COVID-19’s Lessons for Sustainable Development

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In an article posted to, Brian Woodall of the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs joined colleagues in the School of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Purdue University, and Arizona State University to consider the infrastructure and sustainable development implications of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID-19 offers many lessons on sustainable development, if we are willing to learn,” wrote the authors Adjo Amekudzi-Kennedy of the School of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Samuel Labi of Purdue, Woodall, Mikhail Chester of Arizona State, and Georgia Tech Civil & Environmental Engineering doctoral student Prerna Signh.

Among those lessons, according to the article which is under review by a peer-reviewed journal:

  • Think long term. COVID-19’s rapid spread helped reveal how critical threats can pose risks to sustainable development. For instance, mass transit is facing what could be the largest economic crisis in decades as many riders have been forced to stay home while others nervous about close human contact have stayed away from buses and trains. “Once touted as a most sustainable form of transportation — that is, from the standpoint of per capita energy consumption and carbon emissions, it is clearer to many today that mass transit may itself become a critical risk to sustainable development.”
  • We need multiple modes of transportation to be most resilient. “COVID-19 is teaching us that perhaps it is not so much about one mode versus another, or which transportation mode is best from only one perspective (e.g., environmental) or a limited set of perspectives; but rather there is wisdom in planning for and investing in a robust multimodal transportation system that offers multiple convenient and cost effective choices.”
  • Sticking close to home is one way to increase resiliency. “The movement of the nation at large to teleworking and tele-schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic is causing many to ask questions about how essential it is to travel back and forth on a daily basis for work and school.”
  • Economic capital is key. The authors cite the more than $2 trillion U.S. coronavirus relief package passed by federal lawmakers as evidence of the need for economic resiliency in the face of critical threats to sustainability. “Communities at all scales (i.e. municipalities, nations, regions and others) that possess robust economic capital and thus are economically resilient can afford to make such financial infusions to curb economic risks while efforts continue to manage the pandemic and find a vaccine and/or cure.”
  • Social capital is just as crucial. “The collaborations and partnerships that have been formed, some very rapidly, to fight COVID-19 must signify to all that it is possible for the global community to come together quickly and with resolve to seek, find and implement solutions to common sustainable development challenges — particularly when these challenges are existential in nature and are playing out rapidly.”

The article, “Reflections on Pandemics, Civil Infrastructure and Sustainable Development: Five Lessons from COVID-19 through the Lens of Transportation,” was posted to on April 6. It already has been downloaded more than 500 times and viewed more than 1,000 times.

Woodall, a professor in the Nunn School, focuses on sustainable development issues, including clean energy, climate change adaptation, global energy security, and transportation.

The Sam Nunn School of International Affairs is a unit of the Georgia Institute of Technology Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts.


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