Cities against COVID-19: citizens seek a “better normal” of urban life

WHO/Marijan Ivanusa

Urban communities have played a major role in mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic.

World Cities Day on 31 October 2020 is an opportunity for WHO to draw attention to the major role urban communities are playing in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Cooperation between ordinary city dwellers, local authorities and health professionals across the WHO European Region has helped countries respond to the disease while striving to minimize socioeconomic impacts.

Health is a joint effort

COVID-19 has demonstrated to what extent a fast-spreading disease can change the life of a city, no matter how big or small. The disease is especially dangerous for older people and for people with a higher burden of noncommunicable diseases, who often also experience isolation and difficulty getting help. In these circumstances, cooperation among citizens has been vital to addressing problems stemming from the COVID-19 outbreak.

Urban communities organizing themselves in their own neighbourhoods are striving to keep countries healthy, sustainable, inclusive and economically active during times that are hard for everyone. In many cities of the Region, authorities, health professionals and local communities are working together towards creating a “better normal” of city life that will outlive the pandemic.

Ensuring food security: Milan and Brest

During the COVID-19 outbreak in Italy, an increasing number of Milan’s residents had reduced access to quality food due to imposed quarantine measures. The problem was particularly pressing for the poor, people with limited mobility and older people.

In response, the municipality of Milan collaborated with more than 30 non-profit organizations and private food companies to create Dispositivo di Aiuto Alimentare – The Food Aid System. More than 180 employees and volunteers delivered secure food packages to 6337 households – a total of 20 744 people – that had been identified as vulnerable.

The French city of Brest experienced a similar situation when the COVID-19 pandemic paralysed local markets. This was a challenge not only for consumers but also for local food producers. To solve this, Brest authorities came up with the innovative Projet alimentaire métropolitain – the Metropolitan Food Project – which boosted social protection programmes with a digital platform.

A referral system identified the most vulnerable residents and distributed food vouchers for them to use in grocery stores. An online map also allowed customers in Brest to easily find and contact local food producers that had kept their business open.

“The right to healthy food is something that all levels of government need to be working towards,” said Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “The city of Brest has taken proactive, effective measures to ensure food security to its residents. It is a good example of a government taking care of its people during a national crisis.”

Keeping mobility up: Moscow and Baku

Maintaining quality public transport services while taking measures to prevent the spread of the virus and strengthen the confidence of passengers has been a very difficult task for big and busy cities with high mobility.

To meet this challenge, the Russian Federation implemented a highly automated sanitizing system for the Moscow Metro that has been able to disinfect its 900 000 square metres of territory on a daily basis. Almost 50% of Moscow Metro’s fleet is equipped with ultraviolet lamps integrated into climate control systems, making disinfection up to 6 times faster than cleaning by hand. In addition, passenger zones, technical rooms and ventilation shafts are disinfected using antiseptic heat sprayers.

The municipality of Baku, acting in line with Azerbaijan’s national anti-pandemic measures, introduced a different measure. While suspending operation of the city’s metro, Baku’s authorities concentrated on ground transportation and swiftly started a programme to disinfect all buses, taxis and parking areas, as well as interchanges and stations.

Reducing isolation: Athens and Limerick

Many cities were quick to introduce strict measures to control the COVID-19 outbreak. For Athens, it soon became evident that such measures can heavily impact vulnerable groups through isolation, disruption to treatment and rehabilitation services, and reduced access to social programmes.

To address this issue, Athens city authorities, together with the Hellenic Liver Patient Association “Prometheus” and the Greek Association of People Living with HIV “Positive Voice”, and with funding from the Partnership for Healthy Cities, strengthened support to get essential supplies and health information to marginalized communities during the pandemic.

Limerick, Ireland, established the COVID-19 Community Response Team to support older people facing isolation measures. The network of over 1700 volunteers maintains a daily free phone service for people in need, taking requests for help or proactively reaching out to older citizens.

These projects show how cities can offer new levels of support across all sectors and all urban communities. Cooperation can empower people and keep them safe, and this strong asset of cities will contribute to a better future for the WHO European Region and beyond.