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Atlanta Mayor Discusses Leadership Amid COVID-19

From election results to COVID-19 to systemic racism, and how to manage and lead amid these various challenges was the focus of Monday’s “Voices in Leadership” webcast series sponsored by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Mayor Keisha Lance BottomsMayor Keisha Lance Bottoms

Mary T. Bassett, director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, moderated the conversation that featured Atlanta’s mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Bassett started off the conversation with reaction to the election voter turnout in the “flip” state of Georgia. Bottoms shared that she wore a t-shirt that said ‘Atlanteans influence everything,’ which is a nod to the cultural influence occurring.

“But of course, this virus will still be here. It doesn’t pay attention to electoral cycles,” said Bassett.

Given that, Bottoms said she’s not sure what the inauguration will even look like, or if there will be a traditional one for that matter.

“The virus is still very very real,” echoed Bottoms.

The public battle she had with Gov. Brian Kemp over the summer for a mask mandate, however “was an opportunity to educate the public about wearing masks,” she added.

The city of Atlanta is currently in phase 2 of the city’s reopening plan, Bottoms explained. Atlanta’s school systems are still closed, permits aren’t being issued for larger gatherings, and city facilities are closed as well.

“We’re still doing everything possible that we can and just making recommendations and educating people on how we can get to the other side of this pandemic,” said Bottoms. “And obviously a big concern we have is the economic impact, which we’re certainly thoughtful of. But our belief is that we’re not going to ever get to a full economic recovery unless we take a step back and just really exercise thoughtfulness as it relates to COVID-19.”

Prior to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the city had suspended business licenses and late fees, explained Bottoms. Other forms of economic relief and leadership came in the form of funds for small businesses, she said. Even food was delivered to students as well as seniors who relied on public services for some meals.

“But there’s still so much more to be done,” said Bottoms.

Bassett asked how the One Atlanta initiative — efforts to make Atlanta affordable, resilient and equitable — proceeded amid the pandemic.

“We then had to rethink: ‘What do we have time to accomplish and what do we have to get out the door right now?’” said Bottoms.

Atlanta also hired a chief health officer to “help us navigate those HIV/AIDs rates [and] some of those systemic health challenges that we see in communities of color: obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes,” said Bottoms.

“It has really highlighted for us the need to not wait until a pandemic to address these systemic issues because it’s not necessarily the racial disparity as much as it is the disproportionate impact that these negative health challenges have on these communities of color,” she said.

In Atlanta, addressing the pandemic also meant being transparent and equitable about messaging and information in different languages, particularly for the Spanish-speaking and immigrant community.

Access to this information needed to include the homeless as well said Bottoms.
“So, we were going out in the streets making sure they had information in hand to educate them on COVID-19. To the extent that if we had anyone infected, we were able to set up — with the help of the state — a quarantine hotel,” among other resources, she added.

“Unless we address those systemic issues, today it may be COVID-19 and tomorrow it may be something else. But we know that these issues exist. And even when it’s not technically your responsibility, you owe an obligation to your communities to address these issues,” said Bottoms.

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