5 reasons why mayors are proving the most effective global leaders against COVID-19

By Mark Watts, Executive Director of C40 Cities

The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly impacted the world’s cities. Even in those countries and regions worst affected by COVID-19, it is within the large cities that the highest rates of infection and deaths are being seen. Mayors and city leaders are facing daily challenges and literal life or death decisions on a scale unparalleled in modern times. Yet, the evidence around the world suggests that they are rising to the challenge. They are acting fast to protect lives and livelihoods, following the science and looking ahead to help deliver a sustainable and fair economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.

Here’s what we have learnt already from the actions being delivered by mayors in the world’s great cities.

Mayors listen to the scientists:

For years now, mayors have been calling for and delivering more urgent climate action, than any other group of politicians. That’s because they recognise their constituents will be the hardest hit by the effects of climate change. It’s no coincidence that in many countries mayors were also the first to follow the scientific advice on the growing COVID-19 crisis. In the US, San Francisco mayor London Breed declared a state of emergency on February 25th when there were still no confirmed cases in the city, explaining she’d been listening to people on the front lines who understood the science. Mayor of Houston Sylvester Turner ordered all residents to stay inside, warning that the medical and scientific evidence were too overwhelming to be ignored, even while the state of Texas, not to mention President Trump, was resisting putting ‘stay at home’ orders in place. In Los Angeles, Mayor Garcetti advised residents to wear face-masks in public from April 7 and on April 29 introduced free, universal COVID testing for Angelenos, both measures that have been widely practised elsewhere in the world, but have not been approved by the US federal government.

Similarly, in Latin America, mayors of Medellin in Colombia, Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba, Salvador and Sao Paulo in Brazil and numerous others introduced strict quarantine measures earlier than the federal or national level. The contrast is particularly striking in Brazil, where President Jair Bolsanaro continues to ignore the pandemic

Mayors are looking out for the most vulnerable in their cities.

Speaking at the C40 World Mayors Summit in Copenhagen last October, Al Gore observed about climate action, “Things take longer to happen than you think they will, but then they happen much faster than you thought they could.” In cities around the world we’re seeing policies adopted and changes implemented almost overnight to address some of the most intractable issues of our time.

In Los Angeles, a wealthy city that nevertheless suffers a chronic homelessness crisis before the pandemic, Mayor Garcetti, who chairs C40, pledged at the start of the lockdown that accommodation would be found for every rough sleeper who wanted it. As of this week the city had opened up 24 temporary shelters at recreation centers housing 900 people. In addition, nearly 3,000 hotel rooms are being utilised. As Mayor Garcetti put it, “This helps give badly needed revenue to our hotels and motels and puts people back to work while protecting the lives of those people experiencing homelessness and saving the lives of all of us by ensuring the spread of COVID-19 slows down”.

To prevent residents being made newly homeless, Mayor Garcetti also issued a temporary moratorium on evictions for all tenants unable to pay rent due to circumstances related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and has frozen rent increases in properties where the city has the jurisdiction. ‘Angeleno’ debit cards with money put on them provided by the City are being provided on request to those most in need, no questions asked, including undocumented immigrants.

In Colombia, Bogotá’s Home Solidarity City System, “Sistema Distrital Bogotá Solidaria en Casa” provides a basic household income to the 350,000 poorest and vulnerable families in the city, for as long as the lockdown lasts. This has a double aim: to ensure the no-one is without a home or food, and to enable people who would otherwise need to leave their home to earn a living can comply with quarantine requirements. The main beneficiaries are informal workers, unemployed people, women who are victims of violence, and families living just above the poverty line.

In Freetown, Mayor Aki-Sawyerr is drawing on her experience responding to Sierra Leone’s Ebola outbreak, by providing equipment and training for people living in informal settlements to grow their own vegetables. In Lagos, the city has created 25 temporary markets at schools, in order to provide food supplies to the vulnerable, as the economic impact of the lock-down continues to bite. Based on a database the city maintains on vulnerable households, Johannesburg has been distributing emergency food parcels which contain about 15 kg per household of vegetables (cabbage, carrots, onions, peppers etc) every two weeks to specific pick up locations.

Mayors are reimagining what our streets are for

There’s growing evidence that COVID-19 is more dangerous in areas with bad air quality, both because of higher rates of lung disease caused by pollution and the virus may be transported on particles of pollution. The Guardian reported that clean air in Europe, ‘leads to 11,000 fewer deaths’ as millions of vehicles lay dormant during lockdown. California estimates that COVID-19 has more than halved the number of traffic accidents and fatalities on its roads. The evidence has long been clear that internal combustion engine vehicles are amongst the biggest contributors to GHG emissions that are causing the climate crisis. It is therefore unsurprising that mayors and city residents are beginning to question whether they want to return their city streets back to cars and lorries once the current crisis passes. Milan’s mayor has announced that 35km of streets will be transformed with a citywide expansion of cycling and walking space to allow residents to safely move around the city. New York is opening up 100 miles of streets for ‘socially responsible’ recreation activities during the COVID-19 crisis, focussed on areas with the greatest need. In Auckland, New Zealand, a nation where strong government action has avoided the worst effects of coronavirus, they have still decided to expand bike lanes and pedestrianize the main thoroughfare in the city centre.

Mayors are reaching out and sharing their best ideas

Mayors of the world’s big cities have never been reluctant to share knowledge or steal good ideas from their peers. The COVID-19 crisis has made the value of that clearer than ever. In March, the height of the crisis for many cities, more than 40 mayors participated in a webinar to hear from each other on what was working and what steps they should be taking. The message has been clear throughout, from Chinese cities, Seoul and Singapore — TEST & TRACE. Subsequently, we’ve seen most cities only relaxing the lock-down when new infections are close to zero, and then with a rigorous programme of testing, isolation, and quarantine. This approach based on the expertise of their fellow city leaders has doubtless saved thousands of lives.

Similarly, in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis it became clear there was no international guidance on how to handle waste in a pandemic. Working through C40’s networks, experts from Durban, Buenos Aires, Philadelphia, Lima and Vancouver developed the COVID-19 waste guidelines, with advice on how to manage potentially infectious household waste, measures to ensure safety of workers and new rules on waste segregation. These guidelines are rapidly becoming global best practice.

Mayors are preparing to build back better — and greener.

Writing in the Evening Standard, Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan noted, “Quieter roads and fewer jet planes have made for a more pleasant environment. Londoners will rightly demand neighbourhoods that permanently work for walking and cycling, and a renewed drive to address the climate emergency.” This message is being heard in cities around the world. C40 recently launched a Global Mayors COVID-19 Recovery Task Force, to drive forward a sustainable and fair economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. The Task Force, led by Mayor of Milan, alongside the mayors of Freetown, Hong Kong, Lisbon, Medellín, Milan, Melbourne, Montréal, New Orleans, Rotterdam, Seattle, Seoul, will establish a common framework that all of C40’s global membership can use to create a “new normal” for city economies in the age of coronavirus and support the necessary transition to a more sustainable, low-carbon, inclusive and healthier economy for people and the planet.

C40 is a leading global network of cities taking bold and ambitious climate action to deliver a healthy, equitable and sustainable future for all.

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