Finally, I found someone to help me with two conjoined questions that I have been trying to untangle for weeks. First question: What about the disease? Second question: What about the economy?
Miguel Solis told me how to figure it out. Don’t untangle.
But everybody wants to untangle. Monday, I had a column about the economic shutdown and the threat of hunger. The next day I wrote a thing on Facebook about how crazy the anti-shutdown people are.
A smart Facebook commenter replied: “I’m not sure you get to pick and choose. This is a key element of the argument against draconian lockdowns. If you supported government lockdown, the unemployment, hunger and economic devastation are your fault directly.”
I get what he was saying. If I want total protection from the disease through lockdown, stay-at-home and social distancing, then do I not have to accept moral responsibility for the terrible economic consequences and pain inflicted on human beings by my quarantine?
If I want everything opened up and back-to-business right away, am I not going to be morally liable if the disease comes roaring back, kills people in numbers and kills the economy for good?
Solis, who has been tapped by Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins as a special assistant on COVID-19 relief efforts, is the first person I have found who has a sane answer for the either/or dilemma. Basically he tells me we have to not let that be our dilemma.
“What we are dealing with at the moment is something our generations have never had to deal with,” he says, “which is the radical ends of a spectrum. We’ve always had vaccines, and we haven’t had a disease that was this easily communicable.”
Always before, he says, we had the pharmaceutical and medical weapons we needed, and we faced foes we were capable of taking down fairly efficiently. Those two factors kept things down the middle for us. We didn’t have to decide between what Solis calls the radical ends of a spectrum.
Now we face two simultaneous conditions we never wanted to confront: no vaccine and very high communicability.
“Because of those two things,” Solis says, “we are in the radical realms, one of them being to shut everything down, Wuhan lockdown style, and ride the storm out. Or do nothing and know what comes with that, which is herd immunity and mass casualty.”
Wait. This is what I didn’t want. This is what I have been trying to untangle. Isn’t there a way out of the either/or paradigm?
Solis says yes. But then he uses this term. Bayesian. Well now I will just have to pay attention, because I know Solis, so I know we’re headed somewhere interesting. Somewhere very Bayesian.
Just to cut to the chase, I will tell you now what he means. The two radical ends of the spectrum are equally bad. We can’t allow this to be either/or. We cannot consign vast numbers of people to die in order to salvage the economy. We cannot jettison the economy to save every life.
There will be more deaths. There will be more economic damage. But we have to steer the ship down the middle of the channel and not let the crisis push us onto the rocks on either side. The perfect answer is going to be fewer deaths, less damage.
No deaths is not an option. No economic damage is not an option.
That can feel like a very dissatisfying answer in this age when everyone is brilliant and knows the answer to everything and knows that anybody who disagrees is stupid. But this crisis is telling us that we have to get over that stuff if we want to survive intact. Solis may be a perfect guy to put that truth into action.
Jenkins’ decision to tap Solis for help is a good example of the way Jenkins himself is going after the crisis. He’s like Larry Hogan, the governor of Maryland who just bought half a million test kits from South Korea.
Some local leaders are simply accepting the reality that there will be no national policy or logistical mobilization. Leaders like Jenkins at the local level who want to protect their communities know they must get creative and reach outside normal government channels to make things happen.
Solis, 33, a product of Lamar University and Harvard and a candidate for mayor last year, has always occupied an interesting position overlapping elective politics and the private sector. He was Dallas school board president in 2014 when the city was an impact zone for Ebola.
The family of the first victim had kids in the school system, so the fear was that schools and buses would become the vector by which the disease would spread. That did not happen.
Solis worked hand-in-glove with Jenkins, school Superintendent Mike Miles and Dallas County Health Director Zachary Thompson to accomplish a number of key goals. First, obviously, was to seal off the school system physically from the disease. Another was to allay public fear and tamp down panic.
But Solis was particularly important in a third area, just as important but more difficult to quantify, having to do with social equity and trust. We are seeing it right now with COVID-19 even more vividly, but it was a factor with Ebola as it must be in any general threat.
People have to believe that the effort against the threat is going to be fair, aboveboard and not corrupted by special privilege or influence. Or they won’t go along with it. And with something like a virus, the countermeasures will not succeed if the effort against it is not universal.
That’s where Solis has occupied a unique niche. Son of a South Texas school teacher, Solis has a keen sense of social justice and the true costs of inequity and discrimination. But as a champion of the Miles reforms in the public schools, Solis also developed strong allies in the business community, enabling him to be an effective nonprofit fundraiser.
That’s part of what Jenkins tapped him to do for COVID-19. In five weeks, Solis already has raised $600,000 from the private sector to aid in Jenkins’ outside-the-box campaign against the disease. He also has been able to leverage business relationships to invent more or less from scratch a supply chain of medical protective clothing and items like hand sanitizer produced by people who were in totally different businesses before Solis called them.
Earlier this week, the extreme anti-shutdown partisans tried to gin up a thing about Solis double-dipping and about D Magazine profiteering from the disease. Solis is CEO of a nonprofit started by D Publisher Wick Allison.
In fact, Solis is on loan to the county from the nonprofit, Coalition for a New Dallas. His compensation scheme, which he devised himself, is set up to make sure he won’t make a single extra nickel by working for Jenkins. Nobody knows better than Solis why doing it like that is important.
I think accusing D Magazine of secretly profiteering from the pandemic, crazy and awful though the accusation may be, is also a useful illustration of the stakes here if we miss. It shows us the jagged rocks reaching for us like hungry teeth from both sides of this channel. It’s also why Solis, with a history of successfully navigating exactly these kinds of waters, is a man of the hour.
So, Bayes. Because I talk to Solis and Solis went to Harvard, I now know that, of course, he’s talking about the Bayes theorem, named for the Rev. Thomas Bayes (1702-1761). Tom, as I now call him, invented a theory about information, probability and prediction. It’s so far over my head, I’m not even going to risk hurting my neck.
But Solis gets it. And what he’s saying is that we steer down that deep center channel and stay off the rocks on both sides by scooping up more and more information as we go: “You literally have to do this with a day-to-day Bayesian approach,” he says.
“That is, you figure out how you can balance riding out the storm while bringing society back to life and consistently tweaking tactics.”
The fuel is information. What are the test results telling us? What is the death rate, where and why? Where are the hot spots and where are the cold spots? Where do we need to keep things shut down, pulsing testing and treatment? Where can we afford to experiment with opening things back up?
For example, one of his ideas that may soon become fact is making some of the testing facilities mobile. If the disease is hitting harder where people are less mobile, make the response more mobile.
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On the school board where he is finishing out a final term, Solis has been a major factor in helping the board get past some very bitter polarization. He wasn’t the only person on the board who got it done, but he is closely identified with the group that did.
In that effort there were two main principles. One was a tough, honest, truth-and-reconciliation-style recognition of past sins. The other was simple respect. Respect was the ticket to get into the game.
I hear Solis telling us that we can’t untangle the problem. The answer will not be either/or. We have to do both things at once, protect human life and save the economy. That means we will have to go carefully down the middle based on the best information we can get.
But it also means that we have to untangle ourselves. This virus, the next virus, the next weather-driven infrastructure catastrophe: These challenges will not afford us the luxury of tribal division and extremism. There are no liberal or conservative holes in the boat. Just holes. Respect is the only caulk strong enough to fix them.