July 13th 2020. 
At the beginning of July, VNG International interviewed Mayors from three foreign cities, as input for an item on international good practices with regard to COVID-19 in the VNG magazine. You will find the interview with Mayor Wim Dries from the city of Genk, Belgium below. Information about the three interviews can also be found (in Dutch) in this article. 

Interview Mayor Wim Dries, Genk Belgium

1. How does your municipality deal with the dilemma of economy vs. healthcare? 

On May 7, we launched the ‘Genk Corona Relance Plan’, a societal, economic and social plan. Our city with its challenging context deserves and needs an integrated plan for the short and the long term, in which not only economic, but also societal and social measures reinforce one another and work complementary. This plan is supported with a budget of 14 million euros, 9 million euros of which will go to tax cuts for families and entrepreneurs. Another 3 million euros will be used to increase the purchasing power of the people of Genk and to stimulate local spending. Finally,  we will spend 2 million euros on societal and social measures aimed at talent development, combating poverty and the program ‘terug uit ons kot’ (back out of our houses) in a responsible way.  
 2. Does your municipality take a second outbreak into account? If so, how does your municipality prepare for this?

We are gradually moving from crisis communication to risk communication. ‘Together we persevere’ has been our baseline for the past 3 months. But you can feel that this is no longer sustainable. We are, therefore, shifting our focus to the risk of a virus flare-up. This requires persistence and a thorough change in behaviour from the population. We will continue to focus on this by bringing these measures onto the streets.
We are currently working on a scenario strategy on how we can quickly take the necessary steps when a new outbreak strikes.  This scenario is, of course, based on the measures that have been taken in the past 3 months and the lessons learned. It consists of 2 important elements: the city of Genk as an organization and employer and the city of Genk as a local government. 

3. Do you also see opportunities coming from the ongoing crisis?

Our city council has been investing in ‘the new local shopping’ for years. Out of necessity, it seems that the local entrepreneurs have really discovered online shopping during the crisis. The corona crisis means difficult times for local trade. But it also requires them to use the digital alternatives in their customer relationship and sales. This brought us a digital acceleration. In addition, the crisis has strengthened digital communication from the city of Genk with its citizens. We installed a strong web care team to answer citizens' questions. Thanks to this high-quality service, even more people from Genk have found their way to our online platforms. The online live ‘question hours’ of the mayor were a strong and appreciated initiative. In total, I answered more than 1,500 questions about the corona measures in 15 live sessions.
The crisis also brought additional attention to vulnerable groups. Some new initiatives were launched. We hope to continue this in the future. The platform of ‘Genk Helpt’ (Genk Helps) was created in the early days of the outbreak. This is a platform where questions regarding care needs are linked to voluntary work. We are currently looking at how we can implement this platform into our own services.
With ‘Operation Laptop’ we helped families with the necessary resources to participate in home education and pre-teaching. In total, we reached 733 children, through a fundraiser and a helpdesk. The city of Genk bought 100 laptops to support these families. This initiative will be continued in our integrated approach to strengthen vulnerable families. Just providing hardware is not enough, digital training is also a major point of attention here. 

4. Many municipalities started working on recovery plans. In the Netherlands, specific attention is being paid the support of vulnerable groups in the next phase. Is this also a point of concern in your municipality?

We are working on an approach to strengthen vulnerable families, groups and individuals. The Flemish Government provides budgets and measures to invest in vulnerable families. In addition, we will make resources available from the city of Genk to translate the Flemish support into an action plan. In this approach, we connect the chain curatively, preventively and pro-actively and we want to anticipate on the signs of poverty in an early stage.

For instance, we will focus on the following elements:

  1. Identifying civilians in risk situations by being present in crucial places. Our  efforts will have to be brought to the citizens in the neighbourhoods as much as possible.
  2. In order to detect poverty signals at an early stage, we receive signals of households that have defaults in payments via local advisory committees. This way disconnection from energy and water, and eviction (both in public housing and on the private market) can be prevented. 
  3. The efforts must reach the citizens. This remains a problem, especially for vulnerable target groups. We are extra committed to inform citizens and communicate key information, also through the partners in our network.
  4. Household budget deficits and payment arrears require various forms of financial support. Food aid and purchasing cards are offered from an additional municipal consumption budget.

However, poverty reduction is much broader than just rights and financial support. Therefore, strengthening the self-reliance of families has a place in our action plan as well.  For instance, we want to provide local holiday jobs for young people from vulnerable families. This way, family budgets are strengthened, which increases purchasing power. Alternatives are being created for the decrease in  summer jobs and other jobs for youngsters. In addition, this target group is given opportunities to develop their competencies and we offer them a perspective towards becoming more active.
We noticed an increased demand for psychological counselling for both young people and adults. This could be a result of isolation, fears,  insufficient financial resources, mourning, or being unable to say goodbye to loved ones who passed away. We are investigating possibilities for additional offers for psychological counselling, together with partner organizations.