With a new administration in Washington, the end of the pandemic in sight and one of the toughest years in recent memory behind us, the question for national and state leaders is how do we heal? West Virginia has clearly shown we can respond to a crisis by leading the way on COVID-19 vaccination and testing, but we still face a lot of serious problems in the Mountain State. West Virginia continues to lose population, desperately needs economic diversification and must enhance social services while reducing bloated budgets. That doesn’t mean we haven’t seen success, such as attracting new-age businesses like the Virgin Hyper Loop or industrial giants such as Proctor and Gamble. What the leaders of our state cannot become is complacent, especially when the world as we know it is changing around us. How we respond coming out of this crisis might determine prosperity for generations to come. If anything, West Virginia cannot and should not return to the “normalcy” as we knew it in March 2020.
As this pandemic reshapes workplaces across the world, we need to think about how this might affect business recruitment and economic development. Many of those who were forced to work from home will not be returning to the same office post-pandemic. This means those workers no longer need to reside close to their employer. For a rural state like West Virginia, attracting that workforce, who wish to escape the metropolis for a freer and simpler lifestyle, will be key to population growth. At the same time, COVID-19 showcased many flaws in our current distribution channels especially when it comes to food. To improve resiliency, states must look inward for vital commodities for sustenance, social services and emergency response. Economic development and emergency response become intermingled as we look to decentralize production in the United States.
Social services and utilities also showed flaws under current systems as many of our citizens lacked vital amenities necessary to surviving a pandemic. To ensure we are prepared for the next crisis, West Virginia must bolster key social services that invest in our citizens. We can start by offering healthier food choices to school children, as well as struggling families. At the same time, leaders must expand broadband services, so no child goes without access to the internet. Our citizens should be able to obtain well-paying jobs by expanding vocational training opportunities, as well as funding for higher education. These are only a few examples, but state leaders, program directors and the citizens of our state must encourage necessary governmental changes to strive for a system that works for the people by the people.
As Legislative leaders convene for the first time since the pandemic started, there will be many pressing matters. With an influx of federal funding under the CARES Act, no issue is more important than the budget for the next fiscal year. That budget should not just focus on the response of the day but how we continue to move West Virginia forward. Evaluating how dollars are spent, as well as the tax structure of our state, will determine how quickly we rebound economically. State leaders need to invest in critical infrastructure vital to emergency response and quickly push funding towards economic development, as well as recovery. Getting people back to work while attracting new job opportunities to the state is the only way to guarantee a healthy budget for the coming years.
To the citizens of West Virginia, I encourage you to be part of the change. Reevaluate what is important to you, make that career change, challenge yourself to improve your life, start planning that next big trip. Most importantly, hold our leaders accountable. For the sake of our state’s and country’s future, we must move forward together. We know there will be lasting effects to this pandemic, but just as any other hardship, how one responds is important. Support local businesses, love thy neighbor and strive to be a better person. We can clearly see the light at the end of the tunnel. It is time we heal together as one nation.
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.