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Vital Stories

Winning Public Trust in the Age of COVID-19: Mayors Trade Real-World Successes in Virtual Learning Series

Webinars featured mayors from Latin America and Africa, top public health and crisis leadership experts 

COVID-19 has brought urban leadership on health into greater focus—more than 50% of the world’s population lives in cities and urban governments play a major role in the global pandemic response. With a successful vaccine hopefully on the horizon, it will once again fall upon mayors to bridge the gaps, ensuring that hundreds of millions of doses can be delivered safely, effectively and to the right populations. A key barrier is trust; at a time when the spread of misinformation threatens to undermine the outbreak response, one of the main vaccine challenges for mayors will be addressing misconceptions and building public confidence in the process. 

These vaccine and misinformation quandaries were the topic of conversation between urban leaders and experts from around the world at the close of Leading Through Crisis: Reducing the Impact of COVID-19 in Latin America and Africa, a six-session virtual learning collaboration between the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative and the Partnership for Healthy Cities. The series launched in July and has featured mayors from the two regions sharing their own experiences with the pandemic; participating in crisis leadership trainings by Harvard University faculty; and receiving briefings from eminent public health specialists including Dr. Tom Frieden, former CDC Director and President and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative of the global health organization Vital Strategies, and Dr. Cyrus Shahpar, Director of Resolve’s Prevent Epidemics team. World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus welcomed the mayors himself and praised their public health leadership in one session.

“This is the time to empower public health officials and grow the next generation of public health leaders.”

–        Dr. Tom Frieden, former CDC Director and President and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative of Vital Strategies

With cities at the forefront of the global COVID-19 crisis, and Latin America and Africa among the regions most keenly affected, the 34 mayors and other leaders from 54 cities who participated in the series face entirely new challenges in their communities, not just in public health but in economics, communication and much more. There is no one-size-fits-all approach for responding to this unprecedented pandemic, making peer-to-peer learning and access to the world’s top expertise essential ingredients in supporting the urban response to COVID-19.

Here are five key takeaways from the Leading Through Crisis series:

Planning for the future requires an evidence-based approach and flexibility to adjust course as needed. With so much still unknown about the trajectory of COVID-19, routine emergency management processes will not suffice for this crisis. Rawi Abdelal, Harvard Business School Professor and faculty co-chair of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, opened the series with a dialogue on how to chart a range of plausible future scenarios while at the same time improving a city’s capacity to respond to changing circumstances. Investing in contact tracing programs was cited as one certainty among many unknowns. 

In the absence of a clear blueprint, city leaders must experiment to determine the most effective approaches. At a time when public spending on public health and economic recovery has increased but taxes and other sources of city revenue have declined, city leaders have an opportunity to reform and innovate fiscal policy—for example, by renegotiating tax pacts with different economic sectors. Cities across Latin America, ranging from Salta, Argentina to Mexico City and Guadalajara, Mexico, are reimagining multimodal transit, bolstering bicycle infrastructure as a means to encourage physical distancing, along with its other benefits. Medellín, Colombia managed to keep its economy open and infection rates low by allowing in-person business activity during half of the week. Freetown, Sierra Leone is supporting the 47% of the urban population that lacks access to running water by constructing low-cost handwashing stations that utilize rainwater harvesting.

Freetown, Sierra Leone Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, seen here (third from right) during city distribution of masks and water buckets, exchanged COVID-19 strategies with other city leaders during the webinar series.

Mayors can and must help fight the COVID-19 “infodemic.” Maintaining public trust in urban leadership is more important than ever, with misinformation about the pandemic so common and widely accepted. The Leading Through Crisis series returned again and again to the importance of connecting with city residents on adhering to the public health and social measures (PHSMs) put in place to control the spread of the virus. Communication should be clear, consistent, hopeful and accurate, and city leaders should immediately counter misinformation when it’s dangerous and follow the proven principles of risk communication: Be first, be right, be credible, be empathetic and give your audience practical actions to take. It is also critical for city leaders to enlist trusted community leaders as spokespeople because they best understand local needs.

Partnerships are vital, and reducing inequalities is a linchpin for all phases of the recovery process. No government can manage this crisis by itself, regardless of its resources; a whole-of-government approach is needed, as are strategic partnerships with civil society, philanthropy and the private sector. Partnering with food pantries or religious organizations can help in distribution of food and other resources, for example. The virus attacks the elderly and those with certain medical conditions more fiercely, while disruptions to the economy and services disproportionately affect residents below the poverty line and those experiencing homelessness. Protecting these populations is paramount.

An adaptive response can help manage the political strain caused by the ongoing crisis. During crises, difficulties arise when leaders try to apply technical solutions to challenges that require a more adaptive response. Progress is achieved over time through learning and collaboration. As city leaders work through these milestones, it’s important to build new capacity in their staff and infuse the work with meaning. And because the COVID-19 response timeframe is impossible to predict, burnout will be high, so mayors and their teams should be vigilant about pacing the work.

The urban challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic will likely unfold in coming months in unexpected ways. Through the Partnership for Healthy Cities global network, city leaders will continue to benefit not just from the growing body of knowledge about the virus and the public health tools being developed to fight it but from communication and collaboration with fellow mayors around the world.

About the Partnership for Healthy Cities: 

The Partnership for Healthy Cities is a prestigious global network of cities committed to saving lives by preventing noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) and injuries. Supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies in partnership with WHO, as well as Vital Strategies, this initiative enables cities around the world to deliver a high-impact policy or programmatic intervention to reduce NCDs and injuries in their communities. For more information, visit:

The Partnership for Healthy Cities COVID-19 Response is part of the $40 million Bloomberg Philanthropies COVID-19 Global Response Initiative. By collaborating with the WHO and Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative of Vital Strategies, the Partnership for Healthy Cities COVID-19 Response is working hand-in-hand with the world’s leading experts on epidemic prevention.