Mayor of Atlanta Keisha L. Bottoms discussed how her city has handled challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic in the latest installment of the Harvard School of Public Health’s Voices in Leadership series Monday.
Voices in Leadership is a series aimed at connecting scientists and policymakers to brainstorm solutions for public health issues. Mary Bassett, Director of the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights and HSPH Professor, moderated the event.
Bottoms, the 60th mayor of Atlanta, has also served as a judge and City Councilmember in the city, and is the first mayor to serve in all three branches of its municipal government.
As in many major U.S. cities, while Atlanta initially saw declining COVID-19 case numbers a few months ago, the tally has begun slowly ticking up again.
Bassett commended Bottoms’s response to the surge, adding that the mayor has approached the pandemic response as an “opportunity to rebuild and strengthen public trust in government.” Bassett contrasted that leadership choice to the federal government’s response to the pandemic, which she called “haphazard.”
“We’ve squandered a lot of public trust,” Bassett added.
Bottoms discussed a number of programs Atlanta has implemented to ease the pressure the pandemic has placed on residents. The city created funds for small businesses, suspended evictions and water payments, delivered food to students, and gave hazard pay to essential workers at the beginning of the pandemic. Unlike some other municipalities, the city was able to repurpose many of its own workers and avoid layoffs due to the pandemic, Bottoms said.
The city also provided homeless individuals space to quarantine at local hotels and information about the pandemic. Additionally, to reduce COVID-19 cases in Atlanta’s incarcerated and detained populations, Bottoms severed the city’s relationship with ICE and eliminated cash bail bonds, reducing the number of inmates in the city jail to 30 a night.
“We did every single thing that we could think of that would help soften the blow, but there's still so much more to be done,” she said.
Bottoms said the pandemic has shown the city the importance of addressing systemic health challenges which disproportionately impact communities of color, such as obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
“Unless we address those systemic issues — today, it may be COVID-19, and tomorrow, it may be something else.”
“You owe an obligation to your communities to address these issues,” she added.
Eric R. Andersen, who directs the Senior Leadership Fellows Program & Voices in Leadership at HSPH, wrote in an email that Bottoms is “a model of an effective leader” and “exactly the kind of person we want to highlight in the Voices in Leadership series.”
“Leadership in public health is about taking the science and translating it into steps to make lives better,” Andersen wrote. “That’s what we try to present in Voices in Leadership for our students — future leaders in public health — an opportunity to learn from leaders like Mayor Bottoms and to forge and build bridges for our scientists, researchers and faculty to connect with those at the forefront of making decisions.”
“The twin crises of the pandemic and its exposure of the fault lines in our society, from racial and economic injustice, is exactly why this handshake between science and policy is needed,” he wrote.