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New York City’s response to COVID-19 offers leadership insights for African cities

New York City’s response to COVID-19 offers leadership insights for African cities


By Claudia Frittelli


Claudia Frittelli is program officer, Higher Education and Research in Africa at Carnegie Corporation of New York.


May 11, 2020


New York City (NYC) with an estimated population of 8.7 million is the Coronavirus hardest-hit urban center in the world. By May 9, COVID-19 deaths had risen to over 14,500, but new hospitalizations had gradually decreased from a peak of 1,687 on April 6, to 66 a month later. It is estimated that up to 100 people brought the virus to NYC, mainly on airline flights from Europe in February and March, when NYC airports were focused on screening Chinese passengers. On March 13, President Trump suspended travel from Europe. As an early epicenter of the crisis, New York offers insights on leadership for other major cities, including those in Africa.

Leadership based on data, transparency, and empathy

The state governor’s transparency in giving difficult but necessary data about the virus has been critical in helping diffuse the public’s fears. “Start with the facts,” says New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo in his daily YouTube briefings which begin with fresh data on new cases, hospitalizations, intubations to ventilators, and deaths in the city and state. A dependence on experts and their analysis and experience has gone a long way in establishing trust and compliance on physical distancing from city residents. For leadership in crisis, empathy coupled with authority and honesty, has been a persuasive combination. Cuomo also gains points by emphasizing that New York State’s projected 120,000 hospitalized persons has been reduced to an actual 40,000, only because New Yorkers have practiced physical distancing.

Coordination among city, state, and federal authorities

Governor Cuomo is adamant about depoliticizing the crisis and avoiding confrontation with the president and mayor, despite upcoming presidential elections in November 2020. The Governor is focused on the importance of partnership to solve the crisis. Cuomo repeatedly thanked President Trump for sending in the national guard and personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies, while insisting on a federal bailout for the state. At the city level, both the governor and mayor have ensured food supplies to prevent a hunger crisis—the mayor is spending $170 million for purchasing ready-to-eat meals, and the Governor is providing $25 million to meet a 100-200 percent increase in food bank demand across the state. The Governor also restricted home evictions through August 20, while the state is working on relief from the banks for landlords. Partnering on food and housing security has prevented panic and destitution for the disadvantaged—1.2 million residents of New York State have filed unemployment claims.

Addressing vulnerable populations in advance

Early campaigns and testing among the most vulnerable communities are critical to lowering infection rates and subsequent healthcare costs. Inhabitants from the wealthiest neighborhoods left New York, according to trash collection data mapping. The five zip codes with the highest rates of infection are in the lowest-economic income areas of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. Black and Latino New Yorkers comprise roughly twice the death rate of white New Yorkers and continue to be the majority of new cases, according to city data. The state responded with plans for 24 new testing sites within houses of worship in minority communities, and the mayor launched a $10 million education campaign in the hardest-hit zip code areas mid-April. However, these initiatives would have been more preventive early-on.

Re-opening requires contact tracing and PPE stockpiles

Governor Cuomo is handling the reopening strategy well by following CDC guidelines to ensure public safety. Guidelines include flat or decreasing hospitalization and infection rates in a region over a two-week period; a regional plan including schools and transport; avoiding events that attract people from outside the region; a healthcare system at 70 percent capacity with a stockpile of reserved PPE in case of increased cases; wide availability of tests, test sites, and contact tracers; isolation facilities for infected people; and a system for monitoring the metrics. A partnership with Michael Bloomberg, three-term mayor of NYC, billionaire, and philanthropist, who together with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health will spearhead the contact tracing program, demonstrates cost-effective deployment of local philanthropy and expertise.

Relevance for African cities

New York is like other large cities around the world struggling with how to manage the COVID-19 crisis as it exposes health disparities, digital divides, and inadequate food and healthcare provision.  Government officials are aware of the City’s shortcomings. Having a governor who responds to the social and economic impact on residents with compassion, informed planning, and appropriate action, creates confidence that the pandemic is being well managed. In fact, Cuomo has proved to be an example globally through his leadership as seen on his televised daily briefings. Crowded cities with extreme income gaps have similar challenges on a greater or lesser scale. When faced with a pandemic, government transparency and empathy can go a long way. But it is even more important to work out a plan that is evidence-based and achievable in the short term and in preparing for the future. New York finds that planning in advance for its most vulnerable citizens should be primary as it ends by reducing costs. Also, sharing knowledge with communities, so that they can address the health problem in ways appropriate to their own contexts is crucial to preventing spread, particularly in dense areas where physical distancing may be difficult. While elite travelers bring the disease into cites, vulnerable communities disproportionately suffer the consequences. Scarce resources should be invested in methods that protect and provide for the most disadvantaged populations.



Coronavirus Numbers Reflect New York City’s Deep Economic Divide https://theintercept.com/2020/04/09/nyc-coronavirus-deaths-race-economic-divide

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Carnegie Corporation of New York.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development or the University of Lagos, Nigeria