The COVID-19 pandemic challenged everything as we used to know. It brought additional challenges to cities as human, social, cultural, and economic agents.
In emergency contexts, such as the current pandemic, the proximity of local governments to people gains ground, not only for basic service delivery but also for nurturing and helping people transform their cities into their homes.
Local governments operate in a limited territorial space, triggered by closeness to people and influenced by context-specificities, with direct benefits to those on the other side of the interactions and probably passioned by a culture of reciprocity, where mutual gains can be obtained, and a “sense of belonging” and “togetherness” are keywords.
Year after year, they strive against budgetary constraints and limited resources. Now that confinement is in place, most businesses are closed, and people are mostly at home, the vibrant life and energy of cities hang like a shadow.
The COVID-19 pandemic challenged everything as we used to know. It brought additional challenges to cities as human, social, cultural, and economic agents. It is not just a health crisis but also a cross-sectoral crisis where cities are direct hubs to people’s lives in a more meaningful and impactful way.
The virus has hit hard; it is hitting hard. With it came challenges and consequences for all of us: personally, professionally, and as social beings. Everyone saw life transformed somewhat; the pandemic brought massive disruptions to daily life and general operations of businesses and services in many different sectors, as health, social protection, transports and mobility, education, culture and economic development.
“The importance of inter-agency articulation within governments has probably never made so much sense as of right now. Guidelines and support from national governments in clear, simple, and straightforward messages are fundamental when responding to the pandemic.”
The message from the United Nations is clear: the current pandemic reinforces the “critical role local governments play as frontline responders in crisis response, recovery, and rebuilding“, not only to address imminent risks and needs but also to try to mitigate the future effects of this crisis, which will impact many sectors interchangeably.
We do not yet have complete knowledge of how different sectors were affected by the pandemic and the extent of its consequences. We are writing the story of our lives and communities on a razor edge. We do not know how life will look like, but we start to live in how 2021 is looking like. And we do know a few things about local governments and what they need to do.
The importance of inter-agency articulation within governments has probably never made so much sense as of right now. Guidelines and support from national governments in clear, simple, and straightforward messages are fundamental for the success of cooperation between different government levels when responding to the pandemic. Strategic communication and precise identification of priorities at the national level allows local governments to perform their tasks more efficiently.
Data disposal and availability are yet to be highly disseminated in most local governments. Although its benefits are known, and there is a widespread belief that data is crucial for evidence-based decision-making and meaningful action, there is still a long way to go. In crises, disaggregated data is fundamental in different phases, with particular attention to its relevance for diagnosing and planning a response to contribute to adequate preparedness, response, and recovery.
Citizens are demanding and need to be nurtured. Local governments’ dedication to all fringes of the population should be on top of local agendas, particularly in times when COVID-19 dramatically affects the most vulnerable groups.
Local governments worldwide have been adopting specific support packages targeted at the population and framed by social protection measures. There are also financial assistance programmes as service fee and tax relief, targeted at local businesses to help the local economic development, promote public investment, and job multiplication.
The real impact of the current pandemic in different sectors is still unknown. But the concern that it will bring demanding living conditions is genuine. The World Bank forecasts that the first increase in global poverty since 1998 will occur, and it is estimated that about 100 million people will likely fall into poverty. With many millions living in cities, it goes to show how critical they are in the current context and future recovery phases. In this regard, local governments will be essential in combating improper and overcrowding housing and ensuring fair and equal primary service delivery, such as water or electricity.
The digital presence of local governments is increasingly real. Once again, the pandemic has shown that digital technologies can be regarded as promising strategies for different objectives. In the most basic role of information providers, (local) governments must bear in mind that they are the frontline agent to guarantee access to accurate and complete information about COVID-19 and other related topics. Transparency and accountability are now fundamental to foster trust in public institutions.
Government websites, mobile apps and/or social media accounts have been used worldwide to inform citizens. UNDESA has shown national governments’ growing investment to include information and guidance about COVID-19 in their portals. In the early stages of the pandemic (March 2020), 110 of the 193 United Nations Member States had some information about COVID-19; two weeks later, 57 more countries joined this group.
The results from a study conducted at UNU-EGOV show that, in Portugal, 255 local governments (out of 308) had a headline related to COVID-19 on their homepage. For the remaining 53 that did not have a headline on 22 November 2020, 16 had an autonomous website devoted to COVID-19. It is also worth highlighting that in 40 cases, both strategies were identified, meaning that 13% of the Portuguese local governments had a separate institutional website for COVID-19 related issues and a headline or more on their homepages.
Other sophisticated approaches and techniques to take full advantage of digital technologies can and need to be explored. This is the time to boost what already is in place by using tools and/or redesign procedures with the use of technologies to serve citizens and communities efficiently.
“The World Bank forecasts that the first increase in global poverty since 1998 will occur, and it is estimated that about 100 million people will likely fall into poverty.”
The European Union “Digital Response to COVID-19“, gathers new digital solutions and provides a database with plenty of resources that range from websites and open-source software to open databases and datasets. We find several open-source video conferencing services to help with remote work and distance learning, as well as resources to assist scientific research in the field.
Local governments have also been active in using technologies for different purposes. Information provision, outreaching, and awareness-raising are probably on top of the most frequent purposes. Health mobile apps show how eclectic the response can be, namely for contagion reduction (in Buenos Aires and Vienna, for instance) or self-isolated patients monitoring (São Paulo and Paris).
Consistent and long-term planning is essential for successful and efficient usage of digital technologies, which needs to be accounted for in scenarios of local governments with constrained funding and budgeting, limited human and technical resources, in pair with many other difficulties brought by confinement and working from home impositions.
It is a promising future ahead that comes in hand with challenging and overwhelming stimulus.
Senior Academic Fellow
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the researchers and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the UNU.