Texas Tough? COVID-19 and the Precarity of the Lone Star State

Texas is known for being big and tough but the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to reveal it as under-serviced, impoverished and facing a systemic collapse that will devastate the most vulnerable.

“Tough” is a well-known brand for Texas and Texans: they are bootstrappers, gritty, and down-to-earth. As one writer after the storms of 2010 put it, “Texans are a legendarily hardy people”. The ubiquitous Texas H-E-B supermarket chain has its own “Texas Tough” brand of household plastics derived from the overproduction of oil companies and marketed as especially durable. All such adjectives derive from a settler colonialism that erases Native and Mexican peoples of the region to privilege the white, slave-owning immigrants who took over. Ironically its name, Texas, derives not from toughness but from a Caddo word Tejas, meaning friend. But since its foundation in 1845, Texas has thrived at the expense of its Black and brown inhabitants: even before COVID-19, the Texas Tribune noted: “A Hispanic or black child in Texas is three times as likely to live in poverty than a white child.”

The ways in which COVID-19 will exacerbate racial disparities throughout the US is becoming painfully obvious. As Charles M. Blow of The New York Times writes, centuries of racial inequality, particularly in healthcare, mean that “We may be waiting for a racial time bomb to explode with this disease” (April 1 2020). Despite the desire of Texas to be seen as tough, and arguably because of its history of racist exploitation, the state is set to be one of the biggest victims of the ravages COVID-19 promises to deliver.

Poverty and Race

Irish people of a certain age might best know Texas through the 1980s all-white soap opera Dallas, which, while it certainly punished the greedy JR Ewing, still pandered to the plutocratic myth that some people are born to be rich; for some reason, we all loved to ogle what we would never have ourselves. While much of that show was fantasy, much was reality and the oil dynasties of Texas persist today, along with a collection of Texan billionaires from other sectors, to make up one tenth of America’s richest with a combined wealth of $2.96 trillion according to the Forbes rich list, 2019.

Texas is the second largest economy among US states (after California) with a GDP of almost $20 Trillion—higher than Canada’s—but this stunning accumulation of wealth is offering little in terms of security or means to weather the sudden threats posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. If anything, its model of extreme capitalism, as elsewhere around the world, is being revealed as antithetical to the kinds of solutions needed if Texas is to emerge from the challenge intact. Because running alongside this extreme wealth is its necessary opposite: extreme poverty. Texas has the most uninsured people in America with 5 million residents lacking access to medical health care. This is the direct result of recent decisions not to expand Medicaid.

Current Governor Greg Abbott followed his predecessors in arguing against health-care cover on the grounds of cost: whatever Texas’s wealth might be for, it is not for the welfare of its people. That capitalism produces poverty is becoming impossible to ignore, and Texas promises to be a site in which this radical disparity will have dire consequences precisely because its billions come at the expense of the disenfranchised. Texan children are especially poor: 20.9% of children in the state live in poverty but these already high rates of poverty are three times higher for Latino and Black children; 4.3 million Texans face food insecurity; Black and Hispanic Texans are twice as likely to live below the poverty line as white and Asian Texans; “One in four Texas kids lives with a single mother, and 38 percent of Texas’ single-mother families live below the poverty line (twice the poverty rate of single-father families)”, according to the Center for Public Priorities.

Yet despite this already urgent situation, Texas has been extremely slow to respond to COVID-19, and its putative toughness is looking more like blind hubris. As the Texas Observer noted, by mid-March “fewer than 1,300 people in the country’s second-most populous state had even been tested for COVID-19, making the current count of 76 confirmed cases a sure underestimate”. This is despite Texas housing several military bases, especially in San Antonio where there are 15, that see heavy traffic in and out of the country. And the risk posed by the military population is not being contained: despite more than 1,000 Defense Department personnel COVID-19 cases, on Tuesday 31 March, the Pentagon issued an order to the military not to publicly announce further COVID-19 cases.

Governor Abbott has been criticized for his reluctance to issue a shelter-in-place order for the State and particularly for his ambivalent attitude to social distancing measures for religious gatherings which he has deemed “essential services” and therefore exempt. This reasoning combines right-wing libertarianism with religious beliefs in what promises to be a disaster for continuing the spread. San Antonio Mayor, Ron Nirenberg has vented his frustration at being superseded at the state level: “If we want to keep people alive, we’ve got to do services remotely”. Many Texas religious groups are not listening and continue to gather while religious leaders are undermining the public health guidance on COVID-19: Texas minister Kenneth Copeland, one of Trump’s evangelical advisers, is claiming miraculously to heal viewers via television screen.


And within this already terrifying situation, women’s reproductive health-rights, always fragile in Texas, have now been all but annihilated under the cover of COVID-19 measures. While deeming worship “essential”, on 22nd March Governor Abbott cancelled elective surgeries and procedures, which Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton quickly declared a de facto ban on abortions. While this was then struck down by a District Judge, Lee Yeakel, who ruled that the ban was unconstitutional, this ruling was, in turn, reversed by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday 31st March. Women’s rights are being bounced from court to court while, in all other ways, Texas drags its heels on proper COVID-19 responses.

And the debate about whose lives matter and whose do not took a positively Swiftian turn on 23rd March when the Republican lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, in a startling speech, asserted that grandparents would be prepared to die for the US economy. In interview with Fox News host, Tucker Carlson, Patrick asked: “As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that America loves for its children and grandchildren?” This apparently modest proposal was made in response to President’s Trump’s push to get America “back to work” by Easter Sunday, revealing all kinds of hideous entanglements in the far right’s psyche between faith, money and the right to life. That old people are to die cheerfully and women are not to have control of their own bodies bodes very badly for any concern about the actual impacts on Texas once the full horrors of COVID-19 begin to take hold.

Anti-vaxxer threat

Along with racialized poverty, misogyny and libertarianism, Texas can add another element into the disaster it is brewing: the impact of anti-vaccination. Texas allows “conscientious exemption” which has led to a stark rise in unvaccinated children, particularly in Austin, in recent years. In the early 2000s, a few thousand people availed of the exemption but in 2018/19, 73,000 of Texas students opted out of vaccination, laying the ground for a public health disaster of epic proportions even before COVID-19. In 2019, Rep. Bill Zedler fought to make it even easier for parents to refuse vaccination and to prevent those opting out from being tracked by the Center for Disease Control. Again, the myth of a certain toughness translates to an illusion of actual immunity: Africans die of measles, Zedler stated, “they’re not dying in America”. Texas anti-vaxxers, headed by mothers, are now mobilizing to fight any potential coronavirus vaccination in a group called “Texans for Vaccine Choice”. This kind of resistance to public health measures is already seriously weakening herd immunity in Texas with the sufferers likely to be, not the middle-class “crunchies”, but those millions of uninsured at the bottom of Texas’ socio-economic ladder.

Prisons and Detainees

Another Texan irony is that, for all its tough, libertarian swagger, Texas is the most locked-down state in the US, with a prison population of 136,000. Inevitably, the racial disparities are once more astounding: 4 in 10 Texans are African American or Latino, while these same groups represent 7 in 10 Texas prisoners. As Robert Perkinson shows in his 2010 book, Texas Tough, the history of chattel slavery lies beneath the extreme culture of Texas incarceration that has now become the norm throughout the US as a new source of privatized revenue. Trump receives enormous financial backing from both GEO Group (10% of which is owned by Theresa May’s husband, Philip May) and CoreCivic. In return Trump has awarded $480 million to the former and $331 million to the latter from federal funds.

The “toughness” celebrated by settler culture takes on a different meaning in the world of private prisons. Even as the horrifying impacts of COVID-19 on NYC’s prisons is beginning to become apparent, Governor Abbott has opted to ban the release of inmates who cannot afford to pay bail, a measure that would have helped to lower the population and decrease spread. This, as Texas inmates begin to launch lawsuits against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for failing to protect senior prisoners from the virus.

For those children and people held in Texas’s many ICE detention centers, there is no possibility to “shelter in place”. Since Trump’s accession, the proliferation of detention centers has been a humanitarian catastrophe with children being separated from parents and caged in grimly inhumane conditions. Now COVID-19 threatens their lives as even basic sanitary needs are not met. Last week reports emerged of a ‘protest’ in Pearsall Processing Plant as women described appalling conditions that will be fatal to many: “We don’t have anything. We don’t have disinfectants; they are not taking any precautions” (Pro-Publica March 26). On Tuesday the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, led by Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, demanded that immigrants be released to avoid the horrors of a COVID-19 outbreak. But all of this, as Abbott’s refusal to release anyone shows, is unlikely to reverse the economy of private detention centers and prisons that are now central to Texas’ revenue. In this economy even a dead, incarcerated body can generate a contract, a profit and a rise in shareholder value. COVID-19 will not stop that.

But profits cannot forever withstand what COVID-19 threatens: the state’s very dependency on oil leaves Texas hugely vulnerable, as past economic crises have shown. Profit creates poverty: the rise of property prices in popular cities like Austin and San Antonio means that more than 25,000 Texans are currently homeless. In contrast to local officials who want to decriminalize homelessness, Abbott leverages this to mobilize right-wing votes by tweeting hysterically about homeless crime when in fact these people are among the most at risk as the pandemic rolls into the state. With soaring unemployment––10 million nationwide in a few weeks––and falling sales tax upon which Texas income largely depends, the state is facing an unprecedented economic crisis:

Now, as the state’s budget woes will come into focus this summer, the November election is more likely to be about state spending and whether Texas will meet the challenge of educating children and providing health care for the poor and disabled, or if the state will fall back to shortchanging our future to avoid even temporary tax increases. Texas Monthly, 17 March 2020.

Those who still have purchasing power are stocking up on guns and ammunition, toilet roll, candy and comfort food, creating a bizarre profile of an infantilized culture that will fire at enemies from a pillowy fortress while gorging on mac & cheese and sugar: not so very tough at all.

The economic collapse will undoubtedly be nothing to the enormous humanitarian crisis that is brewing here in the Lone Star State. The question is how and if Texas will move from being tough to actually caring.


Dr Kerry Sinanan
University of Texas at San Antonio

Kerry Sinanan

Kerry Sinanan is Assistant Professor of Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She has held two research fellowships with the Moore Institute. Her current book, Myths of Mastery: Traders, Planters and Colonial Agents 1750-1833, analyzes enslavers’ attempts to construct an identity or self in their writings, tracing their self-justification as they made a living within the violence of slavery. In 2010, she co-edited the volume, Romanticism, Sincerity and Authenticity with Tim Milnes. Dr Sinanan’s work has received funding from the Beinecke Library, the James Ford Bell Library, and in 2017 she was a Visiting Scholar at the Yale Center for British Art where she began a new project on representations of slave mothers. Recently, she has been appointed Secretary/treasurer for the Early Caribbean Society.