Cities are home to over half of the world’s population; they are places where health can be produced or compromised. In the last nine months, we’ve seen cities efficiently mobilize to address the challenges of COVID-19.
Recognizing that cities are leading us through the pandemic, on October 29, 2020, The Partnership for Healthy Cities, The World Health Organization, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and Vital Strategies convened public health experts and city leaders to discuss urban action and collaboration during this unprecedented pandemic. Public health leaders and city Mayors discussed the importance of city leadership, successful policies and initiatives to mitigate the challenges of COVID-19 and offered guidance on how to navigate the pandemic.
Strong Leadership Is Critical to COVID-19 Response
Public heath leaders discussed the role of city leadership in COVID-19 response. City leaders have made difficult decisions—but have placed the health of people first through supporting and implementing public health measures
“Mayors and other urban leaders around the world have risen to the challenge of responding to COVID-19 and continue to make incredibly difficult decisions to protect people’s health while maintaining economic stability and social cohesion.” José Luis Castro, President and CEO of Vital Strategies commended city leadership for their thoughtful and innovative solutions to some of the most pressing problems including issuing emergency directives, following public health measures, and supporting those most affected by the virus.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization acknowledged how the pandemic has changed the world: “The COVID-19 pandemic has upended lives around the globe, and nowhere has the impact of this virus been more evident than in urban areas, home to more than 50% of the world’s population. We have seen some cities hit particularly hard by the virus; however, many have fought back with people and leaders uniting to surpass the virus and save both lives and livelihoods.” Echoing the resilience and strength of cities, Dr. Tedros expressed the importance of city leadership in saving lives and livelihoods.
Mike Bloomberg, 108th mayor of New York City and founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies applauded Mayors and discussed the role of the Partnership for Healthy Cities stating, “By helping mayors implement proven health policies, we are tackling issues like diabetes, heart diseases and road traffic crashes and saving lives.” The Partnership was created to help more cities save lives, and in the wake of COVID-19 has provided immeasurable support to cities around the world.
Finding a Balance Between Lives and Livelihoods
The tension between protecting lives and livelihoods is challenging. City leaders have made difficult decisions to enforce lockdowns and stay-at-home orders but have also strengthened safety nets and provided assistance to residents losing income.
Moderator Dr. Kelly Henning, who leads the public health Program at Bloomberg Philanthropies explained “It’s really important to continue to think about that balance between the public health response and the economic realities on the ground”.
Deputy Lord Mayor Doreen Nyanjura, of the Kampala Capital City Authority, Uganda emphasized unity amongst leaders and citizens pointing out “Coronavirus does not only attack those in your position. It does not attack those that are supporting government. It has no color. It has no political parties. So, I think we need to unite as leaders with our citizens so that together we can defeat coronavirus.” The pandemic has affected everyone to varying degrees, Lord Mayor Nyanjura explained having to make difficult decisions like installing an early lockdown, despite pushback from some residents of Kampala.
Focus on Facts & Science
Misinformation about COVID-19 has spread rapidly in the last nine months, but Mayor Claudia López of Bogotá, Colombia has supported proven public health measures to protect the people of Bogota including through cash assistance for low-income residents and increasing health care capacity. She discussed the importance of assertive leadership and making decisions focused on facts and science, stating “I think as long as we have science, leadership, decisions, and assertiveness, we will learn. Maybe we will fail in some things and we will learn from it and we will be well done in some other things. But at the end, we learn, and we save lives.”
Equity Must Be the Center of Policies and Initiatives
The pandemic has exacerbated disparities in healthcare. Recovery and rebuilding efforts must center equity and ensure the health and well-being of all. Mayor Kostas Bakoyannis of Athens, Greece highlighted the need to address inequalities explaining “This pandemic knows no color, no gender, and no nationality, the pandemic does not actually look at one socio economic background. But it must be very, very clear the pandemic is a huge social-economic issue because the pandemic actually brings into form the structural injustices that exist within our cities”. Under Mayor Kostas leadership, the city of Athens has protected its citizens most “invisible to the central state”, through special shelters for the homeless, and individuals struggling with drug addiction.
Local Level Planning & Action is Key
Dr. Etienne Krug, Director of the World Health Organization’s Social Determinants of Health Department introduced case studies from six cities in the Partnership for Healthy Cities global network whose mayors are urban health champions. Dr. Krug highlighted the wide-ranging influence of cities stating “Because of their proximity geographically to their people, because of their cultural understanding and proximity, because of their ability to work multi-sectoral, maybe a bit easier than at the national level, their impact can be huge. And I think we have to learn from those examples as well as from many others.” City leadership is not just shaping local policy and initiatives but also influencing national and global response.
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About Vital Talks
VitalTalks brings together leading voices from diverse fields to discuss today’s most pressing public health challenges. The speaker series examines today’s often-overlooked drivers of poor health and the factors that get in the way of people’s access to—and experience of—a long, productive, and healthy life. Join us as we elevate bold ideas and innovative solutions, working for a world where everyone, everywhere is protected by a strong public health system. #VitalTalks #ReimaginingPublicHealth