Local and regional authorities dealing with the challenges of the health crisis

Event Covid-19 Remote meeting 7 December 2020
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Local and regional authorities dealing with the challenges of the health crisis

On 7 December 2020, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities organised an online event aimed at reflecting on challenges faced and lessons learned during the Covid-19 pandemic. Participants unanimously stressed the need to resist recentralisation trends, but also the urgent necessity to provide municipalities and regions with adequate resources in order to meet crisis management requirements in the field. Thanks to innovative approaches, new technologies and good practices that local and regional elected representatives have put in place efficiently and with resilience, action plans are being developed for future use.

"Even before the Covid-19 outbreak, local and regional authorities had already learned a series of lessons from being on the front-line," said Ms. Gunn Marit Helgesen, President of the Congress Chamber of Regions. For her it is essential to maintain and gain citizens' trust - one of the main responsibilities of local and regional authorities - which must also ensure proper coordination between different levels of government. Ongoing dialogue between municipalities, regions and central government helps forge specific democratic procedures that can be used for future epidemics. Giving the example of the work of the Association of Local and Regional Authorities in Norway (KS), Ms Helgesen noted that the Association had taken advantage of coordination mechanisms established prior to the pandemic in order to ensure effective communication across the country's different levels of government.

Unfortunately, it is not the case for countries where the re-centralisation of local and regional government competences by central governments has resulted in a loss of citizen trust in health measures. Bulgarian Mayor Dilyan Mlazev stressed that his country had already been suffering from insufficient decentralisation measures prior to the pandemic and that the increasing lack of local autonomy is bound to hinder proper crisis management.

On the other hand, if measures taken by different regions or municipalities as well as national governments in Europe are too disparate, this may lead to flows of people who would like to benefit from services available elsewhere (restaurants, hotels, ski slopes etc). David Eray (Switzerland), member of the Congress Chamber of Regions, explained that during the second wave of the epidemic, his country had experienced the limits of federalism and the need for national coordination to prevent the movement of people from one canton to another.

The debate also highlighted the importance of maintaining standard democratic procedures in times of health crises, such as the regular organisation of municipal councils as mentioned by Angela Constance (United Kingdom), or referendums and cantonal elections in Switzerland as suggested by Marianne Hollinger (Switzerland). In this context, Atte Kaleva (Finland) called for continuity with regards to the Congress monitoring of local and regional elections during the pandemic, whilst Cemal Bas (Turkey) proposed a Congress report on innovative political practices in times of health crisis.

Many participants regretted the lack of financial resources made available to regions and municipalities to address emergency needs caused by the crisis. Chair of the Congress Current Affairs Committee and Munich municipal councillor Gabrielle Neff recalled the variety of organisational challenges that require significant financial and human resources from municipalities: keeping kindergartens and schools open; dealing with citizens resilient to restrictive measures (anti-masks and others); supporting local businesses, artists and craftspeople to maintain their activity, addressing the mental health of young people feeling isolated, etc.

 In this regard, the Mayor of Athens Kostas Bakoyannis explained how his city had been able to "capitalise" on the crisis and use it as an opportunity to reduce certain structural inequalities by helping the most vulnerable through the construction of a new centre for the homeless, a new home for drug addicts and the creation of citizen hotlines. As Magnus Berntsson (Sweden) explained, in his country, some regions have seized the opportunity to make progress on ecological transition and sustainable development through specific aid to companies experiencing difficulties during the crisis.

Alexander Drozdenko (Russia) explained that Russian regions were given greater powers to manage the crisis by acknowledging the actual situation in the field, not only with regard to restrictive measures, but also given the ability to train medical staff and decide on vaccination plans. Despite the implementation of very strong centralised measures in France, Xavier Cadoret (France) shared experiences of regions and municipalities that have had to organise themselves to manufacture masks, provide schooling for medical staff children, support craftspeople and artists, but also set up future vaccination plans. In addition to creating the Covi Psy hotline, the Bas-Rhin department (Alsace) has also provided tablets to EHPADs and certain schools, said Pascale Jurdant-Pfeiffer (France).

Also the notion of “digital city” and “digital democracy” were at the heart of the contributions. Many cities have developed their online services or/and launched platforms for citizen participation. Nevertheless, Brannan McVey Heather (Scotland) and other elected representatives pointed out the need to continue ensuring face-to-face and human contact with citizens.

Thanks to digital tools and social networks, youth delegates reported on various initiatives used to organise discussions between young people from different European countries on the topic of the pandemic: between Serbian and German youth delegates who also requested the participation of local and regional authorities in their virtual meetings; as part of the project "Répondre collectivement à la covid-19"; or a project to help students from Bosnia-Herzegovina who found themselves isolated abroad during the pandemic, etc.

As a result, digital technology has proven to be a bearer of hope, while also revealing its limitations. To address concerns about possible abuses of surveillance or the use of artificial intelligence that could compromise humanist and democratic values in European societies, youth delegates suggested the organisation of a pan-European meeting on artificial intelligence and the protection of human rights (Vadim Kuznetsov, youth delegate Russia) and on post-Covid democratic Europe.


*** "COVID-19: Local and regional authorities on the front line" event - 7 December 2020 ***
Dossier - Agenda - Photo - Video

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