UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Outcomes of webinar on 29 April


© City of Swansea
13 May 2020

The UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) hosted a webinar on mental health, health and well-being in the time of coronavirus on 29 April 2020 as part of its ongoing series for members of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC). An overview of the impact that the COVID-19 crisis is having on certain vulnerable groups was presented by the World Health Organization (WHO), who shared health-related measure that cities could take to address the issue.

Representatives of UNESCO GNLC member cities, including Swansea (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) and Manizales (Colombia), subsequently shared a series of such measures. This was followed by a presentation by Charter for Compassion, an organization that advocates for a more compassionate world, and which is working to support people who are finding it difficult to cope during the pandemic.

Christina Drews (UIL) opened the webinar by linking the current pandemic to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: Though it has always been the case that there can be no sustainable development without health, she remarked, this reality has taken on a new significance as we tackle an unprecedented health crisis with far-reaching consequences.

Physical distancing is necessary to prevent the spread of the virus, yet it can come at a cost to an individual’s mental health, and the uncertainty of the COVID-19 incubation period – when an individual may have the virus but has yet to show symptoms – can fuel anxiety. In extreme cases, social distancing equates to social isolation. In response to the challenges COVID-19 poses to our mental health, health and well-being, resilience is key, and resilience can be reinforced through robust lifelong learning programmes. When promoted on a city-wide level, lifelong learning can be instrumental in transforming urban areas into resilient human settlements.

World Health Organization (WHO)

Ms Monika Kosinska, Programme Manager, Governance for Health, Division of Policy and Governance for Health and Well-Being at the WHO, spoke of the pandemic’s multi-faceted concerns: there’s the virus itself, the burden of COVID-19 on health services, the strains caused by physical distancing, and the emerging economic crisis. Despite the current uncertainty and complexity of the situation, cities can play a key role in response and recovery efforts. As the closest level of government to the people and the operational partners of national governments, cities’ role in relation to COVID-19 is two-fold: (1) responding to immediate concerns, and (2) building resilience and sustainability within communites. Key actions from cities include supporting public health measures, increasing surge capacity in health systems, and assisting vulnerable groups.

COVID-19 is having a significant impact on public mental health, the main psychological impacts being elevated rates of stress and anxiety, and increased levels of loneliness, depression, harmful alcohol and drug use, self-harm and suicidal behaviour, with frontline workers, who are often under extreme pressure, and vulnerable groups likely to experience the highest levels of stress. Municipal governments are critical providers of the services and wider community support necessary to help address these issues.

Ms Kosinska closed by underlining the need for cities’ strategies for addressing COVID-19 to be sustainable and to respond to the ‘new normal’ of living with virus.

UNESCO learning city of Swansea, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

Mrs Julia Pridmore, Director of the College of Human and Health Sciences (CHHS) Health and Well-Being Academy at Swansea University, talked first about how her institution is working in partnership with the British National Health Service (NHS) and the third and private sectors to preserve health and well-being by leveraging academic resources and supporting regional development.

The pandemic constitutes a call to action for mental health science to find the most effective, individualized ways of coping with social isolation and anxiety brought on by COVID-19; for example, by tracking loneliness in order to intervene early. Research can also help to reveal the impact of COVID-19 and its associated restrictions on the well-being of individuals, families and communities, Mrs Pridmore continued. In the UK, for example, the Understanding Society study (the largest longitudinal study of its kind) will provide researchers and policy-makers with data on the changes and stability of people’s lives in the UK, including during the pandemic. Data is expected to be made available by the end of May.

In Wales, there has been a focus on community empowerment, as well as mental health literacy and promoting well-being through work. Public Service Boards have been established to carry out ‘well-being assessments’ of their local authorities and publish an annual local plan as part of the Well Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act.

Echoing a term used by Ms Kosinska, Ms Pridmore referred to the current time as ‘the new normal’ and urged webinar participants to think of well-being in relation to broader issues, such as environmental degradation and anthropogenic climate change, the gap between psychological science and population health, the role of society identity in the development of meaning and purpose in life, and the importance of social ties to well-being.

UNESCO learning city of Manizales, Colombia

Mr Camilo Younes Velosa, Vice Rector of the University of Manizales, explained that the city of Manizales has provided resources to low-income families, supported institutional action plans, prepared an intensive care strategy and more in order to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.

Universities are vital and visible actors in coordinating responses in Manizales, where one in 10 people are in some way involved in the higher education system. University-based initiatives have included efforts to support students with no internet access at home, as well as the significant proportion of the population without formal jobs and who are therefore more susceptible to financial insecurity and anxiety. The ‘tele-health’ initiative – coordinated by the two universities with medical schools in Manizales – supports the psychological health of local citizens. It has had a significant impact across the city, helping over 47,000 people so far. Sharing the example of local students volunteering to buy and deliver food to those who cannot go to the supermarket, Mr Younes asserted that – across COVID-19 response efforts – resilience is the goal, but solidarity is needed for resilience to be achieved.

Charter for Compassion

Ms Marilyn Turkovich, Executive Director of Charter for Compassion, introduced her organization as an umbrella for people to engage in collaborative partnerships worldwide. Its ‘integrity training’ programme is 10 weeks long, delivered online, and is centred on self-compassion and compassion for others, with a focus on understanding how compassion might help to transform and sustain institutions. Additionally, online meditation sessions are organized at different times of the day to reach different world regions. By participating in these initiatives, people have realized that anxieties and concerns about COVID-19 are shared around the world. Ms Turkovich highlighted the current difficulties faced by parents as they adapt to having to homeschool their children; in North America, very few school systems were prepared to be closed down and so, in many cases, adequate measures were not in place for distance learning. Parents’ increased responsibility for their children’s learning is one of the many ways in which people’s lives have become more complex in recent months.


The first question shared by moderator Ms Marie Macauley (UIL) built on Ms Turkovich’s final point by addressing the well-being of parents and children. Highlighting the fact that children who are being homeschooled may use digital media in a way that is not always the most productive, she asked participants to share their suggestions for avoiding the overuse of digital solutions.

Ms Pridmore shared results from the Understanding Society survey, which found that younger generations take solace in digital communication, but young people should be helped to compartmentalize the day and identify which digital sources of information are useful. In the current conditions, it is possible to spend the whole day and evening in front of a screen, so people should develop plans to ensure their use of devices is purposeful; this will help to preserve well-being.

Mr Younes argued that the teacher or professor has a responsibility to identify the current realities faced by families and adapt accordingly, for example by utilizing different communication channels depending on which are preferred by learners, though he acknowledged that this leads to an increase in teachers’ workloads. Ms Kosinska explained that we are not at the point of transitioning out of the virus, and so the digital tools we are using are going to continue to be the main channels of communication and learning for a long time to come. Ms Turkovich suggested another approach to preserve well-being: rather than each lesson requiring the learner’s constant presence in front of a screen, the teacher can set objectives and tasks and then people can move away from the device to produce something. In this way, there is no need to be in front of a device all day.

Ms Marie Macauley brought the session to a close by informing participants that UIL will continue to gather resources and develop case studies on cities’ responses to COVID-19 in the weeks and months to come.

GNLC webinars

This ninth online event was part of the UNESCO GNLC webinar series ‘UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19’. Devised as an opportunity for members of the network to share successful local initiatives during the pandemic, the webinars regularly attract hundreds of city representatives and other stakeholders, including non-members. Cities from different world regions give presentations, and participants engage in thought-provoking debates about how best to deal with the current situation – namely, how to mitigate its worst effects and, in some way, seize unexpected opportunities. Click the links below to read summaries of the seven previous webinars.

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Measures developed by cities for migrants and refugees during COVID-19. Outcomes of webinar on 22 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Higher education institutions’ support for local communities. Outcomes of webinar on 15 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19. The cases of Mexico City (Mexico), Bogotá (Columbia), Lima (Peru). Outcomes of webinar on 9 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Family learning and community support. The cases of Gdynia (Poland) and Cork (Ireland), as well as insights by experts from Germany and Pakistan. Outcomes of webinar on 8 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Equity and inclusion. The cases of Espoo (Finland), Chengdu (People’s Republic of China), Swansea (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland). Outcomes of webinar on 1 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19. The cases of Osan (Republic of Korea), Wuhan (People’s Republic of China), Turin (Italy), São Paulo (Brazil). Outcomes of webinar on 24 March

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19. The cases of Shanghai and Beijing (People’s Republic of China), Fermo (Italy), Kashan (Islamic Republic of Iran). Outcomes of webinar on 19 March

Don’t miss the opportunity to join our upcoming webinars. Further details can be found at https://uil.unesco.org/event/gnlc-webinars-unesco-learning-cities-response-covid-19.

Watch our video interviews with mayors and other representatives of UNESCO learning cities on responses to COVID-19 at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLivu_GCiL2mjYQOp64hcvzGNsC75QKSLw