How New Orleans Prioritized Equity In Fighting COVID-19

On The Frontlines is a joint project between NLC and IGNITE Cities

In the ‘Big Easy,’ where life has always moved at its own pace, Mayor LaToya Cantrell had to make a quick decision to slow the economic and social pace of her city when it was discovered as a hotspot for COVID-19.

As confirmations of infections spiked, Mayor Cantrell and her team quickly recognized a pattern in the Crescent City. The virus was disproportionately impacting blacks and in particular those already facing health inequities. As the mayor explained, the city’s response was immediate. To continue its efforts to flatten the curve, the mayor and her team identified the city’s own hotspots and took testing to these highly vulnerable communities.

Q&A with Mayor Cantrell

What personal barriers have you faced in responding to COVID-19 in your community and how have you overcome them?

MayorCantrellOne of the biggest barriers we have faced as a community is the disproportionate impact the virus has had on the Black community. In Louisiana, nearly 58% of those who have died from the virus were Black; there was a time a few weeks ago where that rate was at 70%. We know on the front-end that our Black community has higher rates of all the risk factors that tend to make this virus fatal, such as hypertension, diabetes, and chronic kidney disease. New Orleans’ African American population is just over 60% – meaning that the majority of our residents are at a higher risk for COVID-19 complications and death.

We need to call out these fatal inequities and identify deliberate, lasting, structural changes to eliminate them. This only speaks to the generations of structural racism that we have faced, such as lack of access to healthcare and economic opportunity. Because of these barriers, African Americans, as well as our Latinx community, have high rates of chronic disease, premature death, and shorter life expectancy. Minority communities came into this pandemic at a deficit. As we move toward recovery, we must account for the acute economic vulnerability in our communities of color, which compounds the health disparity that exists. Our response — at the City, State, and Federal level — must take this into account. We have to meet people where they are, and that means understanding this as an equity issue.

What role has technology played in keeping your city up and running – give an example, if possible?

Technology is an enabler. As a data-driven city, technology puts real-time information at our fingertips for critical decision making: for example, the Covid-19 dashboard aggregates public health data, City resources and geographical information to determine how to respond to the community effectively; helps measure progress against national and world data; new datasets assist with the distribution of resources throughout the city – 911/311 dashboards, datasets.

Technology has played a major role in how we communicate during this pandemic. It keeps us in touch with our residents/community through virtual meetings, online resources, and websites; Ex. Zoom/Webex calls with community leaders, neighborhood associations; A lack of communication or response informs us where other types of services or resources are needed, such as social media tools that identify geographical areas where the response is good/poor.

Virtualization allows city staff to shift focus from in-person services to assisting remotely to maintain public health and health of city workers, and it ultimately allows us to continue providing services, such as an online city permitting process. We have been able to mobilize the workforce and make information systems remotely available so our staff can continue working. A successful measure of that has been remotely managing code enforcement to enforce compliance throughout the city.

How are you, as a mayor, rethinking public-private partnerships to change policy around serving the needs of your residents? (i.e. Gov. Cuomo on 3.30.2020 gathered public and private hospital systems and arrived at policy to serve the full state’s health needs which had not ever been achieved.)

We are all in this together, and the government cannot do it alone. We are facing a $130-170 million budget shortfall this year, and a lot of the resources from the federal government through the CARES act are going through the State, which is one more layer we have to work through to get our people what they need.

We are working to pivot businesses to meet the needs of the response. For example, many of our small distilleries are switching over to manufacture sanitizer. We are partnering to find innovative ways to restructure business models to meet the current and upcoming needs not only for supplies and equipment but for workers as well. We are working with a team of business and community leaders to identify those areas where we can invest in our people and our economy to build a more sustainable and resilient future. Another area where we are relying on the partnership of the private sector is Contact Tracing, particularly in our restaurants and businesses that will be opening up to more of the public.

Our people are so creative, and when they are put to a challenge like this, we see people rise to the occasion and come up with new ideas for how to improve their operations. We love to see this kind of innovation, and we are trying to find ways to scale up or support the ideas that are working.


About the AuthorMelissa Williams is a communications and marketing manager at NLC. She supports NLC’s membership and partnership teams.




About Our Partner: IGNITE is a global consulting practice designed to develop, engage and ignite relationships with Mayors, CIOs and global technology firms. The objective is to architect a connected city by placing people at the center of our purpose. IGNITE has refocused the connected city space and developed a smart framework that can scale, replicate and become profitable. The result creates a visible impact that is measured by PEOPLE through citizen engagement, transformed infrastructure and improved city services.