenstein’s Cat, was long-listed for the PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award.