By Penny Abeywardena, New York City’s Commissioner for International Affairs

COVID-19 has done something we didn’t quite expect: It’s forced us to see what some want to ignore or forget about society’s injustices. Here in New York City, COVID-19 has thrown the inequalities that plague our communities into sharp relief.

In addition to shuttering businesses and schools, with tens of thousands New Yorkers in need of support for food and shelter, the pandemic has exposed troubling disparities in our health care system.

One study by the NYU Furman Center noted, for example, that “the mortality rate among New York City’s Hispanic and Black population is also comparatively high, reaching 22.8 and 19.8 [per 100,000 people], respectively. White and Asian populations have the lowest death rates due to COVID-19 (10.2 and 8.4, respectively).” 

New York City has pursued an agenda of fairness since Day One of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. COVID-19 has made clear, however, that not only does more need to be done, but our work needs to be accelerated — and we have deepened our resolve to achieve equity for all. 

Across the globe, cities are struggling with similar upheaval caused by the coronavirus and trying to figure out the path to build back stronger and better. To achieve this, we must all look to the Sustainable Development Goals for our roadmap to success.

The Sustainable Development Goals, or Global Goals, are the 17 objectives set by the United Nations to achieve a better and more sustainable world by 2030 — including no poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being, quality education, and gender equality. Over the last six years, the de Blasio administration has adopted policies aimed at lifting hundreds of thousands out of poverty, including $15 minimum wage, paid sick leave, and free, universal early education

COVID-19-New-York-Antibodies-Testing-001.jpgRegistered nurses draw blood from patients during a COVID-19 antibody test drive at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, May 14, 2020, in the Harlem neighborhood of the Manhattan.
Image: Mary Altaffer/AP

But COVID-19 is threatening to undo our hard-earned gains. 

While New York City has been the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis in the US, we are now seeing promising signs that the spread is slowing within our borders. As we look to recover, our city will lean on the foundation of progressive policies we have adopted over the years to help us rebuild. Mayor de Blasio is committed to ensuring New Yorkers are healthy, safe, and have a roof over their heads and food on their tables.

We are launching an aggressive antibody testing program to fight the disease; we are distributing 7.5 million masks to New Yorkers; we are creating resources to help small businesses survive and augmenting our efforts to prevent gender-based and domestic violence.

Among our most ambitious efforts is the $170 million campaign to ensure no New Yorker goes hungry. To that end, the mayor has appointed a food czar to ensure food distribution continues to come into the city and out to anyone who needs it. 

The city now operates more than 400 meal hubs citywide that offer 250,000 grab-and-go meals to New Yorkers daily. Another 25,000 meals are delivered to our seniors.

COVID-19-New-York-Food-Pantry-Food-Insecurity.jpgFood Bank for New York City volunteers hand out packages at a mobile food pantry during the coronavirus pandemic at Barclays Center Friday, April 24, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York.
Image: Frank Franklin II/AP

Still, the path before us is long and difficult, one we cannot walk alone. The mayor has consistently appealed to cities across the nation and world to help New York in its recovery. Indeed, many have answered the call for volunteer medical personnel and donations of surgical masks, gowns, and face shields for our health care workers.

At the NYC Mayor's Office for International Affairs, we too recognize the power of strong partnerships and have leaned into our relationships with the international community to help our city fight COVID-19. 

Now, as the city plans its recovery, International Affairs is also building on a foundational program we created to bring together subnational governments (mayors, governors, and regional authorities from around the world) — the Voluntary Local Review

The Voluntary Local Review is a process by which subnational governments can report directly to the United Nations on their progress in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

The real power of the platform, however, is in the exercise of subnational actors coming together to exchange best practices on issues that affect our communities. Since we submitted the first Voluntary Local Review before the UN in the summer of 2018, this initiative has become a movement that activates local governments to accelerate change in their communities.

In the age of COVID-19, it’s more crucial than ever to focus on global communication and collaboration that results in the replication of best practices. We are all facing a common enemy, one with no regard for domestic or international borders. As cities around the world consider a fresh start, let us come together with the Sustainable Development Goals as our guide, so we can rebuild stronger and better, and, indeed, leave no one behind. 

Penny Abeywardena is the Commissioner for International Affairs, New York City. Penny has led the City's global platform for six years, which promotes NYC’s goals for a more just society, showcasing the diversity of New Yorkers and exchanging policies and best practices with the world. Her agency serves the largest diplomatic corps in the world, including strategic partnerships and programming reaffirming NYC’s local leadership on global issues.

She serves on the Board of Directors of the United Nations Development Corporation, the United Nations Fund for International Partnerships, and the International Advisory Council of the International Peace Institute (IPI). Penny is a French-American Foundation Young Leader (2017), a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader (2016), Co-Chair of WEF’s Global Future’s Council on Cities & Urbanization, and a member of the SDG Strategy Hub.


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