Flanders tackles pandemic’s sustainability fallout

The pandemic drastically affected how the sustainability campaign week looks, but Flemish communities came (virtually) together nonetheless, says Heleen Voeten, a staff member for VVSG’s International Team. [Shutterstock/Pedro Rufo]

It is clear that the ongoing coronavirus crisis has offset sustainability efforts: thousands of personal protective equipment items are thrown away every day and the pandemic has increased poverty and inequality. Flemish communities have taken these setbacks head-on, bringing together individuals and local authorities to tackle disparities caused by the pandemic.

Every September, the Association of Flemish Cities and Municipalities (VVSG) hosts the Week of the Sustainable Municipality, in honour of local organisations and individuals who demonstrate and uphold the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The pandemic drastically affected how the campaign week looks, but communities came (virtually) together nonetheless, said Heleen Voeten, a staff member for VVSG’s International Team.

All 17 SDGs are intertwined but the 2020 campaign focused on three specific areas: poverty reduction, health and well-being, and tackling inequalities.

Local activities included “helping out to your municipality, helping older people in the village get to the things they need, helping to distribute masks,” and later volunteering at vaccination centers, Voeten said.

VVSG provided municipalities with online resources, videos, and activities to engage and bring together their citizens.

Increased infection, decreased access 

UN research says that the pandemic has overwhelmingly halted or reversed a decade of progress in health and life expectancy. Roughly 90% of countries still report one or more disruptions to essential health services, and health workers have been “stretched to their limits.”

And on the local level, Voeten emphasised that many families had “less access to […] healthy food,” and some students “had to follow home-schooling and didn’t have the right equipment or the right situation at home to support them.”

In the long term, Voeten said, individuals and leaders can learn from the challenges of the pandemic in order to reduce the possibility of a similar situation in the future.

“If we pay more attention to biodiversity, to our surroundings, to the environment, we will be better equipped to not have to face something like that again, or face it with a lesser impact,” Voeten said.

In order to do that, officials say, the sustainable development goals (SDGs) must be placed at the “heart of local policy.” A July 2020 report from the VVSG argued that “it is important to restart economic activity without falling into old patterns of environmental degradation.”

And Flemish municipalities have taken note — two-thirds of local Flemish governments have included the SDGs in their multi-year plans for 2020-2025.

The planet in the pandemic

2021 marked the fourth consecutive year of the Week of the Sustainable Municipality and the corresponding SDG Day, on which participating municipalities raise the SDG flag.

Each year focuses on one of the five UN pillars of sustainable development — planet, people, prosperity, peace and partnerships. This year’s focus was the planet, centering upon the climate and sustainable growth during and after the pandemic. 

“We only have one planet and within its boundaries, we can build society (people) and our economy and well-being (prosperity),” the campaign website reads.

VVSG works with Flemish authorities on the promotion and communication of the SDGs within their communities, as well as long-term implementation in local and regional strategies.

Each municipality is provided with a manual and digital campaign materials for the year. VVSG has also created recyclable drink coasters, bingo cards, and activities for all ages which succinctly highlight each SDG and how to achieve them.

Through outreach and events, Voeten says municipalities can highlight how individuals and organisations are already contributing to sustainable development.

“In that way, we hope to inspire the other citizens so that they start to realize that [sustainable development] is not something they cannot contribute to or something that’s far away, but it’s something really concrete and they can do their own piece every day,” Voeten said.

[Edited by Vlagyiszlav Makszimov/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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