Like most mayors, Mansur Yavaş has shepherded his city of Ankara through the coronavirus crisis with urgency, efficiency, and hope. Yet there is one quality that explains why he has lately become the most popular big-city mayor in Turkey – and even more popular than President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It can be seen in advertisements put up around the capital at the start of the COVID-19 emergency.
The ads encourage wealthier residents to help pay the bills of poor people, either directly or through a special nonpartisan charity. Tens of thousands of people who now have no jobs, for example, have shown up at grocery stores only to find their tabs already paid by an anonymous donor. “Kindness is more contagious than disease,” the ads state.
Mr. Yavaş’ campaign, known as “One Heart Ankara,” is echoed in Istanbul where another popular mayor, Ekrem Imamoğlu, has his own “pay it forward” campaign. It also helps poor people get rid of virus-related debts, such as overdue electric bills.
Around the world, cities have been at the epicenter of the pandemic, both in the number of lives lost and in being closely watched for the quality of governance. Mayors, who govern closest to the people, have had to show high levels of compassion along with a firmness and wisdom in enforcing social distancing, shelter in place, and mask-wearing.
One of the most common words they use is kindness. The virus has hit the most vulnerable people in urban areas and, as it recedes, mayors want to focus on inclusive recovery.
“Let’s make kindness contagious,” Tampa’s Mayor Jane Castor often tells residents. In April, she had the highest approval rating – 78% – among Florida’s big-city mayors. She also is known for starting citywide dance parties “to remind us that we will get through this together.” Residents can tune into local radio stations once a week and dance and wave to neighbors while listening to the same tune.
Many mayors realized early on that outside aid was not coming soon. Atlanta’s Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said her motto was “God bless the child that’s got his own” (from a Billie Holiday song). The city has spent millions to aid seniors, children, homeless people, and others.
During the crisis, hundreds of the world’s mayors have shared their best practices through a virtual forum sponsored by the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative. At a recent forum for American mayors, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker said, “We need you to help us heal from the unnecessary strife and division in our country. ...We need your compassion, your grace, and your love of your fellow citizens.”
One reason kindness has been so necessary is that the crisis has sown disunity. “This is a virus that thrives off of division,” says Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “We can all show respect and be respected and appeal to our better angels.”
Kindness is not written into any city laws, as far we know. But a law of kindness now seems evident in many cities. And it’s spreading.