Before Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick dragged it fully into the public spotlight, there was a dangerous argument lurking on the sidelines of our public discourse: That we should make a different trade-off between economic growth and public health than we have been making as we combat the coronavirus pandemic.

We understand that reasonable people have legitimate concerns about the damage being done to the economy. And we recognize that the financial damage being done may itself likely come with a cost of human lives.

But the argument we see creeping out of the shadow compares dollars and cents to human lives. And here’s where we believe the lieutenant governor’s leadership takes us down a dangerous path because it can quickly get to a place where people accept creating a greater health risk, particularly for those who are old, infirm or otherwise vulnerable, to save us from losing a few points off our economic growth.

It is here where the argument is deadly and leads to a coarsening of our culture, leads to a place where we devalue human life based on underlying health conditions.

What Patrick said to Fox News host Tucker Carlson on Monday night was this: “My message is that let’s get back to work. Let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it.” He also said, “And those of us who are 70 plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country.”

The truth is that what Patrick is pitching will lead us to a place where more Americans will die preventable deaths, because if people follow his lead they will disregard the advice of health experts and spread a deadly disease.

In some cases, those following Patrick’s lead will themselves become sick, but they are not the only people who will be put at risk. Even a small number of bad actors could accelerate the spread of this pandemic and thereby put the rest of us at risk, too. And it should be clear, those with underlying health conditions — be it through advanced age, respiratory disease or some other condition — will die at higher rates than the population at large.

To say, therefore, that the lieutenant governor is being irresponsible with these comments is to give him too much credit. He’s failing the leadership test at a critical moment and thereby endangering the very people he is supposed to be protecting.

We must recognize that, in its central logic, picking economic health over public health is immoral and does not reflect the values that have made this nation great.

What sort of society puts its most vulnerable members at greater risk while the strong or the young “get back to living?”

That is not who Americans are. It is not who Texans are.

Here, the strong shoulder the load for the weak. Here, the young respect and care for the old. That is who we want to be. That is our best humanity. That is what makes us a decent society and one that is worth preserving.

Our economy isn’t who we are — it is the end result of us adhering to our values, including valuing human life over short-term economic gain.

The strength of our nation is born from our cherished ideal that each person is endowed, through nature, with rights and dignity. We live together in a union of shared sacrifice, where the protection of those rights and dignity falls most heavily on the strong.

In the freedom that flows from that protection, we create commerce in a free system of trust and fairness ever reliant on the first principles of the protection of the rights and dignity of each member of society. It stands to reason that those rights and dignity begin with life itself.

What scares us is that this idea that we can leave the old and the ill to their fates in the name of saving the economy is getting greater purchase with each passing day. This is a moment when fear is setting in, when people are less likely to make rational decisions. It is, therefore, a point when public leadership is even more crucial.

And unfortunately, we are not getting the help we need from leadership at the top to direct us toward the right moral response to the crisis.

President Donald Trump seems to be losing patience with his own policies just nine days into the social distancing measures his White House laid out.

“America will again and soon be open for business — very soon,” Trump said at the White House Monday. “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.”

What health leaders — and local elected officials — across the country are calling for is enough time to ensure that infection rates don’t spike so rapidly that our hospitals are unable to treat all of those in need. They are playing for time, and thereby protecting all of us.

We do not want America to have to make the terrible choices we have seen made in Italy, where care is simply not available for everyone because of the deluge of sick and dying patients overwhelming the health care system.

These are hard times. They are times when we must make choices as individuals and as a society. We don’t know how long this sacrifice will last. We know that what has been asked so far is light when compared to what was asked of other generations, and that it has only been asked of us now for a few days.

This is a moment when we can look back and say we did what was selfless and right, or a time when we can say we left others to look after themselves and thereby needlessly accepted the loss of life.

The nation we will be when we emerge from this depends on that choice.

We want to be the nation where the strong among us determined that it was our time to make the greatest sacrifice for the good of all. That is the America that budded in the revolution and saw us through the Great Depression and Second World War

That is the America we can and want to be.

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©2020 The Dallas Morning News

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