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Pandemic response in Gdańsk

Interview with the mayor of Gdańsk, Aleksandra Dulkiewicz. Interviewer: Paulina Siegień.

July 20, 2020 - Aleksandra Dulkiewicz Paulina Siegień - Interviews

The mayor of Gdańsk, Aleksandra Dulkiewicz. Photo: Lukasz Glowala

PAULINA SIEGIEŃ: What has changed in your life with the coronavirus pandemic? Has anyone called you the Corona-mayor?

ALEKSANDRA DULKIEWICZ: A lot has changed both in my professional and private life. Adhering to recommendations from public health authorities we changed the way we work, including my closest staff. There were more virtual meetings with the previous face-to-face encounters suspended. We need to come to terms with the new crisis situation, changing how we organise not only our kindergartens and schools, but also our finances. A lot has changed outside of work too. I got to see my mother on Mother’s Day, May 26th, after over two months of keeping my distance. My daughter’s school entered our home, like schools have done in millions of other homes in Poland. Every parent of a school-aged child experienced quite the upheaval at home in the beginning. We live in a very creative age.

What was the biggest challenge from the perspective of running a city during the pandemic?

To safely prepare nurseries, kindergartens, schools and other facilities used by the people living here. I have personally visited a few educational institutions right before they have opened to make sure we are 200 per cent ready. This concerns the safety of our children, educators and parents.

How did Gdańsk handle the situation?

The citizens of Gdańsk played the greatest role in the fight against the coronavirus. It was their great mobilisation and discipline in the first days of the crisis that kept us low in the infection charts. Thanks to this we were able to work calmly and make decisions, even if we were in a crisis situation. The inhabitants felt a shared responsibility for families, neighbors, friends or coworkers. This human solidarity was clear in the first days with different aid initiatives being set up. This was very encouraging. It was also important to me that people of Gdańsk had access to verified information in a situation that was new to us all. This is why we tried to use any means possible like chats, online conferences or live conversations on the internet.

In recent years the city has been high in tourist rankings, with the streets filled with guests from all over Europe. Now it is empty. Can the tourist business survive this current crisis?

I don’t want to despair. I would rather look optimistically into the future. Trying to predict tourist stats today is a bit like divination from a cup. Until recently we were unsure of how holidays would look like and if borders would be re-opened. We did not know when we could travel abroad or when the internal and external borders of the EU would open. I think that we will probably spend leisure time in Poland this year. This is why I am optimistic. We are doing everything to encourage Poles to visit our city. We have started a promotional campaign #Czasnagdansk – #timeforgdansk, because Gdańsk is not only just landmarks and historically important places. We have places to run and bike, a rich gastronomical base and an improving leisure economy. We are organising the Saint Dominic market this year too, albeit in a changed formula in adherence with the sanitary regime so it will be safe for both visitors and vendors. So pack your bags and come to Gdańsk!

Perhaps the situation forces the city to change and refrain from further developing the tourism industry? Especially since the citizens themselves have started to get overwhelmed by the growth of tourism.

The situation with the coronavirus proves that your thesis is a bit farfetched. Please talk to the owners of hotels, restaurants, pubs and entertainment centers. Talk to the citizens themselves, the students, the gastronomy workers. An empty Gdańsk with empty streets is just sad. A lack of tourists will mean bankruptcies and poverty. I believe that we can find a middle ground between a city friendly both to tourists and the people who live here, including the center, where I live. Gdańsk has become a popular city to visit, but we should keep in mind that we are not nearly as popular as Barcelona, Rome or Amsterdam. So we haven’t experienced the same tourists waves here yet. We have limited options working for the people that live in the center. We have hired a manager for the downtown, who will listen to the voice of the people who live there and protect their interests. We have a close collaboration with the police, city guard and the district council.

There are many migrants who reside and work in Gdańsk. A majority of them, as in other Polish cities, come from Ukraine. They have mostly worked in the service sector also connected with the tourism industry, which was hit the hardest by the pandemic and subsequent lockdown. What will happen with these people now? Will the City of Gdańsk follow up and does it have any ideas on how to support them?

I am aware that many foreigners left the Tri-city and Poland at the beginning of the pandemic. This is natural as our priority is to safeguard our families and be together with them. This was the same for Poles, who returned home in droves. I have talked about the situation of workers from across our eastern border with the Ukrainian consul. According to him, every second worker from that country left our city. Thankfully the situation is slowly returning back to normal. The Support Center for Immigrants is monitoring the situation, because in this difficult time we have to show solidarity with all workers regardless of where they come from.

Cities around the world are faced with many challenges now. We had climate change even before the pandemic. Poland is experiencing a drought and the cities endure heatwaves. Now cities are changing the way they operate and adapting the cityscapes to the pandemic. Scientists have pointed to the fact that the virus could stay with us for many months, even years. How will Gdańsk plan for these challenges?

This is a crucial issue, as the climate is changing right in front of us. In many places in Poland we are already suffering from droughts. This is why we have signed a declaration together with the Union of Polish Metropolises pledging to fight the drought, along with a code of good conduct. We want to solve these problems together because droughts don’t limit themselves to one city or province. Gdańsk is a leader in this. Years ago we created a program that monitors ground waters, informing us of how much water there is. Furthermore we have made concrete large scale investments. Over a 15-year period we have spent half a billion Polish Złoty on constructing and modernising over 50 retention tanks holding on to water. We also have some softer policies that include education, asking people to refrain from mowing their lawns and financial support for having rain gardens. A few weeks ago we gave out barrels that collect rainwater in a competition. We need to pair investments with education. That will have an affect.

The city of Gdańsk has always been involved in building friendly partnership relations with cities in Eastern Europe. The closest example is just 150 km away in Kaliningrad, which has been “cut off” because of the pandemic. In normal times the citizens of that Russian exclave were eager to come to Gdańsk for weekends relaxing and shopping. Will it be possible to renew these relationships after borders will be reopened?

This is a question that should also be directed at state politicians. Because it wasn’t Gdańsk that limited movement within the so-called small border traffic with the Russian territory, which I remind you was introduced in 2016 during the visit of Pope Francis. The easing of restrictions for crossing the border had a significant impact on the movement of tourists and stimulated the local economy. I do not see a reason why we shouldn’t make the rules simpler, but only after the fight against the pandemic, which has become a great challenge for our neighbor.

Translated by Daniel Gleichgewicht

Aleksandra Dulkiewicz is the mayor of Gdańsk.

Paulina Siegień is a freelance journalist, writing about Polish-Russian neighbourhood and general Russian developments. She is currently working on a book about the Kaliningrad Oblast.

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