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How to Tackle COVID-19: Guidance for City Leaders

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— 5 minutes reading time

Above: Mayor Maksim Dimitrievski of Kumanovo, North Macedonia, helps frontline responders of COVID-19.

Joe Downy
Coordinator, Strong Cities Network

The scale of the global COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented, but so is the response from cities. The next few months will challenge us all as national governments, cities and local aid workers will be forced to find innovative solutions to unfamiliar problems. To help, we have put together some of the best advice and resources we’ve seen from city leadership, academia, think-tanks, global organisations and local civil society on how cities can face this threat.

1. Share Best Practices

Cities that are open and collaborative in their approaches to crises are usually better equipped to handle them than those who are not. This applies to every field, from immediate emergency responses, to delivering essential services to those who are most vulnerable, to developing robust communication and public outreach strategies.

Organisations such as Cities for Global Health, COVID-Local and C40 Cities have already produced centralised, coordinated toolkits for global cities, mayors and frontline works, while others such as National League of Cities, Bloomberg Cities (USA-based) and Core Cities (UK-based) have done the same for national approaches.

Countries with experience in pandemics such as Ebola in Sierra Leone are offering their own best practices, while others with proven successful strategies in containing the pandemic such as Singapore and South Korea have proffered advice for the future.

2. Reach Out to Other Cities

A global crisis demands a global response. With the onset of an economic crisis that may be far more devastating in the long-term, it is more important than ever that we use existing networks of communication between cities and between national and local governments to their fullest extent. The Global Parliament of Mayors are offering an online Virtual Parliament specifically for mayors, while organisations such as the Strong Cities Network, EFUS, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and United Cities and Local Government have both the resources and experience to connect cities to each other. Other organisations such as the World Economic Forum and UN-HABITAT are supporting local governments both directly and through partnerships.

The ability to network and lean on each other will be all the more important in the months to come as the global imperative to coordinate responses, develop test kits, vaccines, emergency aid packages and fiscal stimuli, and to share information becomes ever more pressing.

3. Develop a Robust Communications System

The need for clear, concise public information at this time is perhaps more critical than ever. Fake news, including benign misinformation and malign disinformation, is spreading faster than the virus itself via social media and worsening its impact on affected populations. While tech firms and organisations have been helping to slow the spread of fake news, whether through advice, signposting to trustworthy sources, or actively clamping down on misinformation, cities have their own vital role to play in regulating and centralising the information they send out.

In the past few weeks, we have witnessed exemplary leadership from city mayors working tirelessly to send public messages of solidarity and courage, share updates, organise initiatives and point their citizens to the right resources. However, there is more work to be done, and we have put together guidance for city leaders and policymakers to help tackle the threat of disinformation in two articles: one on education, and another on politics and extremism.

4. Support Local Community Organisations

The success of preventing COVID-19 hinges on the compliance of communities, which in turn requires trust. Community and religious leaders, civil society, frontline workers and the broader public sector have a vital role to play in bridging governments and people, building trusted relationships and a resilient social contract.

From providing emergency support funds, exemptions and care packages for frontline workers caring for the sick, elderly, homeless, impoverished and displaced, to providing free advice to civil society groups on how they can weather the storm, cities can help to lift the burden on local community leaders.

Perhaps most important, however, is to coordinate with public, private and non-governmental partners to ensure that all efforts are contributing to public services rather than duplicating them.

5. Pre-empt the impact on security, on- and off-line.

Under uncharted financial pressures, companies are being forced to downsize or even close entirely, rendering many redundant. Despite the efforts of governments to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic, concern over the potential for criminal and extremist actors to exploit these circumstances is both ubiquitous and growing.

From petty and organised crime to social unrest and extremist attacks, cities will be vulnerable to attack. This threat is not simply limited to offline attacks, as isolation has forced populations online, where extremist content and disinformation is rife. As such, cities should strengthen and increase their community policing, and where possible work with tech companies and regulators to establish online response platforms and frameworks.

6. Reach Out to Businesses

One of the many unprecedented aspects of COVID-19 has been its global and indiscriminate nature – with the virus affecting virtually every city and nation in the world. While it has been an extraordinarily pressing time for businesses as supply and demand chains have dwindled, those who are able within the private sector have increasingly taken on new roles. From independent distilleries shifting their production to develop hand sanitisers, to big businesses supplying respirators and developing research and trials aimed to find vaccines, the private sector is stepping up to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

While developing partnerships between the public and private sectors remains an aspiration across sectors, it perhaps has never been more important for cities to develop these connections, whether to help match-fund grants for civil society, provide financial safety nets for frontline workers or lend underused buildings to be used as makeshift hospitals.

7. Prepare for the Long Haul

Governments and cities for the most part have been reluctant to disclose estimates for how long their respective lockdowns will be in place. However, with the public health and economic impact of the pandemic likely to be without precedent in severity and longevity, measures that cities introduce must necessarily be sustainable in the long term.

Cities play a vital role in leading the charge against COVID-19, but in a very real sense every member of society now plays a life-saving role in the fight against the virus – whether as a frontline worker or simply staying home and self-isolating. We at the Strong Cities Network stand with all our members around the world. We will be supporting our cities and partners in every way that we can, through the promotion and publication of resources, toolkits and guidance, and by helping to connect cities and experts with global counterparts.

If you know of any resources aimed at cities, civil society or frontline workers that could be of help, please send them to [email protected] and we can share this with our network.