Clearly people of color — particularly African Americans — are disproportionately infected by the virus. A recent Washington Post analysis of government data shows that counties around the United States with a majority of black residents have triple the infection rates and nearly six times the death rate as majority-white counties.
For example, blacks are 26 percent of the population in Milwaukee County, Wis., but represent 73 percent of the coronavirus deaths there, according to the report.
Government officials at the state and federal level have pointed out that African Americans have higher rates of heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, making them especially vulnerable to coronavirus.
Such health problems often stem from conditions of poverty, poor nutrition and substandard housing in marginally safe neighborhoods with low-performing schools and limited access to employment and health care. Without access to affordable housing in stable neighborhoods, many Americans will escape neither poverty nor the coronavirus.
Infrastructure investment is a strategy for combating deteriorating economic conditions spawned by the pandemic. Most of us think about roads, bridges, transit systems and public utilities, along with education and health care. But affordable housing is an essential component of infrastructure, an investment need especially evident as the coronavirus infects so many of our country’s most vulnerable people.
The U.S. government is now spending trillions of dollars to provide relief to the national economy, and trillions more will probably be forthcoming. Yet, rather than being dispensed short-term, some moneys should be invested long-term in infrastructure, including affordable housing.
A related, much-needed investment is training — and retraining — to benefit millions of unemployed or underemployed Americans affected by the pandemic. Job training programs could be created relatively quickly, and they would provide employment opportunities for training program teachers and managers as well.
Fortunately, infrastructure-related jobs, especially construction work, can be undertaken by workers able to effectively maintain social distancing. This matters in the near future when reliably testing and identifying individuals with asymptomatic coronavirus infection, and determining those who are immune, will continue being a challenge.
Skeptics have noted that many infrastructure projects aren’t yet “shovel-ready,” that years of lead-time before groundbreaking are needed for designing, engineering and obtaining multiple approvals and permits through the typically onerous regulatory process.
In ordinary times, this is unavoidable. But these are extraordinary times when we must prepare and mobilize nationally to combat the virus and its crippling effects throughout the country. Because of the immense scope, risks and dangers posed by the pandemic now and in the future, Americans and the U.S. government must set aside conventional roadblocks and greatly accelerate planning and plan implementation.
Although unlike preparing militarily for war, some wartime mobilization plans and actions during World War II — undertaken nationally — could serve as precedents for mobilizing an infrastructure campaign to fight the pandemic.
From 1942 to 1945, Americans bought war bonds to help finance the war effort. Today, the federal government could sell “Pandemic Bonds.” Throughout the country, private industry quickly converted to designing and manufacturing planes, ships, tanks, weapons and other urgently needed military materiel, all accomplished in less than four years. We could scale up and do likewise today.
Women were quickly recruited, trained and employed to work on assembly lines in factories. Today, millions of men as well as women need employment and need training.
Another reason to begin planning for an infrastructure investment strategy is that we now have time to plan. Social distancing and quarantining will probably continue for months, not weeks, as will current health-care challenges. How much TV can we keep watching?
Planning can proceed virtually, via the Internet. And it must be pursued, managed and coordinated nationally as well as locally. Above all, such a plan must be created by a partnership of public and private stakeholders: agencies and elected officials at all levels of government; business owners and real estate investors; design and construction professionals; economists and financial experts; and public-spirited people.
Of course, planning step one entails identifying leadership needed to do this at all. This is always the most difficult step.
Roger K. Lewis is a retired practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.