Mayors call on States to fully acknowledge the role of local governments in pandemic prevention, preparedness and response

On 11 July, the Geneva Cities Hub, together with the Global Parliament of Mayors, co-organized an online briefing for Mayors on Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response (PPPR). Speakers included leading global health experts Prof. Ilona Kickbusch and Prof. Rebecca Katz, as well as Mayors from the cities of Fort-Collins (USA), Quelimane (Mozambique) and Braga (Portugal).

As States have embarked on diplomatic processes at the World Health Organization (WHO) to ensure that the world may better prevent, prepare for and respond to the next pandemic, it is important to involve mayors. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic showed that cities often bear the brunt of emergencies and that they are frontline responders. Mayors implemented national measures to contain the spread of the virus, informed their population, identified, protected and assisted those in need, reorganized urban mobility to limit social interaction and took measures to facilitate socio-economic recovery.

As such, the briefing was an excellent opportunity:

  1. provide detailed information to mayors about two parallel intergovernmental negotiation processes at the WHO (a new treaty on PPPR and the revision of the International Health Regulations);
  2. demonstrate that mayors were frontline responders during the Covid-19 pandemic and that they need to be involved in the aforementioned processes;
  3. launch a Mayors’ Declaration for better PPPR that calls upon States to ensure that the international health instruments currently negotiated by them at the WHO are guided by the whole-of-government approach and that local governments should be fully acknowledged and included in relevant provisions of these instruments. Mayors are invited to sign it. 

Prof Ilona Kickbusch briefed mayors about the origins of the current international process on a new treaty on PPPR. The Covid-19 pandemic could not be addressed by one single institution or government, and it was a global challenge at all levels of governments. It was decided that new legal binding agreement was needed to enable countries to strengthen national, regional and global capacities for prevention, preparedness and response to pandemics.

Two issues are key in the current negotiations: equity and governance. Prof. Kickbusch underlined that while the Covid-19 pandemic showed the lack of equity among countries, due to the lack of international solidarity and a blatant north-south divide, there were also local inequalities that needed to be addressed. She also highlighted the critical role that mayors play in building strong public health functions, structures and capacities at local level. “Mayors need to be involved in the treaty negotiations, and to also benefit from such a treaty which will eventually be implemented at local level, where people live, love, work and play. Unless that happens, we’ll not be prepared to respond to the next pandemic”, she added.

Prof. Rebecca Katz recalled that the issue of urban preparedness to pandemics had actually been addressed by the GPM before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world. She underlined that mayors had an important role in sharing experiences and practices among themselves (such as how to establish intra-city mechanisms to share information efficiently). In relation to the revision of the International Health Regulations – which purpose is to prevent, protect against and respond to the international spread of disease in an adequate manner – Prof. Katz introduced the areas in which amendments are being considered. In particular, she underlined that equity is also discussed, including through the proposal for a new financial mechanism for equity in health emergency preparedness and response. She also referred to the upcoming UN General Assembly High-level Meeting on PPPR (20 Sept., NYC) and the opportunity to be seized by mayors to influence the political declaration to be adopted at this meeting.

The mayors then shared their experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic. Mayor Jeni Ardnt spoke about her challenges with conflicting advice and mandates from upper levels of the administration that would end up at the local level. She emphasized the difficult social context that she had to deal with (resistance to vaccination, for instance) and did not hesitate to engage with her population to listen to their problems. Local equity was also at the heart of her action: she took measures to facilitate internet access to children that had to attend online school during the confinement, put up mobile units to facilitate vaccination and also took it to translate municipal information into Spanish to reach all the city residents.

Similarly, Mayor Manuel de Araújo also put forward the role of cities in Mozambique. Mayors are at the forefront of preparedness and response at the local level, be it for health emergencies or disasters. They need to react swiftly to the health, social and economic challenges in a holistic manner. They coordinate with the national authorities but lack effective access to the relevant international organizations. Local and regional governments are usually not involved in the design of international regulations. Joining the Mayors’ Declaration is a step towards making it happen.

Mayor Ricardo Rio underlined that while health is not usually within the realm of cities’ responsibilities in Portugal, cities went beyond their normal attributions during the Covid-19 pandemic to support and accelerate the crisis response: they provided logistical support, accommodation and food to nurses and doctors, bought medical equipment for the hospitals, facilitated covid testing for the population, etc. He then emphasized the need for multilevel governance when it comes to effective PPPR and invited all his fellow mayors to sign the Mayors Declaration which calls on States to fully acknowledge and include local governments in the relevant provisions of the international health instruments currently negotiated at the WHO.

Launched during the event, the Mayors Declaration will be conveyed to States by the Geneva Cities Hub and the Global Parliament of Mayors, as a way to influence the current ongoing international processes on PPPR. In doing so, it is hoped that the international health instruments will include specific references to cities and urban settings, to the role of local and regional governments in fostering equity within States, to the need for stronger coordination between all levels of government and to support to local governments in terms of resources, expertise and capacities, so that we’re all better prepared for the next pandemic.

Read the Declaration here. 

Watch the recording of the event here. 

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