The author F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” If they can drown out the chattering of media commentators and the so-called experts on social media, Texans are fully capable of handling a conversation about restarting our economy while protecting themselves, their families and their neighbors from a deadly disease.
The answer to the challenges facing us lies somewhere along the continuum between total social isolation and completely unrestrained social interaction. To find it, we’re going to need some thoughtful dialogue and a reasonable bit of compromise.
Unfortunately, the notion of artful compromise has been taking a serious beating over the past few weeks as our state, nation and world have wrestled with the false binary choice of economic recovery vs. coronavirus avoidance. If it’s any reassurance, my two decades in the Texas House were full of episodes in which opposing parties hashed out details across a seemingly insurmountable divide, be it Republican vs. Democrat, urban vs. rural or even Longhorns vs. Aggies. If the two sides of the current debate don’t start heading toward each other with open minds, the loss of lives and livelihoods could be insurmountable.
There is no question that the coronavirus is deadly. As I write this, more than 25,000 Texans have been diagnosed with the disease, and 690 have died from it. Had we not followed Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders and withdrawn into our homes, the science tells us, the numbers would have been much worse.
I’m encouraged that more than 11,000 Texans have recovered. But on the other side of the scale is the fact that, in the week before writing this, more than 325,000 Texans filed for unemployment. By the end of that same week, nearly 1.4 million Texans had filed jobless claims since the COVID-19 response began.
While we are doing what we can to stem the spread of coronavirus and tamp down fatalities, the economic peril has the potential to create its own public health crisis. A preliminary study from Meadows Mental Health projects a likely increase in suicides, substance abuse and depression based on loss of jobs and income. Based on their studies of past recessions and disasters like Hurricane Harvey, Meadows researchers project that every 5 percentage-point increase in unemployment in Texas during the COVID-19 recession in the course of a year could lead to an additional 725 Texans dying that year from suicide (300) and drug overdose (425).
Add in the projected rise in domestic violence, like the recent incident that resulted in the death of a responding San Marcos police officer, and it’s likely our efforts to protect life could be partly offset by the death toll of despair from economic hardship and isolation.
So, what do we do? Wait until the self-appointed “experts” on Twitter, Facebook and Nextdoor reach consensus? While I’m sure that would happen eventually (probably right around the time my great-great-great-grandchildren start grappling with their own global pandemic), we can get to a solution faster if we gather bright minds from science and medicine who can advocate for epidemiology best practices. We can balance their perspectives with those of civic leaders and experienced business owners who know our economy can’t survive a permanent pause. Then they deserve a minute to think, talk and make plans, because reopening businesses must be done with a scalpel, not a sledgehammer.
If you think that reads like a description of Gov. Abbott’s Strike Force, you are absolutely right. I’m honored to be a member of the Strike Force, and I am confident this is the best approach to shortening the decision-making cycle and setting guidelines for everything from when to restore elective procedures at hospitals to how to safely run a restaurant.
If Texans don’t feel safe and confident when re-entering a world beyond lockdown, they just won’t show up, and businesses will fail. If we take the carefree approach and infections spike, we might have to reset the isolation level back to the “complete and total” level.
Our challenge, then, is to find the perfect place on the spectrum between the two extremes of endless medical isolation and something that looks like a mosh pit at a concert.
Then, we all need to get comfortable with the reality that the perfect place on that continuum will actually move around as we monitor the data on infections and job growth. Emerging from our current state will require a delicate, continual recalibration with a measure of grace for all involved, be they decision-makers, business owners or doctors. When we get it right, our economy will rebound, public health will improve and, Lord help me, my actual kids can one day dive into a mosh pit at a concert.
I think we’re well on our way.
Dennis Bonnen is speaker of the Texas House. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.