We recently invited Matúš Vallo, Mayor of Bratislava to join us for Transitions 2.0.

Hello everyone, dear friends and dear colleagues, I would like to share the story about our work in Bratislava to tackle COVID-19. Of course, this is not only a dominant topic in Bratislava during the last year, but in every place and in every city in the world. Thank you very much for having me here. And thank you for being willing to listen to the stories of our lovely city.

COVID made us adjust many decisions, as well as the direction of our projects and policies. The struggle to protect the most vulnerable groups of our population while trying to run the city was very demanding, in terms of our energy, effort, time and funding. But it also showed me, and all the inhabitants of Bratislava, what a splendid team of people ready to provide the assistance we have around us. What I'm very proud of is that it revealed the amazing spirit of solidarity and responsibility of Bratislava. You can see the empty streets during the first phase of COVID.

On a black background four images show empty streets across Bratislava

A year ago in Bratislava cases were not severe, it was very easy and everybody was following the rules. We have this campaign where the main motto was ‘our only vaccine is discipline’. We put a lot of effort into this communication and it looks like it worked.

The current crisis has shown how much rebalance inhabitants play in the towns where they live. The helping hand of the state proved not to be sufficient in Slovakia. And this happened across all of Europe, in more than one city. Our new government took office a year ago and all of us were facing an unprecedented situation where we had to deal with the problems we had not been able to prepare for in advance. But we must always lay emphasis on the importance of information and its time of delivery to the people. That was our key motive, a team of people to communicate in a very precise and simple way.

Because of the failures in how the government managed the processes and communication, the city took matters into our own hands. So let me show you the concrete steps we’ve taken in Bratislava to mitigate the negative effects of Coronavirus and to protect inhabitants of our capital city.

People were frustrated at not having clear information on how to behave and what rules to follow. For instance, even in the case of a major decision on preventing the closure of schools in Bratislava at the beginning of the crisis last year, the Ministry of Health failed to provide clear information about the closure until the last minute. Because of the risk and need to protect our inhabitants from rising numbers of infection, our self governing authorities at the local and regional level assumed the responsibility and decided to close the schools in Bratislava temporarily. This ultimately proved to be one of the best decisions to slow down the spread of Coronavirus.

Protecting our most vulnerable

Right at the outset, we had to quickly cater for the needs of vulnerable groups of Bratislava inhabitants, the elderly and homeless. Our city became a leader in this area. At the time we had no anti epidemiological standards. At the municipal level, we developed comprehensive measures and contingency plans on how to deal with COVID-19 PCR testing for the elderly and staff in the senior houses run by the city. That was a very important part of all this, Slovakia is one of the most tested countries, we use testing as a tool.

On a black background an image shows a women being tested for COVID-19 by two people wearing PPE

We put in place quite severe and sometimes difficult measures in terms of how and what kind of contact our clients in senior houses can have. And these protective measures have significantly affected the lives of seniors in our facilities. They have been insulated from the outside world and their loved ones. And of course, this is a problem.

To elevate this difficult situation we organised a series of concerts right under the windows of our senior houses. It was a small thing, of course. But it was during the first wave of COVID where everybody was super worried. They weren't able to meet their families for three months and so we ran with this small concert programme under the balconies and it was nice. I think it's worked well.

On a black background two images show residents in a care home watching the orchestra below

Slovakia’s first traffic light system

On the professional side, we evolved an internal epidemiologist in all our activities including the development of the first colour coded COVID-19 traffic light system in Slovakia for early warning on the current situation, assigning measures corresponding to every phrase. This was between two big waves during the summer, we worked a lot with our COVID crisis team and we prepared this colour coding guideline for us.

On a black background a laptop shows a traffic light system of red, amber and green actions to take in response to COVID-19

The main reason behind this was not to make decisions under pressure. So we know when the R number, which is important for us, is going to be bigger than one we're going to do this. And if it's going bigger than 1.2, we’re going to take different measures, and so on.

The reality of being homeless

We made arrangements to distribute our personal protective equipment, which is very important and available at the time to senior houses and government organisations working with the homeless. At the time there was no access to such equipment at the state level. Later on, we received help in this area from our newly established team of municipal social field workers. They provided assistance in the distribution of face masks and disinfectants as well as food packages and brochures on available assistance in Bratislava.

Having no access to hygiene facilities, healthcare or housing while meeting other people daily is the reality of being homeless during a pandemic. People without a home are a very vulnerable group in society and especially vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic. So we decided to set up a quarantine town with medical and psychological care for people without homes who have nowhere to go in case of home quarantine.

On a black background two image show individual housing for the homeless and two people in full PPE

This quarantine town for the homeless is still in operation today. And in recognition of the creation of the safe area, we received the Innovation in Politics Award, which I'm very proud of.

The pandemic of loneliness

We created the senior helpline to support the parallel pandemic, evident in every city in every state, which is the pandemic of loneliness. This big problem was already happening without COVID-19. Now imagine how difficult it was for our older people during COVID, and it wasn’t only our older people that were affected. Intending to provide support to all senior citizens of Bratislava we created this helpline enabling them to stay in contact and receive emergency assistance. There were calls asking about information and many wanted to talk to somebody.

From the beginning of the crisis, we regularly published timely and transparent information and recommendations concerning the latest development related to Coronavirus on the city website as well on our social networks.

Our only vaccine is discipline

In March a year ago, we also launched the information campaign I already mentioned, called our ‘only vaccine is discipline’. In April 2020, we published material presenting three scenarios of the impact of Coronavirus in Bratislava, to identify the risk and reduce negative impacts on the functioning of the city and the life of its inhabitants. That was quite important for us.

On a black background a computer screen shows the 'only vaccine is discipline' campaign with advice to stay safe

There wasn't a crisis scenario or some contingency plan for infection of Coronavirus. So we created one, and it was quite difficult to openly talk about how many graves we are going to need in the worst-case scenario.

In March last year, we introduced increased disinfection of all public transport vehicles and automatic door opening to reduce the need for passengers to come into contact with surfaces on public transport. If you want to open the door on our public transport before the stop, you need to press the button, this is a small detail. But from the current crisis onwards, you don't need to press anything. All doors are open at every stop.

In cooperation with our armed forces, we introduced increased sanitation in our public places to give homeless people access to drinking water and basic hygiene. That was very important as a part of this effort to curb the spread of Coronavirus the municipal police have overseen public order and compliance with the restriction ever since the outbreak of the first wave.

On a black background an image shows the armed forces installing public hygiene facilities

Municipal police officers are also proactive in areas of prevention, for instance, by urging people to respect the obligation to cover the upper respiratory tract, these are signs to wear a mask. In case of need, they can even supply people with face masks.

Everybody from day one, when the government said ‘we need to wear a mask’ was wearing a mask; on television, during meetings and everywhere on the street. And I think this was something which showed how discipline, in this case, was important for us, and how our citizens were following the rules.

In the second wave which hit with an even greater force, there was again a lack of adequate cooperation between the central government and the self-governance region in Bratislava. I need to say between the first and second wave we had a change of government.

Also, the pandemic cooperation between the central government and self-governing authorities has shown that we became the key actors. For instance, in organising the testing and communication of relevant guidelines. When the government launched weekend mass testing, we insisted on setting up a permanent mobile testing site. At the self-government level, mass testing carried out solely over the weekend could present a risk of the virus spreading, given the large number of people waiting in line to get tested.

Instead of weekend-only testing, we set up 54 permanent mobile testing sites in Bratislava. Each with one or two sampling teams and a total capacity of at least 120,000 tests per week. During times of bigger surges, we were able to make regular testing available to residents

on a continuous basis through the weekdays and also the weekends. I need to say in this case, of course, this permanent mobile testing site was a government thing and we cooperated with our government on this part of the fight against Coronavirus.

The vaccine is the only way to overcome the virus

The vaccination is the only way to overcome the virus and protect the health and lives of ourselves and those close to us and finally return to normal life. Just as the vaccination campaign started, the capital city encouraged the staff of nursing homes run by the city to sign up for vaccination in order to maximise the vaccination coverage of both staff members and clients. We provided assistance to the facilities that fall under the establishing authority of the city in the area of vaccination management, and the registration of applications for outpatient vaccination.

At the same time the city launched a new campaign under the motto, ‘it's time to hug again’. As a part of this campaign and with the aim to provide senior citizens with vaccination-related information, the capital city started publishing a vaccination news bulletin that we distributed to all facilities within the city limits and the other seniors living in Bratislava.

Currently, we’re expanding this assistance to the seniors living outside of care facilities. We recently opened a vaccination line designed to help the general public register for the vaccination and host cases where the application must be filled electronically, which may be rather difficult for the elderly.

On a black background and elderly resident receives their vaccine from their home

I'm sorry to say that Slovakia is one of the countries in the EU with the lowest number of vaccinated elderly people. And I'm sorry that our government is not doing enough, there is no real campaign running from the government right now. With the anti-vaccination movement out there, elderly people are afraid and unsure. So we’re trying to explain and help them in a very easy way to be vaccinated.

This has been a concise overview of the steps we have taken at the municipal government level to combat the pandemic. I'm convinced that through these steps we have greatly contributed to making Bratislava amongst those Slovak districts that currently have a more favourable epidemiological situation.

We realise that the threat of the virus has not passed, just the opposite. If we let our guards down against the virus, we risk going back in time and facing a sharp increase in new infections. We’re permanently stressing how important it is to comply with the rules and to avoid risky contact. We’ve persevered doing this through several tough months and we should continue doing it for a few more days and weeks to give meaning to the hardship we have endured to bring the pandemic under control. Together we can do it.

Thank you very much for your attention.

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