Skip to main content

Global Mayors Showcase Innovation in the Face of COVID-19 in Bloomberg Philanthropies Virtual Leadership Convening

Mayors of Freetown, Sierra Leone; Renca, Chile; Salta, Argentina agree: In this unprecedented public health emergency, innovation and experimentation in public policy is critical for halting spread of COVID-19

NEW YORK — The COVID-19 pandemic has stretched many public health systems to the breaking point. With the global toll approaching 1 million deaths, urban populations are bearing the brunt of the impact. Supporting cities—home to more than 50% of the global population—in responding to COVID-19 is critical to blunting the impact of the virus. In a third virtual session, more than 30 mayors and city leaders representing 49 cities joined a panel of their peers in Leading Through Crisis: Reducing the Impact of COVID-19 in Latin America and Africa. The virtual learning series is hosted by Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative and the Partnership for Healthy Cities, with support from Vital Strategies and its Resolve to Save Lives initiative.

The session featured an engaging discussion between Mayors Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr of Freetown, Sierra Leone; Claudio Castro of Renca, Chile; and Bettina Romero of Salta, Argentina, on lessons learned while leading their cities through the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. In response to the unprecedented crisis, these and other municipal leaders worldwide have responded with new solutions to the challenges introduced by COVID-19. Assistance from the Partnership for Healthy Cities is helping to spread both novel and tested strategies. For instance, the city of Freetown is supporting the 47% of the urban population that lacks access to running water by constructing low-cost handwashing stations which utilize rainwater harvesting. Cities across Latin America, including Salta in Argentina as well as Mexico City and Guadalajara in Mexico, are reimagining multimodal transit, bolstering bicycle infrastructure as a means to encourage physical distancing.

“Mayors are leading the way in the global fight against COVID-19 – they’re the ones putting protective measures in place to keep people safe, communicating clearly and honestly about what’s required to slow the spread of the virus in their cities, and proposing both practical solutions and innovative policies for helping small businesses weather this storm,” said Michael R. Bloomberg, three-term mayor of New York City and founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies. “There’s no playbook for responding to this unprecedented crisis, which is why it’s so important for mayors to have access to experts who can provide valuable guidance and real-time information. We’re glad to not only provide that access, but also a platform for them to share ideas and strategies with one another. The more mayors work together – and the more leaders around the world listen to them – the better off we will all be.”

As a leader in the Partnership for Healthy Cities global network, Freetown Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr has actively shared her experience on addressing the COVID-19 emergency. She said: “The high rate of informal settlements and urban density in Freetown has tested the traditional public health response and encouraged innovation and experimentation. When compliance was low on our #MaskUp Freetown campaign, done in collaboration with fashion house Madam Wokie, I hosted intimate social media chats with our residents to talk through concerns. We have increased access to water where it was lacking, to remove barriers to hand washing. And to help our sick residents better isolate, the Freetown City Council established a first-rate community care center in partnership with the central government, European Union, the U.K. Department for International Development, and many other development partners.”

Said Salta Mayor Bettina Romero of her city’s COVID-19 response: “The human side of this crisis is what I think of every day when I wake up. My own children have been out of school for 136 days already, and it’s becoming clear that their generation are rapidly being left behind. We need to take bold action to keep our cities safe and healthy, for the sake of our children and all our residents. And because there’s no government that could do this alone, we need to recruit the full community to join our response efforts.”

Mayor Claudio Castro of Renca added: “Early on, we developed the Renca Cares adaptive response framework, to address the public health, social and economic consequences of the epidemic. Our current main focus is the city’s robust testing and contact tracing program. We are targeting testing in areas of our city with a higher concentration of cases and in communities which face a higher probability of transmission, such as market vendors or transportation drivers. Our neighbors in Renca are supported throughout the whole process, and as a result, the system has been adapted by other cities in Chile.”

The convening commenced with a public health briefing and guidance on combating the spread of the virus from Amanda McClelland, Senior Vice President of Prevent Epidemics at Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative of the global health organization Vital Strategies. From there, participants  delved into a conversation on leadership lessons learned, featuring the distinguished panel of mayors, moderated by Rawi Abdelal, faculty co-chair of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative and Harvard Business School Professor, and Jennifer Musisi, former executive director of the city of Kampala, Uganda and City Leader in Residence with the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative.

“City to city learning along with local coordination and leadership are going to be crucial to addressing the continuous spread of the virus and preparing for social and economic recovery in our cities,” said Musisi, who has three decades of experience in turning around government institutions and systems in challenging settings. “By participating in these sessions, mayors from Latin America and Africa have the opportunity to share their challenges, offer solutions, and apply these ideas in their cities.”

Some of the most common lessons learned discussed during this peer exchange include:

  • The need to model best behavior for reducing COVID-19 risk. This includes wearing masks during public events, mandating mask use and communicating the importance of doing so, increasing access to sanitation services and regulating public spaces.
  • Planning ahead. Mayors found the most success in addressing local outbreaks when a response plan was developed early on. Similarly, already having a recovery plan in the works will help offset the economic challenges generated by restrictive public health measures. Investing in contact tracing programs will play a critical role in overcoming this crisis.
  • Developing the right infrastructure for the short- and long-term. Hard infrastructure such as expanded bicycle lanes provide a healthy and more spacious means for residents to travel in urban areas, whereas social infrastructure such as community gardens can boost both food security and community cohesion.

“As this pandemic continues to evolve, cities remain the epicenters of national outbreaks—but they also hold the key to turning the tide in this protracted crisis,” said José Luis Castro, President and CEO of Vital Strategies. “Peer-to-peer learning is one of the greatest tools we have. As an implementing partner of the Partnership for Healthy Cities, we have seen firsthand that the relationships forged through this network since 2017 have proven more valuable than ever, as urban leaders look to their counterparts in cities worldwide for lessons learned in overcoming COVID-19.”

Reaffirming its commitment to cities during this evolving crisis, the Partnership for Healthy Cities has shifted and expanded its scope of work—from a focus on preventing NCDs and injuries—to immediate assistance in the urban response to COVID-19. The global network of 69 cities is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies in partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO) and Vital Strategies.

The Leading Through Crisis virtual series launched in June 2020 as part of the Bloomberg Philanthropies COVID-19 Local Response Initiative, to provide mayors in Latin America and Africa with science-based guidance, crisis leadership tools and resources to combat the devastating health, social and economic impacts of this public health crisis. Bi-weekly sessions are scheduled through September and co-hosted by the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative and Partnership for Healthy Cities.


About Bloomberg Philanthropies
Bloomberg Philanthropies invests in more than 570 cities and over 160 countries around the world to ensure better, longer lives for the greatest number of people. The organization focuses on five key areas for creating lasting change: the Arts, Education, Environment, Government Innovation, and Public Health. Bloomberg Philanthropies encompasses all of Michael R. Bloomberg’s giving, including his foundation and personal philanthropy as well as Bloomberg Associates, a pro bono consultancy that works in cities around the world. In 2019, Bloomberg Philanthropies distributed $3.3 billion. For more information, please visit or follow us on FacebookInstagramYouTube Twitter, and TikTok.

About the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative
The Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative is a collaboration between Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Business School, and Bloomberg Philanthropies to equip mayors and senior city officials to tackle complex challenges in their cities and improve the quality of life of their citizens. Launched in 2017, the Initiative has worked with over 1000 mayors and senior city officials in 350 cities worldwide. The Initiative has also advanced research and developed new curriculum and teaching tools to help city leaders solve real-world problems. For more information, please visit the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative or visit us on LinkedIn and Twitter.

About Vital Strategies
Vital Strategies is a global health organization that believes every person should be protected by a strong public health system. We work with governments and civil society in 73 countries to design and implement evidence-based strategies that tackle their most pressing public health problems. Our goal is to see governments adopt promising interventions at scale as rapidly as possible. To find out more, please visit or Twitter @VitalStrat.

Stay in the know: Follow #KnowCOVID or subscribe to Vital Strategies’ Twitter, Facebook or Instagram accounts.

Media Contacts:
Jean Weinberg, +1-332-201-0508/
Christina Honeysett, +914-424-3356/
Lucy Byrd, +617-803-8966/