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A COVID Lesson on Infrastructure

Dr. Philip Fischer clearly endorses large infrastructure investments, but thinks that this bill is off target. In his view, the disconnect between the COVID emergency, which we continue to experience, and future investment, is both illogical and dangerous.
A COVID Lesson on Infrastructure
This article was originally published on eBooleant.com. The meaning of Infrastructure has changed with COVID.

Now. Maybe. At last. We get an infrastructure bill. After so many years of pursuing an infrastructure bill, we should be grateful that we may be approaching one with reasonably broad backing. But, there are problems. There are many proposals now in Congress and the one the Administration is advancing looks ever more like the many headed hydra full of its numerous demanding needs.

We are being assured, as always, that the whole process will get trimmed into a coherent whole. Yet the world looks very different from years past. This is the pandemic-panic world we live in. The proposal carries forward years of effort and the whole frame of reference to the American infrastructure dilemma now seems oddly out of touch with the biological war we are in.

Few dispute the chronic underfunding of American infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineer’s annual finding that we are trillions of dollars behind the level of investment needed for a sound infrastructure is cited ubiquitously. And to broaden the appeal for federal infrastructure assistance proposals are overlaid with other compelling needs such as climate change, broadband access, and social programs for the aged and disabled etc.

Yet, after a year with COVID the approach seems off point. Yes, these problems need to be addressed, but so must COVID. Many of the programs offered in the infrastructure bill offer collateral help, but the focus needs to be on the biological infrastructure and security of the country. In fact, the legislation needs to solve the deficiency in American’s biological infrastructure before it can reliably deal with the myriad of other problems.

What does that mean? We are getting the basic outline of the Administration proposal to allocate three trillion dollars of investment or so. It is to be a “once in a generation” effort for roads, bridges and transit systems. It is to be a catchup bill to which climate change is appended to the traditional list along with a host of other vote getters. For completion, the bill would add a human capital component of free education from pre-kindergarten to community college. All of this is good. And to be endorsed but we may never get to it.

Understanding the urgency

The approach made a lot of necessary political sense pre-COVID. But, we have been forced to confront issues we thought were remote. The abysmal rollout of the vaccine effort has shown us that our “Sputnik moment” has arrived. States need to develop their biological infrastructure and it must be merged into a national net. FEMA and other agencies have elements of this along with the CDC. But much more is needed—like a national telemedicine network and prearranged escape routes for different types of infection.

We used to think that biology was a part of the general tech infrastructure but advances in biology have placed it in its own category. The COVID lesson is that infrastructure investment needs to include a response to the abysmal state level efforts to combat this pandemic. This is of course a part of the “prepare” mandate for natural disasters of all types, including climate change. But it is very much more specific to the problems of infection and isolation that are required here. The problem is vastly greater with state actors now involved and requires active federal/state participation.

The states should embrace it

Viewed in a macroeconomic perspective, this is a new tech opportunity with enormous benefits for states developing their biological infrastructure. Most states missed out on the information revolution. For the most part, this was not their fault. Few saw it coming and technological diffusion has been slow for the chip technologies.

This time the biotech revolution is well broadcast and enhanced biological infrastructure can serve to bring all the states into its benefits. It will provide the economic incentive to help build local and regional bio economies and it will focus infrastructure investment on the most pressing of national needs.

And there are a number of great state and local examples of BioPharma hubs to draw upon. They range from Chicago and Philadelphia to Boston and New York. Local involvement and financing have been key to their development. These are cases that bring real biological expertise into the local fabric of society.

We are not done with COVID, or more properly, COVID is not done with us. We cannot fix our infrastructure without addressing a fundamental threat to our society. The role of infrastructure is critical in our ability to manage many elements of our public health and it may take a year to think through how it should be applied now. But the chance should not be lost. Just because we haven’t had a plague of this degree in a century doesn’t mean that there haven’t been many close calls. A pantheon of treatments, not just a moonshot vaccine, needs to be ready in our connected country. Shakespeare lived in a time like this and wrote in Hamlet,

“Diseases desperate grown
By desperate appliance are relieved,
Or not at all.”

We have been dealt a COVID lesson on infrastructure this year. We could not contain it or avoid it. Our scientists seem to have come through with vaccines but only after many panics and deaths. We are far from understanding COVID’s origins and need to place our biological infrastructure in a much better position to handle the next round.

A note from Dr. Fischer: These are unfortunately uncertain times from numerous perspectives, ranging from political risk to credit risk. For help in risk management as well as analytics and research, get in touch at  info@ebooleant.com.