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What’s Still Running? The Impact of COVID-19 On Critical Infrastructure 

By Sarah Dimock

The COIVD-19 coronavirus has impacted our society in completely unprecedented ways. With many businesses changing their practices or being forced to shut down entirely in the wake of the pandemic, what’s going on with those critical services that affect all of us? How is the government handling the response right now, which critical infrastructure jobs have been mandated as essential, and how can we expect this to impact our future? 

Critical infrastructure in the United States is currently made up of sixteen sectors: food and agriculture, energy, dams, critical manufacturing, government facilities, transportation, chemical, nuclear, financial, defense, water and wastewater, healthcare, commercial facilities, emergency services, communications, and information technology. Each of these functions is, well… critical! As a society we are deeply impacted by the ability of these services to remain operational at all times, perhaps now more than ever as we weather the coronavirus crisis. 

The good news is, ALL sixteen sectors are currently being considered essential by the government. In late March the CISA, The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, released guidelines both publicly and to local and state governments outlining the official government response on essential critical infrastructure workers. These guidelines clearly outline the importance of keeping the sectors running, stating, “Functioning critical infrastructure is imperative during the response to the COVID-19 emergency for both public health and safety as well as community well-being. Certain critical infrastructure industries have a special responsibility in these times to continue operations.” 

The CISA states that their guidelines are intended as recommendations rather than official mandates and that all businesses should be referencing CDC guidelines for dealing with COVID-19 when planning their response (You can read the CDC guidelines to staying safe during COVID-19 here). Work at a distance is encouraged where possible, although many of these workers are unable to do their jobs remotely (think defense and security personnel who work on secure networks, subway car operators who may be the only means of transportation for some, or grocery store employees who are a part of food and agriculture). 

Healthcare workers are, unsurprisingly, considered especially essential, followed closely by emergency services like police officers, first responders, and even security staff who protect buildings. Food and agriculture is asking workers throughout the supply chain to continue operations – including farmers, grocery stores, pharmacies, truck drivers shipping the food, government food assistance programs and charities like Feeding America. The energy industry called out workers in electricity, natural gas, and petrol/propane specifically. Some of the more unique jobs being asked to keep on keeping on include miners, lumber workers (especially those making paper), clergy members, repair men and women, animal shelter workers, and laundromat employees. 

The bad news is that certain sectors are currently under more strain than usual. Besides the obvious one: healthcare, defense and information technology are also being tested. Cyber attacks are on the rise around the world as the pandemic forces criminals to ground. WHO, the World Healthcare Organization, has seen a rise in cyberattacks, with one of their testing labs recently being hit by a ransomware attack. The lab was reportedly working on vaccines, possibly including options for COVID-19. 

For the next few months, we can likely expect a greater demand for workers in fields like cybersecurity, healthcare, communications, energy, and emergency services. Our critical infrastructure jobs are still essential, and while other businesses are shutting down it’s likely that jobs within these sixteen sectors will remain safe even from stay home or shelter in place orders. 

Our advice right now?  

  1. Don’t panic. The government is prioritizing critical infrastructure, which means you will still be able to get food, have running water, electricity, or obtain help if you need it. 

  1. If you know anybody working in one of these industries THANK THEM. They are working, often at their own risk, to keep you safe, healthy, fed, etc. 

  1. Be smart. Keep up with your state response as it unfolds and look for info from reputable sources on how to protect yourself from COVID-19. Stay home if you can, as much as you can to keep not only yourself and your loved ones safe, but to put less strain on critical infrastructure workers as we get through this together. 

Information and graphics retrieved from The U.S. Department of Homeland Security: https://www.cisa.gov/identifying-critical-infrastructure-during-covid-19