OPINION: Cities need inclusive COVID-19 responses to build back stronger. But we can't do it alone.

by Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr | Mayor of Freetown
Thursday, 7 January 2021 13:23 GMT

A waste-management micro-enterprise supported by the City of Freetown to employ youth and promote public health is seen in an undated handout photo. City of Freetown

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Here’s why even more support for migrants and refugees is crucial in 2021

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr is the mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone.

95% of Covid-19 cases are reported in urban areas. That puts cities on the frontlines of a global public health crisis that is widening the gap between those with the comfort and safety of a home and those forced to leave their homes behind.

Dire budget shortfalls and lost revenue — up to 65 percent for African cities and 15-25 percent globally — will curtail the ability of cities to deliver critical services and economic opportunity to all their residents in 2021, especially those who need it the most.

Even before Covid-19 hit, my city of Freetown faced a reckoning. More than a third of residents – many rural migrants – lived in informal settlements where disease is common and clean water rare. Then came the global pandemic.

Covid-19 case rates in Freetown have been relatively low compared to other cities but infection prevention measures have wreaked havoc on our economy, where 70 percent of residents work informally.

In the face of a deadly pandemic, these residents kept Freetown functioning: unblocking drains to prevent flooding, cleaning streets and managing our waste.

Now many of my city’s residents are going hungry and losing their income, with 75% of households in the informal settlements living on less than $1 per day.

As mayor of Freetown, it is my responsibility to take care of them in the same way that they took care of their city at the height of the crisis.

To do this, I am working with donor partners and Sierra Leone’s diaspora and residents to provide supplementary food to people who are quarantined in informal settlements. Similarly, I am training people from informal settlements in urban farming to ensure access to healthy food

I also worked with the government and other partners to repurpose an under-utilised military training facility space into a care center to support Covid-19 patients who cannot self-isolate often because they are rural migrants living in overcrowded housing.

Other mayors around the world have similarly stepped up for their migrant communities during Covid-19.

Consider Mayor Garcetti in Los Angeles who delivered cash assistance to undocumented migrants excluded from federal relief or Mayor Rees in the British city of Bristol and Mayor Khan in London who housed asylum seekers and migrants with no recourse to public funds. Or take the case of Kampala Mayor Lukwago who distributed food himself to non-nationals impacted by lockdown measures, despite bans from the central government.

We do this work because it represents the very essence of our job as mayors - to protect our residents and provide them with the tools needed for safe, healthy, and productive livelihoods. But cities’ needs far exceed their available resources.

Without direct access to financial relief, my city and countless others will fall short of the responsibility to protect our most marginalized residents and miss out on the benefits of an inclusive recovery.

The Global Cities Fund for Inclusive Pandemic Response is the Mayors Migration Council’s response to the unmet needs of cities as they support migrants and displaced people during Covid-19.

By granting city governments directly, this $1 million fund will help build precedents of “fiscal feasibility” in municipal governments of low-to-middle income countries that are often disregarded by donors with low risk tolerance, despite being best placed to address challenges like Covid-19 urgently and effectively.

This support will allow my city to expand our waste management by helping 240 youth establish 40 sustainable waste-management micro-enterprises that in turn provide waste collection services for households across Freetown’s low-income informal settlements.

The project will provide jobs and long-term livelihoods for rural migrants, improve the city’s public health and sanitation, and serve those who are most vulnerable.

But helping five cities isn’t enough. Over 2,550 cities are affected by Covid-19 worldwide and they need financial support.

I call on the international community and national governments to build on the momentum of the Global Cities Fund and support cities with the resources they need in order to do their job better, faster, and at scale.

I ask international actors focused on migration and displacement to work with me and my colleagues at the Mayors Migration Council to provide at least 22 cities in low to middle-income countries with the financial support they need to realize smart and inclusive projects centering migrants and refugees by the end of 2022: 22 for 2022.

This is just the first step in recognizing cities as equal government partners. We’re excited for international actors and national governments to work with us – not around us - and hopeful that our future collaboration will help cities emerge as dynamic centers of opportunity for all.