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OPINION: Local governments are in the frontline of coronavirus response

Friday, 27 March 2020 14:45 GMT

A local medical worker embraces and bids farewell to a medical worker from Jiangsu at the Wuhan Railway Station as the medical team from Jiangsu leaves Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Hubei province, China March 19, 2020. China Daily via REUTERS

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Our response to COVID-19 crisis will be critical to building the cities and communities of tomorrow

Maimunah Mohd Sharif is the Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat)

Emilia Saiz is the Secretary General of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG)

Local and regional governments are the front line in preparing and responding to the COVID-19 global pandemic. Along with health authorities and communities, it is the local and regional governments who will ensure that public services in cities and countries around the world continue to function properly throughout the response

The impact of COVID-19 has, so far, been geographically and socially diverse. This pandemic is affecting territories all over the world, not recognizing nationalities or borders. There seems still to be a window of opportunity for some of those countries and cities in the southern hemisphere. They can learn from tested responses from cities and regions that have been ahead of the curve.

Local and regional governments are on the frontline, dealing with the health emergency, mitigating social and economic real-time impact on the poorest. They must keep basic services going and guarantee food supplies. Regional governments will need to deal with population changes when urban jobs are disrupted and people seek subsistence elsewhere.  

They also play a critical role in fostering the solidarity of communities and making it possible for civil society to come together and contribute to the resilience of our communities.

Preventing and managing COVID-19 outbreaks is most challenging in cities with several informal settlements. People in slums often depend on informal health facilities, and use overcrowded or poorly maintained public transport systems to commute long distances between home and work. They suffer from the absence of waste management, poor housing, lack of basic services and social facilities. There is a higher risk of fast contagion for any infectious disease in such environments where preventative measures such as staying indoors and self-isolating are very challenging

As the economies of many cities and countries struggle to withstand the shock of COVID-19, community resilience must go beyond the response to disasters, and be built up through improved, innovative social safety nets. Cities and regions play a key role in preventing the rise of inequality, poverty and the stigmatization of population of those without a secure income or social benefits by working together for sustainable communities.

Local and regional governments need to prevent eviction resulting from the loss of livelihood and inability of many formal and informal sector workers to pay their rent. UN-Habitat’s extensive work on housing rights, security of tenure and prevention of forced evictions can help develop such innovative, partnership-based solutions. UCLG calls on its members to make additional efforts and to work with organized slum dwellers to support the most vulnerable.

The COVID-19 pandemic is advancing at different speeds in different parts of the world. It is critical to ensure active learning and fast sharing from country to country, and city to city as they move from preparedness to containment to response to recovery.  Local governments, mayors and communities must be engaged and should share their challenges and successes with each other, and with regional and national authorities.  There needs to be new forms of collaboration between urban health experts, government agencies at all levels, sanitation experts, social scientists, innovators and urban planners.

UCLG, Metropolis and UN-Habitat and partners are reaching out to cities and partners globally to harness the solidarity and political will of those local and regional governments that are on the frontline, pushing more than ever to be the drivers of change, carrying out equitable service delivery, ensuring the preservation of common resources, and promoting human rights in the midst of this crisis. We are escalating active learning and city-to-city communication and will encourage new forms of city-to-city cooperation, on prevention, coping and recovery.

We also need to empower communities to unlock the potential of self-organization and self-help to meet the scale of the current urgency. New technologies, shaped and put to the use of our communities, can provide remote health care and enable remote learning, communication and remote connections when mobility and interactions need to be limited, which is particularly important for the most vulnerable such as the elderly.

How we respond to the COVID-19 crisis, and what we learn from that response, will be critical to building the cities and communities of the future. It is only through working to build a broad citizenship, that local and regional governments will manage to turn this situation around.

Our response today will directly affect the future of our towns and cities tomorrow.