This is part of our Coronavirus Update series in which Harvard specialists in epidemiology, infectious disease, economics, politics, and other disciplines offer insights into what the latest developments in the COVID-19 outbreak may bring.
The coronavirus pandemic is testing the management and leadership skills of mayors across the country — particularly in larger cities like New York, Detroit, and Chicago, which have been hit with far greater intensity than more rural areas.
One rising concern for all municipal leaders is the residents’ mental health amid prolonged social distancing and the daily drumbeat of grim news about mounting deaths and infections. For nearly everyone the abrupt social and economic changes brought on by government-mandated activity restrictions have been disorienting. Soaring tallies of contacts at online mental health services and recent opinion survey data indicate people are feeling increasingly anxious and stressed, with many acting out in harmful ways.
During a virtual seminar Thursday, 750 people representing nearly 300 U.S. cities got advice from top executives who led the nation’s last public health crisis, the Ebola epidemic, on how to help their cities cope and prepare for reopening in the coming weeks or months.
“The biggest mistake that any of us can make in these situations is to misinform, particularly when we’re requiring people to make sacrifices and take actions that might not be their natural inclination,” said former President Barack Obama, J.D. ’91. He urged the mayors to speak truthfully, but with compassion and empathy for what their communities are going through.
In a complicated, rapidly evolving crisis, communication is critical. “That kind of ability to be clear about ‘Here’s what we know; here’s what we don’t know; here’s why we’re doing this; here’s why we need the public’s cooperation’ could not be more important,” he said.
“People need to know that you are understanding what they’re going through and that it’s hard. They also need to know that better days are ahead. It won’t be tomorrow, or next week, but things will get better — and they’ll get better specifically because of the sacrifices everyone is making today,” said Michael R. Bloomberg, M.B.A. ’66, the former New York City mayor and founder of Bloomberg L.P and Bloomberg Philanthropies.