OPINION - Now we must tackle the next frontier in public health

Sadiq Khan has urged the government to ensure public bodies are ‘women-friendly’ workplaces (PA)
Sadiq Khan has urged the government to ensure public bodies are ‘women-friendly’ workplaces (PA)

The pandemic changed our world, transforming our understanding of and attitude towards public health. As the first truly global pandemic of the modern era, the outbreak inspired a level of coordination and cooperation previously unseen between cities, as mayors, governors and municipal leaders looked less to national governments for guidance and support than to each other.

Now, as the world continues to recover from the social and economic fallout of the Covid years, capitalising on that collaborative spirit will prove essential to tackling the cause of 80 percent of deaths worldwide: noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) and injuries.

NCDs like heart disease, lung disease, cancer, and diabetes present considerable challenges for global public health. NCDs are a scourge putting immense strain on public health systems, but they are largely preventable. And tackling these issues isn’t just the right thing to do – it makes economic sense, too.

In a post-pandemic world, city leaders are uniquely placed to take this work forward, shaping cities that promote and support good health. This week in London, the first-ever Partnership for Healthy Cities Summit will take place, with more than 200 mayors and delegates from cities around the globe. Our goal is to share ideas, develop solutions, and show leadership in protecting the welfare of our citizens. By harnessing the ingenuity and ambition that will be in the room, together we can forge a healthier future for all.

Of the interventions supported by the network, air quality is a top priority for a number of cities, including Kathmandu. Overdose prevention is a focus in San Francisco. For Freetown, food policy leads the list; in Amman, it’s tobacco control.

Of course, every city is different and faces its own challenges. And not every solution is applicable across borders. But both of us have seen first-hand how cities benefit by learning from one another – and how smart and effective local policies don’t stay local for long.

New York City was a forerunner in promoting public health by making bars and restaurants smoke-free, and introducing calorie counts on menus before other cities and entire countries saw the benefit and followed suit. New York also knew a good idea when it saw one, borrowing bike sharing from Paris and rapid bus transit from Bogotá.

London has worked hard to reduce health inequalities and improve child nutrition by investing in healthy early years initiatives, restricting adverts for unhealthy food and drinks and expanding active travel. The city is also cleaning up the capital’s toxic air through the extension of the world’s first Ultra Low Emission Zone. That progress is informing similar efforts across the globe.

Strengthening that kind of bold city leadership is the goal of the inaugural Partnership for Healthy Cities Summit. And we know what when cities succeed, nations notice – and local policies can go national. That is how New York City’s rule requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts, for instance, became a federal law.

As the acute phase of the pandemic recedes, there is a risk that public health once again takes a backseat to the economic or political crises of the moment. That must not happen, not with so many lives at stake – and mayors are acting with an urgency and shared purpose that more national and regional leaders would do well to replicate.

Sadiq Khan is Mayor of London and Chair of C40 Cities. Michael R. Bloomberg was Mayor of New York City from 2002-2013, is founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies and Bloomberg L.P., and serves as World Health Organization Global Ambassador for Noncommunicable Diseases and Injuries.