Looking back on my children’s younger days, we had an option regarding what type of Biology unit we would focus on for their homeschooling lesson. We decided to study the lifecycle of Monarch butterflies. Monarch butterflies are found in many places across North America as long as suitable feeding, breeding, and an overwintering habitat exists. One of their annual migration routes from the cool high mountains of central Mexico comes through Lubbock, Texas. This was one of the reasons we decided to do this study as it hit so close to home. We dutifully learned things about Monarchs, including that their diet consists of milkweed which was plentiful in our backyard. They land on the milkweed, lay eggs that in a 5-10 days produce a caterpillar that devours the leaves of the milkweed plant. Once the plant is finished, they will then go into their chrysalis phase and eventually emerge as a new Monarch butterfly. Then on they go making their long journey of life.

I tell you this because it reminds me of how transformative COVID-19 has been for us. Nearly all of us lost or know someone who lost a loved one to the disease. That in itself is transformative. All of us lost the sense that there is unity on any aspect of this challenge to our world, our world view, and our politics or how it all should have been handled. All of these can and will likely be the subject of much thought, writing and discourse in the days to come. All of us have come to understand that change is a constant in how we think and behave regarding our work and social life, and how we have emerged and continued on our journey. 

For those of us that live in rural areas, we saw a death rate almost twice of what we saw in urban areas. We disproportionately lacked PPE, ventilators, the compliment of pulmonary care physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists and the like. Most importantly, we lacked the public health infrastructure necessary to mount a good response. What is hard to get past is the people that are the workforce that make up the very heart of our economy (those that produce the food, fuel and fiber), who power the economic engine of our state seem to have been largely ignored. The resources needed went in favor of the densely populated and over resourced areas of Texas, namely the metroplexes of the Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, and the Austin/San Antonio areas. The only time El Paso, the Lower Rio Grande Valley or the “Petroplex” of Midland/Odessa gained attention was when it was a slow news day elsewhere. There was very little of the breathless, (no pun intended) state or national stories that shined the light on the COVID-19 crisis and transformation of the rural areas of Texas.

It may be an uncomfortable issue to discuss, but Texas cares very little about the vast frontier that is over half of the state’s geographic area and much of the economy. There is more focus on migrants crossing the border as a cause of the current COVID-19 blip than any real concern for the uncomfortable truth that rural health disparities already existing in the state are very real and present. In large, the usual disadvantaged groups of marginalized people are worse off under COVID-19 because there are more rural dwellers than is realized. Hopefully these ideas will transform our thinking and our policy stances once COVID-19 has passed.

When you have a double health disparity, it is almost comparable to a game show.  “Come on down”, rural Texas! The first category is availability of necessities – oops, there’s no room for you because all the needed equipment, beds, nurses and other essentials have been pilfered to support the big cities.  The next category is state and federal aid – oops, you’re the lowest priority – because the urban centers have a greater burden. I could give many other examples but the bottom line is we lose fast in our pretend game show!

What I remember of the Monarch Butterfly and their journey along a centuries-old route of migration reminds me of what we’re going through now. This year of COVID-19 pandemic comes along and it’s almost as though all the milkweed is gone, and what’s left is being transplanted to other areas that are inhospitable to the welfare of butterflies. What most fail to understand is that Monarch butterflies are pollinators as are bees. Therefore, if we don’t take the care and the time to make certain their habitat is whole and equitable, we lose out in the long run. We’ll be transformed by the loss of their beauty as well as the plants and products they pollinate, and one more step will be taken in the destruction of the web of life.  While this may be too much of a metaphor, it’s what we all should pause and consider in regards to the people that live west of the I-35 corridor.

About a dozen years ago, when I decided to join Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and move to Lubbock, I did so because I fell in love with three things. First, I loved that the people of TTUHSC were kind, generous, innovative and self-reliant. There was literally nothing in them that made me feel there were any limits on what I might accomplish here. To the contrary, one of my colleagues where I once worked commented when hearing the news of my departure that I had chosen to move to the ‘Big Empty’! What he failed to appreciate is everything that good-hearted and innovative people can accomplish when they work together. Out here, we must work together. Second, I chose to leave what I now call, the ‘Big Too Much’. To me, that was the crowded, noisy big cities. It’s no wonder the COVID-19 crisis was worse in the sprawl of our urban triad. Third, I wanted to come to West Texas because I knew it was a place of transformation and production, combined with the collateral values of frugality and efficiency. I had had my fill of those insatiable appetites that are a hallmark of the urban triad culture. That too transforms in exactly the ways we have witnessed – us first and foremost, more of everything and extremes in every thought and action, and not one sense of community because they were isolated and insular and unfamiliar with the reality of knowing even their own neighbors. We rural dwellers are those very neighbors!

In the end, the transformation that will be most important to the future of West Texas will be for us who live out here in the “Big Empty” to realize that our fate is our own. Innovation and Collaboration are what got us here and they are what sustained us through COVID-19 and they are what make us unique. We must, however, realize that like the “Big Too Much”, we must be more oriented to eliminating the disparities of our rurality. There are many reasons for this uncommon and somewhat foreign concept to the West Texas culture but one is that they in fact need us more than we need them. Though challenging, we have always been willing to endure the hardships of emerging from our chrysalis. We should use our time, talents and tenacity to pause; to dry our wings and test our muscles, just as the Monarchs do in the minutes after they struggle to emerge. Then they fly—it is time for rural West Texas to do the same.