There is so much to learn from 2020 as we go ahead in 2021 and beyond.
In normal times, when we look at our cities, we are resigned to see poverty and inequality, inadequate healthcare, chaotic traffic, crumbling infrastructure, pollution and garbage everywhere. This is just the way it has been and will be. It is what it is.
But calamities like coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) can stir us from the trance of complacency and force us to ask first principle-questions about our cities: What is the community for? How is it put together? What are its basic needs? How should we provide them?
These are questions that 12 City Teams led by their mayors asked themselves during the six-month online conversations among themselves from July to December last year.
The cities include Candon in Ilocos Sur, Ilagan in Isabela, San Jose del Monte in Bulacan, Lipa in Batangas, Iriga in Camarines Sur, Tabaco in Albay, Sipalay and Himamaylan in Negros Occidental, Roxas in Capiz, Calbayog in Samar, Mati in Davao del Sur, and Gingoog in Misamis Oriental.
The City Teams exchanged experiences, best practices, as well as failures in a program dubbed Adapt+Innovate Towards the New Normal in this Time of Uncertainties. Galing Pook facilitated the sessions with the support of the Local Government Academy of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) as well as the League of Cities of the Philippines (LCP).
Three lessons emerged from COVID-19 and from calamities like volcanic eruptions and typhoons.
First, cities are inadequate in keeping their citizens safe and healthy. City governments, even with the assistance of the national government, cannot do the work alone. Citizens must buy-in and empower themselves.
Second, citizens may be physically distanced by lockdowns — but because of technology they can be socially connected to their families, neighbors, friends, co-workers, and to city hall.
Third, by “going to the balcony,” city teams are forced to rethink and “visualize the future”; not going back to the old normal but building back better: more sustainable, livable, resilient, and, most important, caring communities.
From these lessons, what should cities do? What should citizens demand from their cities?
Cities now and in the future have to be safe and healthy, smart and sustainable. We want magaGaling na Pook: Ligtas, Matalino at Matatag.
For cities to be safer and healthier, Universal Health Care has to be implemented. Health is not only a basic right but also a responsibility. Every citizen has to be empowered to take care of himself/herself and their family. Safe water, sanitation and other public health interventions like vaccinations are public goods that should be provided, regardless of income, religion, and politics. The continuum of quality healthcare, from prevention, simple out-of-patient treatments, hospitalization, to rehabilitation should be accessible to all — rich and poor. In the age of pandemics, experts say that “Universal Health Care is not only a safety net but a matter of national security.”
Cities have to be smarter by using technology. Every community has to be linked to the internet so that citizens can have access to city hall. Cities can use artificial intelligence and blockchain technologies to make services more effective and efficient. Through e-governance, they can issue business permits faster, collect more taxes, inform constituents in real time, and deliver services better. Telemedicine, contact tracing, GPS, social media — are platforms that facilitate better governance.
And as cities plan ahead, sustainability has to be anchored on resiliency, livability, and caring environments. Resiliency involves the ability to adapt and innovate to disasters and calamities in order to survive and thrive. Livability includes the ability of citizens to have decent jobs, clean housing and neighborhoods, to walk, bike, and take affordable transport, as well as contribute to a vibrant diverse local economy.
One of the striking positive lessons of the pandemic is the ability of people to care: giving food to the hungry, transporting those who don’t have access, linking farmers to consumers, taking care of family, relatives, and friends. This caring environment is a must in replacing the cold, impersonal, and detached city neighborhoods we have at present.
Yes, cities have to be safer and healthier, smarter and more sustainable.
To do this we need leaders who are adaptive and innovative, and citizens who are empowered and “load-sharers.”
Eddie G. Dorotan is the Executive Director of Galing Pook Foundation, the Convener of COVID-19 Action Network, and a senior fellow of Action for Economic Reforms.