Print This Post
25 June 2020, Gateway House

Mumbai-Shanghai: two COVID-19 stories

The sister cities of Mumbai and Shanghai have a shared history, population size, and economic significance. On 29 May, a roundtable between the Shanghai Institute of International Studies and Gateway House encouraged discussion on strategies to battle COVID-19, and kick-start city economies after a lockdown. Here are some workable solutions.

Bombay History Fellow

post image

Shanghai’s iconic Bund embodies the once vibrant and co-dependent economic relationship between British Bombay and this city. Most of the buildings facing the Bund were built by Bombay merchants and once housed the businesses and banks owned by them. But while both port cities were and are cultural and economic capitals, and have a shared history, relations between them have been non-existent for almost 70 years, until a 2014 Sister-city agreement between the city governments was signed. Admittedly, not much has transpired since in terms of people-to-people collaborations and exchanges between the two cities, which is why the 29 May roundtable on “COVID-19 and Planning and Governance – Capacity Building of International Metropolii: Knowledge-Sharing Between Shanghai and Mumbai”, was timely.

Shanghai’s population of 27 million people[1] is comparable with the Mumbai Metropolitan Region’s (MMR) population of 22 to 23 million people.[2] In terms of geographical area, MMR is about 4355 sq. kms. compared with Shanghai’s 6340 sq. kms. Pertinently, both the cities’ economies are dependent on a large migrant workforce, leading to convergences in the kind of challenges they face. Given these similarities and Shanghai’s success in containing the COVID-19 outbreak, there was a lot to learn.

China since the beginning of the outbreak opted for a ‘Suppression Strategy’, which aimed at bringing down the reproduction number of the virus to below 1. This meant cutting local transmissions to zero even if outstation cases continued to occur. Chinese cities were not passively resisting the virus but hunting it down.

Among the first things that Shanghai did was to send back its migrant population (mostly construction workers) to their villages, as the densely-packed dormitory style housing of these workers could have led to a dramatic rise in infections. Outstation college students too, were advised not to return to the city after their spring break. This reduced population densities dramatically in vulnerable pockets.

For Shanghai, the COVID-19 epidemic was something the city’s public health sector was not geared for. It was the experience of battling the virus that has led to new learnings, which have now been institutionalized and continue even after the city’s re-opening. One of the biggest learnings for Shanghai was that scientific support was crucial in handling evolving epidemic situations such as COVID-19.

Shanghai continued with its lockdown standard operating procedure (SOP) even after re-opening called ‘Closed Loop Management’. This included port quarantine (even for returning migrants), community-based prevention and control (through fever clinics, social distancing protocols), and clinical treatment for symptomatic patients. Carrying the Health Passport App (akin to India’s Aarogya Setu) with its QR code was made mandatory to gain entry into any public or work space.

Shanghai has also institutionalized a Public Health Emergency Management Mechanism. This is a multi-disciplinary action group whose core members are clinical and public health professionals, supported by experts from security, transportation, public utilities, mental health, economics and law. This group advises the city government on how to tackle the evolving epidemic situation. Attached to this core group is an on-site Epidemiology Division, which carries out case detections, laboratory inspections, and provides reports on epidemic analysis and even prediction analysis. This required highly qualified epidemiologists and health statisticians among others, who were trained in big data analysis, Artificial Intelligence and cloud computing. All of this has helped to build modern, powerful, and ‘easy-to-use’ early warning systems for epidemic outbreaks.

Mumbai is still struggling with a heavy case load of COVID-19 patients. The national lockdown from 25 March to 1 June did not envisage sending migrant workers back immediately as Shanghai did. There are some strategies from Shanghai that can be effectively adapted, and fast. The most important being the Public Health Emergency Mechanism, at the city municipal level, with a cell in every ward office. Training an on-site epidemiology team with the help of a team sent by the Shanghai city government, under the umbrella of the Sister City Agreement of 2014, can also be initiated immediately.

In addition to Shanghai’s successful containment of the virus, has been what appears to be a relatively smooth re-opening of its economy. One photo-op that made global headlines was the reopening of Shanghai’s Disneyland on 11 May.[3] It was the first of 14 Disney theme parks globally and the only one so far to reopen. However, there were innumerable challenges the city faced in reaching this stage. One Shanghai participant at the roundtable, broadly categorized these challenges under three heads: people (returning migrant workers), money (cash flow problems for businesses), and supplies (ensuring adequate protective and medical supplies).

Before re-opening, the city government, headed by the mayor, undertook a multi-pronged outreach to multinational companies, MSMEs, retailers and those in the hospitality industry. The six measures Shanghai took to restart its economy, and for Mumbai to consider are:

  • Consulting with businesses on strategic issues such as cash flow and logistics problems;
  • Coordinating to set up SOPs in offices, malls, and restaurants, with the city providing masks, PPEs and thermometers;
  • On-site visits by municipal officials to all 700 multinational companies to assess their needs;
  • A financial plan, including cheap credit of Yuan 160 billion by Shanghai’s Municipal Commission, the Bank of China and other financial institutions;
  • The Double 5 Shopping Festival from 1 to 19May, with shopping coupons worth Yuan 28.8 billion issued by the city government to build business confidence;
  • MOUs between the Shanghai Strategic Reserves Administration and private companies such as 3M and Dupont, for medical supplies, medicines, testing kits and other COVID-19 essentials.

Although this business strategy is beyond the existing powers of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) and other corporations and councils in the city’s metropolitan region, it can be undertaken by the Maharashtra Chief Minister’s office ( in coordination with city governments, whose departments such as Shops & Establishments, have officials functioning at the street level.

In the long term, devolution of powers (as provided for in India’s 74th Constitutional Amendment Act, 1992) to urban governments will make them more responsive, accountable and transparent to stakeholders (businesses, residents, migrants). One doesn’t need to look to the Chinese urban governance model to understand the importance of this. India’s south western state of Kerala has been the most successful in fighting the pandemic in spite of a big inflow of overseas workers from the Gulf nations, only because its city governments are the most devolved in the country.

More immediately, the question is – what has Shanghai done to handle the influx of its returning migrants? It has begun by replacing its high-density dormitory style housing by building new public housing to rent or buy, which will accommodate less than four persons per unit. This is either through direct subsidies to construction companies building these homes for their returning workers, or via the PPP model. Shanghai’s government has a special emergency COVID-19 budget for this purpose. All returning workers are being quarantined and tested before being allowed back into the city.

Mumbai so far, has yet to find similar solutions for its returning migrants. The urgency for such hard infrastructure, sufficient numbers of quarantine centers, and healthier accommodation in the city is pressing, as Mumbai’s workers have already begun slowly returning. One possible way out could be brainstorming with the city’s builder’s lobby (which is the biggest employer of these workers) and with other commercial stakeholders such as business chambers, for a more local and workable solution.

This has happened in Mumbai’s past as well, when epidemics such as the Bombay Plague of 1896, in spite of the thousands of lives it claimed, also presented an opportunity to re-gut the city. Though the short and long-term solutions for Mumbai’s COVID-19 challenges need to be local and simple, Shanghai’s insights will be valuable in crafting an appropriate, unified, and precise strategy.

Sifra Lentin is Bombay History Fellow, Gateway House.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

For interview requests with the author, or for permission to republish, please contact

© Copyright 2020 Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized copying or reproduction is strictly prohibited.


[1] Shanghai’s population is 27,058,000 in 2020,a%202.9%25%20increase%20from%20201

[2] This is Mumbai Metropolitan Region’s estimated population in 2020. As per the last Census 2011, the population in MMR is 18,394,912

[3] For more details see – Barnes, Brooks, ‘Shanghai Disneyland Reopens With Strict Safety Procedures’, New York Times, 11 May 2020

TAGGED UNDER: , , , , ,