OP-ED: The Perils of Perpetual Retreat

More than 22 million jobless claims have been filed in the aftermath of a purposeful economic shutdown to contain the coronavirus pandemic. Here at home, more Texans — roughly 760,000 of our neighbors — have applied for unemployment in the last four weeks than in all of 2019.

These stark numbers are deeply troubling, as each represents a different family or individual facing economic distress.

A thoughtful article in this newspaper recently highlighted the story of two Houstonians — Erin and Patrick — who own a small barbecue joint in Harris County. Like countless small business owners across America currently struggling to stay afloat, Erin and Patrick have furloughed their staff, stopped paying rent and paused food orders for their restaurant.

“It’s hopefully temporary,” Erin told the Houston Chronicle of her dire situation. “I guess we’ll know when we get through this.”

That disquieting combination of hopeful optimism and smothering anxiety is something I’ve heard frequently from constituents in my district. People understandably want to know how long the pause on the economy will last and when they can get back to work or open their business. We must provide real answers to these questions.

When I was in the Navy SEALs, if we were ambushed, we’d take what’s called a “tactical retreat.” It is a strategic effort to regroup, analyze our enemy, bolster our capacity to respond and then go on offense. That last part is key — we never stayed in a perpetual retreat. To do so would mean defeat.

Understandably, we made a tactical retreat when confronted with the invisible enemy known as COVID-19. But locking down society has wreaked havoc on our economy and upended livelihoods, a consequence that may have its own public health consequences: suicides, mental health problems and delayed medical procedures. It’s time to go back on offense.

Recently, I spoke with Harvard professor Danielle Allen, who argues that we should take a “mobilize and transition” approach to battling this pandemic. The approach can be summed up as mobilizing “to transition to a society with pandemic resilience that permits maximal mobility for as large a portion of the population as possible even when the pandemic is ongoing.”

What would that look like practically?

First, we must continue to expand diagnostic testing. 3.3 million tests have been given thus far and the administration expects millions more to come online shortly. Antibody serology tests also must be deployed in the millions, as they are easier to produce and administer. These can determine who has contracted the virus, subsequently recovered, and thus, gained immunity.

To expand the capacity of our health care system, we must take a granular approach at the county level, like Harris County has already done. A national-level focus on PPE and ventilator production is already underway, and we must direct capacity to hotspots that need it most.

Additionally, we must focus on mass producing the most promising treatments for coronavirus. As former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb recently noted, promising antibody tests and antiviral treatments are in development right now, and the FDA should increase the pace of safe approval of these treatments. Treatments do not replace the urgent need for a vaccine, but they can help bridge the months-long gap that will exist before a viable vaccine is developed.

Finally, public education must be part of our strategy. Americans must recognize the need to wear masks, limit large gatherings, practice proper personal hygiene and maintain a safe distance from one another. Businesses, restaurants and sporting events may have to implement various levels of risk mitigation and social distancing. Such measures may differ between locales, but they will allow for a structured return to regular operations with proper precaution.

This approach is not a panacea. Cases may re-emerge, but we must accept that as an inevitability and not a failure of our efforts. A mobilization strategy will help us be prepared for an uptick in cases and handle them appropriately, alongside a functioning economy and society.

Critically, we must engage in a debate about how to do this without the political opportunism that has infected our country alongside coronavirus, as I wrote recently. We need to stop offering the American people a false choice: save lives or save the economy. Such a claim is both disingenuous and counterproductive.

There is a balance between reopening the economy and battling the public health crisis. Doing so will allow us to stop our retreat and begin our attack against the coronavirus that has already cost countless livelihoods.