Skip to Main Content

To help slow the spread of COVID-19, medical experts have advocated for social distancing practices, which require individuals to stay at least six feet away from those around them. However, in places with a high population density, maintaining and upholding social distancing can be difficult. Infrastructure—like roads and buildings—affects the way we move around and interact with our environments and each other, so differences in infrastructure could have a profound impact on where the coronavirus spreads.

However, infrastructure causes vulnerability to disease in more ways than just one’s proximity to others. For example, without sufficient digital infrastructure—access to the internet—people may be unable to stay up-to-date with relevant information being shared online. Moreover, without sufficient broadband connection, people who otherwise would be able to work from home safely may be unable to fulfill their work requirements due to poor internet access. This means they must further expose themselves to the virus by traveling to access such resources so as to earn money and survive. This not only impacts their short-term resilience during the pandemic, both from a health and economic perspective, but may have longer-term impacts on their economic growth potential.

In hopes of better understanding the link between these different forms of infrastructure and the spread of COVID-19, Daniel Armanios has received funding through the National Science Foundation’s Rapid Response Research (RAPID) program to explore this overlooked nexus.

“The aim of this research is to better understand the associations between COVID-19 and infrastructure,” said Armanios, an assistant professor of engineering and public policy. “Our hope is if we find that infrastructure has these impacts on the pandemic, then this can help us better manage this current outbreak as well as better prepare for future ones.”

If infrastructure helps us understand wage inequality or spread of COVID-19, then one could use natural infrastructure buildup to identify where to target limited testing and economic relief resources.

Daniel Armanios, Assistant Professor, Engineering and Public Policy

The relationships between infrastructure and pre-pandemic society have been well researched, but COVID-19 has the potential to change our understanding of that relationship. In the past, research has suggested that a person is better off in a more densely populated area. Increased population density usually correlates to better access to a variety of critical services. Especially relevant in the face of COVID-19 could be decreased hospital distances—the closer you are to a hospital, the better off you are in a medical emergency. But due to the impact of the coronavirus, we are now seeing that we need to better understand how to protect a highly dense populous from its potential health risks while continuing to reap the socioeconomic benefits of such density.

Armanios’ research intends to shift the way we look at infrastructure’s relationship with public health and, more generally, social equity. By understanding this, Armanios says, we can better consider physical and digital infrastructure as not just obstacles that contribute to the spread of coronavirus and its detrimental impacts, but also potential avenues for creative solutions.

“Infrastructure is an understudied element that could be useful in this fight against the coronavirus,” Armanios says. “Our thought is if infrastructure does indeed help us understand wage inequality or spread of COVID-19, then one could use natural infrastructure buildup to identify where to target limited testing and economic relief resources.”

Armanios’ project, titled “American Infrastructure and Service Work in the Era of COVID-19 Transmission” has been awarded funding for one year, and also lists plans for educating young engineers in the interface of engineering and social science research. Armanios will be assisted by incoming Ph.D. student Nicola Ritsch.