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All of us are highly impressed with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s leadership in steering her country through the COVID crisis. It is now one of the first countries to announce it is coronavirus free. Contrast that with India where the communication has not been very clear. We were directed into a strict lockdown mode with four hours of notice.

For the last three months, I have been hosting live casts on the theme of “Inclusive Cities” where my cohost Prathima Manohar and I have been interviewing diverse experts from politics, bureaucracy, civil society and academia. One of my biggest takeaways from these discussions is that trust is a critical factor to the successful implementation of inclusive policies within a city or country.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s leadership in steering her country through the covid crisis has been applauded globally. It is now one of the first countries to announce it is coronavirus free. This was possible because of the high trust relationship between citizen and government so that they were able to exercise a “social license”.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his New Zealand counterpart Jacinda Ardern enforced coronavirus lockdown in their respective countries the same day.
Photo Credits:- India Today

The concept of social license was explained to me by Mayor of Nelson, Rachel Reese, who said that the public was engaged right from the start with clear, simple to understand and frequent communication by the Prime Minister on the rules of the strict lockdown. This ensured that the citizens followed orders and trusted their administration to do their best to tackle Covid pandemic.

Contrast that with India where the communication has not been very clear. We were directed into a strict lockdown mode with four hours of notice. The initial directive and subsequent ones did not explain to citizens the plan forward and the amenities or services available.

The lockdown in India was announced for three weeks and extended thereafter at least five times. In this uncertain climate, with no access to information, people started to panic and those that were not native to the city wanted to return to their hometowns and villages. In the absence of transportation, thousands of people walked several hundred kilometres, at great risk to themselves and their families. Many of them realized that they would die of hunger rather than the coronavirus. These images and videos of people walking home will remain in my memory for a long time.

As we discussed these issues on our Inclusive-Cities series, it was clear that trust cannot be built during a crisis like this COVID pandemic but has to be invested in, in normal times. So what would contribute towards such trust-building? Some thoughts that were put forward by the experts were:

4 Steps to Build Trust in Cities to Fight Covid

  1. Dignity – Treat people with dignity. We say “leave no one behind” but how much of our policies and infrastructure built are truly inclusive and treat people with dignity? If we valued every single person irrespective of class, caste, religion or any other form of discrimination, we would design for dignity and enhance trust. Some countries like Portugal suspended immigration rules so that every single person could avail of government schemes like another citizen.
  2. Communications – This pandemic has affected every single person on earth. Leaders who communicated frequently, clearly and in a manner where everyone could understand, became beacons of hope. Some of the excellent communicators were Jacinda Ardern who spoke informally and connected with all, Governor Cuomo of New York, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and my own Chief Minister of Maharashtra State Uddhav Thackeray. Innovative use of technology and recorded messages when making mobile phone calls also helped educate people on the virus. 
  3. Empathy – Decisions made with empathy go a long way. For example, ensuring everyone has food to eat, access to health information and health facilities, check-ins from local government at the ward level post-contact tracing and responsive communication from local administrators. The Indian state of Kerala has done very well on all these fronts.
  4. Availability of infrastructure – In Mumbai where I live, some of the informal settlements have one toilet for 1400 people. During the Covid pandemic, it is impossible to maintain social distancing and puts many lives at risk. Further, there are not as many hospital beds or medical personnel to cater to the large numbers of people infected with the virus. So inadvertently the message given to the people living in such areas is that you are not important and we don’t care enough for you. However, this virus has shown us it does not discriminate and every single person’s health and wellbeing is important for the health and wellbeing of all of us.

So, as we continue to reflect on these critical times and plan to reopen our economies and societies post lockdown, we must seriously re-imagine, re-design and re-build with the intention to bridge the trust deficit. We owe it to our people and ensure that “no one is left behind” is not just a phrase but part of our ethos and action.

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