By Mark Watts, Executive Director of C40 Cities
The COVID-19 crisis has again laid bare the current inability of nation states to work with each other to solve global problems in the face of President Trump’s continuing assaults on international institutions. In stark contrast, the world’s mayors leading cities worst affected by the COVID-19 crisis have been strengthening collaboration based on good science, robust data and common human interest, building off a decade of co-operation to tackle climate change.
As with climate change, there is no lack of leadership from international institutions themselves: the World Health Organisation (WHO) has given clear advice and the UN Secretary General has spoken with great clarity and humanity on the threats currently facing the world. But very few countries have actually followed the WHO’s recommendations and now President Trump has withdrawn United States’ funding from the organisation. The editor of the respected medical journal, The Lancet, called this “a crime against humanity” and it is certainly a transparent attempt to deflect attention from the Trump administration’s own failings in handling the COVID-19 crisis. Governments around the world must now step in to support the WHO and organise together to fight a genuinely universal threat.
In contrast, rather than retreating into isolation, the instinctive response from mayors was to reach out to each other and share knowledge, information and even medical equipment, just as they have been doing for years to tackle climate breakdown. Indeed, over the past few weeks C40, the network of mayors which I serve, has temporarily transformed from being a climate leadership organisation to a COVID-19 support group.
This is crucial in relation to overcoming the current pandemic. Cities are where the impacts of COVID-19 are being felt the hardest, especially amongst already marginalised and vulnerable populations, and the crisis is affecting almost every city on Earth.
Threats are interconnected like never before in history. But so are we.
The images of Santa Monica Beach, Piccadilly Circus, Times Square, The Red Fort, The Forbidden City, and other iconic landmarks emptied of people are shocking and saddening. The life blood of cities is people and social interaction.
Yet, as more land is cleared to make way for cities, we destroy biodiversity and create the conditions for new viruses to thrive by reducing natural barriers between host animals and humans. As David Quammen argued in The New York Times, “We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often we are it.” Whilst cities in the 21st century are incredible testaments to the ingenuity and innovation of humanity, the COVID-19 crisis reminds us that we remain profoundly connected to the natural world and to each other. As climate breakdown accelerates, these trends will only become more common and potentially more terrifying.
However, these connections between cities are also helping to accelerate the end of this crisis. It has spurred collaboration on a global scale. Even if the number of international travellers dwindles, cities can ramp up knowledge sharing across borders. C40 Cities has begun hosting regular virtual meetings of mayors and city officials to share best practices in saving lives and protecting livelihoods — the first of these hosted 45 big-city mayors, representing hundreds of millions of residents from all parts of the globe sharing experiences and challenges.
Senior officials from the Chinese cities of Guangzhou, Nanjing and Beijing shared how their approach of widespread testing, immediate hospital isolation for those who test positive, and comprehensive quarantine for anyone they may have come into contact with, along with a city-wide lockdown, rapidly restricted the spread of the virus.
The Mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon, personally briefed his fellow mayors on South Korea’s successful testing and isolation approach, which has seen his city avoid a full lock-down and maintain one of the lowest rates of infection and mortality among the world’s major cities. Seoul has since made this information available to all cities on the C40 Knowledge Hub.
As the medical crisis seems to have passed its peak in China, officials in Nanjing are now contacting other C40 cities, offering personal protective equipment (PPE) to those facing shortages.
This trend of inter-city collaboration looks set to grow in the days and weeks ahead. As the number of COVID-19 cases in African and Latin American cities increases, many mayors in Asia, Europe and North America are already considering how they can best provide support to their fellow city leaders.
Such collaboration is based upon the trust built between cities, through C40 and other networks, in their efforts to address the climate crisis. Mayors have long been at the forefront of climate leadership and they understand that the great challenges of the 21st century cannot be solved by putting up walls. As more threats become borderless, only our commitment to openness and collaboration can truly solve them and create the future we want for everyone, everywhere.
It is not only in international collaboration that mayors have taken the initiative — many American mayors have been forced to act ahead of their federal (and sometimes state) government to protect the health and wellbeing of their residents.
Mayor of Houston Sylvester Turner ordered all residents to stay inside, warning that the medical and scientific evidence was too overwhelming to be ignored, even while the state of Texas, not to mention President Trump, had not yet put ‘stay at home’ orders in place. In Arizona, cities including Phoenix were the first to take action by ordering bars to close, pressuring the state governor to follow suit a few days later.
As Seattle became one of the first US cities to be badly affected, its dynamic mayor, Jenny Durkan, penned an open letter sharing her city’s experience to support others in combating the spread of the virus. C40 has since reproduced this advice to be shared with mayors internationally. Similarly in Brazil, the actions taken by the mayors of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo to implement quarantine measures have surely saved many lives, even as President Bolsonaro warned that mayors and governors are ‘destroying Brazil’ by imposing lockdowns.
Of course, none of this is as it should be. In an increasingly globalised world we absolutely need presidents and prime ministers to put aside short-term national self-interest and work together for the good of humanity as a whole. That is as true for climate change as it is for COVID-19. Whilst we wait for that day to arrive, it is comforting to know that there are some powerful political leaders working together today on halting the spread of COVID-19. Mayors of the world’s major cities will not risk lives by waiting for inter-governmental leadership in the current crisis, and soon they will be getting back to the business of overcoming the climate emergency.
Today, C40 launched the Global Mayors COVID-19 Recovery Task Force to accelerate a sustainable economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. Among other things, the task force will discuss how to use huge public investment in the recovery to create a “new normal” for city economies, based on eliminating pollution and poverty, improving public health and increasing resilience to shocks – find out more.