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Coronavirus: Obama Speaks at Zoom Meeting of U.S. Mayors

The Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative has been digitally convening mayors from around the world for weeks to discuss the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, governmental response, and localized recovery efforts.

Obama, 2016
Former President Barack Obama spoke to a digital meeting of mayors from across the globe Thursday, discussing the collective local response to the COVID-19 pandemic and offering some general advice gleaned from his time in the White House.

Obama spoke at a weekly Zoom meeting convened by the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, doing so via webcam from his home in Washington, D.C. This was the fourth such meeting of mayors to take place online, with the weekly event scheduled for 90 minutes every Thursday throughout the pandemic. Obama is the third former president to log on for this series of meetings, following President Clinton two weeks ago and President George W. Bush last week.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose Bloomberg Philanthropies funds the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, introduced Obama, noting that the former president had led the country through another crisis, specifically the recovery from the 2008 recession. Bloomberg also pointed out that Obama’s administration stemmed an outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus and built an international coalition that prevented Ebola from becoming a pandemic.

Obama first praised the collective local government response in the United States.

“I suspect many of you are already doing the things we would have done and did do when we were in the White House,” Obama told the mayors.

He then reiterated some key points his administration learned about efficient crisis management, the first of which was to realize your job is to build a response team and then listen to it.

“The more smart people you have around you and the less embarrassed you are to ask questions,” Obama said, “the better your response is going to be.”

Other advice for the mayors included always being transparent and speaking the truth; creating an effective feedback loop to stay informed of what is or isn’t working; looking out for the most vulnerable communities; and figuring out ways to continue supporting their teams, from the staffers around them in city hall to the health-care and sanitation workers on the front lines.

The feedback loop is important to keeping the mayors informed on as timely a basis as possible.

“A delay in response of a day or a week may mean thousands of people harmed and may have a huge impact for the ability of your city to bounce back,” Obama said.

Obama’s comments were followed by the weekly mayoral discussion, which covered concerns about treating mental health issues, domestic violence, residents in recovery and many other issues related to a sudden spike in anxiety among constituents.

The mayors then went on to share specific examples of upticks in problems in their communities, how they were handling those problems, and also how they were personally handling their own challenges. What emerged was a picture of rising mental health concerns across American communities, and a growing awareness among our local leaders that part of their job is to keep people informed, keep people calm and find ways to help them cope as government continues to ask them to stay home and be safe.

Overall, a takeaway from the weekly convening of these mayors is that tech is a key component to this response, enabling them to learn from each other, learn from past presidents, and keep open lines of communication with their residents and staffs all while continuing to be socially distant.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.