Communities around the world are united by the challenges engendered by the COVID-19 threat. Local officials are at the forefront of the fight: the tone and immediacy of their response to this emergency not only define their leadership, but also directly impact the health and wellness of their citizens.
The manner in which elected officials respond to the COVID-19 crisis will influence citizen trust and societal well-being for years to come, particularly at the local level. Almost overnight, cities and municipalities around the world must establish strong, transparent and accountable spending measures in response to emergency relief packages to ensure proper funding allocation and regulation. Local officials are at once responsible for distributing support inclusively and transparently among small businesses and citizens; and must also coordinate with national and other local governments, the private sector, and even international organizations in order to receive, track, and distribute medical equipment and other supplies. Additionally, many local governments are acting quickly to ramp up health service provision, revise fiscal policies and implement new public safety regulations. Examples of creative municipal responses to COVID-19 include:
Kampala, Uganda: The Kampala Capital City Authority established guidance and publicized relevant contact details for the home delivery of food and other essential commodities, in place of regular in-person market activities.
Mexico City, Mexico: The Mexico City capital government and 13 of its 16 municipalities collaborated to implement a new “Mercomuna” (Market, Community, Food, and Supply) initiative to support families and microenterprises during the COVID-19 pandemic. Families enrolled in an existing governmental dairy supply program are provided special vouchers to redeem for food at small businesses, such as local grocery stores, bakeries and markets.
Montevideo, Uruguay: The Ministry of Diversity of the Municipality of Montevideo established a telephone and email hotline for people from the LGBTI+ and HIV positive communities to answer questions regarding COVID-19 and provide services in response to discrimination faced during the health crisis.
Muratpaşa, Turkey: Muratpaşa Municipality’s Robotic Coding and Technology Training Center, part of the city’s Civil Society and Innovation Center, began using 3D printers to produce and distribute face shields for the city’s essential employees, particularly those working in hospitals.
Taipei, Taiwan: Taipei City announced short-term economic relief measures for local businesses in response to COVID-19, including tax deferral and reduction, rent reduction, preferential interest rates and other subsidies to prevent major unemployment and business shutdown. These measures supplement the Taiwan central government’s medium-term economic relief program.
Local governments have long been laboratories for democracy, and just as they are responding to the unprecedented challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, many see opportunities for innovation, collaboration and exchange. For example, in Riga, Latvia, the City Council’s Welfare Department collaborated with local hotel chains to provide rooms for isolation for those in need of lodging for COVID-19 related self-isolation. In Bogota, Colombia, the municipal government regulated a “Life Drill” of four days in quarantine to better prepare for the mandatory quarantine later established by the National Government, and thus mitigate the rapid reach of COVID-19. The simulation data and findings were publicly published and widely disseminated.
NDI is continuing to foster connections between local leaders and their peers to implement creative solutions in response to the pandemic, while strengthening the delivery of democratic governance to citizens around the world. For instance, NDI is collaborating with local governments and civic technologists to design a COVID-19 rapid response virtual exchange for municipal innovators in Latin America; NDI will host a discussion on information integrity and best practices for transparency during the pandemic, and is in continued partnership with Codeando Mexico to develop, disseminate and scale open-source tech tools to assist in addressing subnational governance challenges posed by the crisis.
As many of the examples demonstrate, local institutions are often the closest and most direct form of governance. They are essential and need to be open, accessible and responsive to citizen needs as the full implications of the pandemic – health, social, financial and political – come into focus around the world. Officials have a responsibility to communicate frequently with their community and to solicit citizens’ input on relief and delivery measures – especially essential for women and marginalized communities, for whom the negative impacts of the pandemic can be compounded by existing socio-economic and political conditions. But, as subnational governments are stretched thin, the role of civil society, including journalists, democratic activists and watchdog groups, is also vital to providing transparency and oversight of all aspects of governmental responses to this pandemic, guarding against the potential closing of civic space. In this extraordinary time, NDI will continue to support subnational officials and civil society partners working tirelessly to address local governance challenges, and to begin to prepare their communities for what may come in a post-COVID world.
- Alyson Beerman is a Program Officer for the Governance team at NDI.
- Victoria Welborn is a Program Manager for the Governance team at NDI.