Six months into this pandemic, many of us are trying to regain normalcy while adjusting to the realities now facing us. As we grab hold of these new challenges, state leaders need to start planning for the societal adjustments that will move the country forward. Like any good after-action plan, we need to determine successes and failures, and start planning for future emergencies. Events like the COVID-19 pandemic show us how we can do more to invest for better outcomes. We know that state leaders will be motivated to tackle these problems head on, as they will have federal resources at their disposal. With an abundance of issues to overcome, leaders will have to make some tough policy calls. There are three sure-fire areas in which the state should consider investing: healthy food initiatives, broadband and crisis response infrastructure.
Good nutrition is vital for populations to overcome any type of pandemic. This became abundantly clear when many people with underlying health issues were proven more susceptible to COVID-19. While poor health issues can stem from various factors, lack of healthy lifestyles seems to be at the top. Living healthier lives begins with eating better foods and choosing locally-grown products, and the best way to do this is to source more food from West Virginia farmers. Many of us have already turned to local farmers as the national food system experienced bottlenecks. As demand increases for these products, West Virginia must foster growth to increase the availability of locally grown foods. This means further development of in-state processing, in order to become independent from centralized, national food systems.
The pandemic forced many businesses and organizations to experiment with the work-from-home concept, as offices were shut down to reduce the spread of Covid-19. At the same time, urban populations saw rampant spreads which led to many city residents to consider moving to rural locations. WVU’s economic expert John Deskins argues that this is an opportunity for states like West Virginia to capitalize on our built-in social distancing; and for that to happen, we will need access to reliable broadband services. Between Zoom meetings and many projects being handled virtually, our state will never be able to take advantage of this cultural shift if people cannot work from their hills and hollers. Simply stated, there is no work-from-home without good internet.
With the pandemic, it became evident that our state lacked crucial personnel and resources to act efficiently. As testing and traceability became essential tools to safeguard our citizens, it became increasingly clear how outdated and inadequate West Virginia’s government laboratory facilities have become. Lack of investment from our state’s leaders left those same leaders scrambling to find testing options to ensure citizens’ safety. At the same time, there were huge backlogs for supplies and reagents for our laboratory equipment, which limited the work our staff could accomplish. It is time the state invests in its own resources to guarantee that we are not in a similar situation ever again. We must invest in crisis response, especially within our state-run laboratories, to better prepare for future emergencies.
The COVID-19 pandemic will bring significant cultural shifts and many other changes to our lives. More importantly, it will also dominate policy decisions for years to come. National and state leaders will spend countless hours and resources learning how to better prepare for the next potential outbreak. Those decisions will determine how billions, if not trillions of dollars are ultimately invested. To reiterate, regardless of where those conversations are headed, West Virginia leaders should spend a lot of time focusing on healthy food initiatives, broadband technology, and crisis response infrastructure. By making the right choices, we can save thousands of lives.
Kent A. Leonhardt
West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture
The West Virginia Department of Agriculture protects plant, animal and human health through a variety of scientific, regulatory and consumer protection programs. The Commissioner of Agriculture is one of six statewide elected officials who sits on the Board of Public Works..