Local governments are at the frontline of COVID-19 response. Using their unique position in the community, they can mobilize local initiatives, coordinate and implement national response plans and ensure the smooth continuity of service delivery, especially for the community’s most vulnerable members.
This is no easy task, however. Lockdown measures disrupt the day-to-day business of local government calling for rapid, effective and creative responses based on the needs of the local community. In this blog, we give an insight into how our projects in Albania and Bangladesh are supporting local governments in tackling COVID-19 and consider some next steps in sustaining local democracy.
Moving democracy online: Facebook live to fake news
For many of us, social distancing has altered the way we work. Local governments are no exception to this. Government affairs need to continue as usual, while the crisis demands speedy decision-making on an assortment of additional issues: directing emergency budget allocations or deciding where to store food provisions for vulnerable families, to name a few.
Local councils in Albania have accordingly switched the boardroom for online meeting sessions. Skype or Zoom provide an online space for councilors to convene. Some councils have even started to livestream their meetings on Facebook, allowing residents to watch and comment on proceedings from their mobile phones.
Not everyone however is familiar with digital technology. Our project in Albania, Bashki te Forta or ‘Stronger Municipalities’ quickly responded to this by offering coaching sessions to local councilors on how to participate in and stream online meetings as well as develop protocols to ensure they run smoothly and fairly.
Social media helps us to overcome communication challenges brought by social distancing, but its ability to instantaneously share messages to a global audience is also its foible. In Bangladesh, rumors or ‘fake news’ on COVID-19 are shared at a runaway pace. Some social media posts have been used to bolster existing stigmas of certain social groups and pitch unfounded conspiracy theories. This can raise tensions in already fragile communities.
In Bangladesh, Helvetas’ local partner NGO, Rupantar liaises with community members daily and monitors social media posts to check for fake news. Prior to the lockdown, leaflets were distributed across communities to counter misleading and inaccurate messages. More recently, Rupantar is offsetting the flurry of fake news by posting warnings on its Facebook page and encouraging respected community members to disseminate accurate information in the village through loudspeakers.
#stayhome and gender-based violence
Crises like COVID-19 affect many aspects of our lives with the pandemic falling hardest on elderly and socially vulnerable people. #stayhome is the message shared across the globe to halt the spread of the virus, yet for some women and their children, having to stay at home means having to potentially endure more violence and abuse.
As well as locally raising awareness on gender-based violence, our project in Albania supports the Gender and Social Inclusion Commission of local councils to monitor and ensure municipal staff such as social workers appropriately and swiftly respond to incidences of gender-based violence in the community.
There is still a lot more to be done. The lockdown disrupts the everyday business of democracy, opening up opportunities for decisions to be made behind closed doors away from public scrutiny.
The next step for local governments in Albania is to not only hold their council meetings online but also public hearings. These are an opportunity for citizens, businesses and civil society organizations to ask questions to the local council and directly influence decision-making: how will the local tourist industry function under COVID-19 when the summer season begins? What additional support can small businesses and farmers receive to weather the crisis?
The COVID-19 situation means that more people in its aftermath will require social assistance. The government in Bangladesh has already initiated additional food and cash transfer schemes for low-income families – yet such schemes are reportedly prone to corruption and looting. Mechanisms are needed to track distributions and make sure individuals receive what they need to survive the crisis.
On a positive end, COVID-19 is forcing local governments to adapt and modernize; to engage with digital technology, tap into the diverse potential of their communities and respond to specific needs of women and other vulnerable groups. We need to harness these new and innovative practices and make sure they prosper beyond the crisis.