Leo Linbeck, a Houston businessman and CEO of Aquinas Companies, spoke with Philanthropy about how his hometown is weathering the coronavirus, what the pandemic means for education, and why fear shouldn’t drive decision-making.

Philanthropy: What does covid-19 look like on the ground in your home city of Houston? 

Linbeck: The early fears that we were going to run out of medical capacity and spiral downward haven’t materialized. We haven’t had hospitals overflowing. There are people who got sick, and there are people who have died. A lot of people haven’t. 

For Houston, the impact of covid on economic activity has created a big secondary problem. When you shut down massive parts of the global economy, demand for energy just plummets. So the most important industry in our city is on life support. There are a lot of people with jobs tied to that, jobs that are not coming back anytime soon. So it’s a little bit like being in the eye of a hurricane. 

Philanthropy: Are there other sectors you think will be disrupted? 

Linbeck: Education is going to be really interesting to watch. Let’s say I’m a high-school senior accepted to a small liberal arts college in a bucolic setting, and I was anticipating participating in dorm life and going to classes and having office hours with cool professors with beards. But now I’m basically living at home dialing in on a Zoom call. Explain to me why I’m paying you $35,000 or more for this? 

That whole economic model was stretched to begin with. Colleges have high fixed costs. If they lose 20 percent of their expected enrollment, they’re under water. The elite schools will be fine. But for students, if campuses don’t open this fall it’s really an awful experience.

Philanthropy: What are you hearing from leaders in K-12? 

Linbeck: There’s a lot of fear. There’s fear that this will exacerbate performance gaps. Many charter schools worry that students won’t show up, or that local governments will chop their reimbursements in response to fiscal pressure. Lots of Catholic schools will have to close; already four inner-city schools shut down in Houston, and the Newark diocese just shuttered ten, including a Cristo Rey campus.

Fear is the dominant emotion driving this whole pandemic response. So even though kids seem to be pretty unaffected, education is panicky. 

Health care is also very weird. Institutions have adapted remarkably well, and many workers have put in incredible efforts. But the medical industry is bleeding cash. When can they restart normal treatments? They don’t know. Meanwhile, if you need a hip replacement, that doesn’t feel “elective” to you. 

Philanthropy: What are your suggestions to donors as they navigate this?  

Linbeck: You need to focus very closely on the community right around you. Stop flying around the world and listening to distant cultural seers. The people you need to serve are right in front of you, and they know better than any expert what is working and what’s not. I think philanthropy is going to naturally move back to a more local focus. And that will be a good thing.

The economic destruction will be all around you. There’s going to be a lot of neediness in every community, especially big cities. So look at the people right in front of you. How to help people who have lost their jobs? How to keep them in their homes? Philanthropists are realizing, “This is why we’re here. This is our moment. We ought to be pushing 25 percent of our assets out the door.” Ultimately we’re going to have to get back to a functioning economy as soon as possible. 

Philanthropy: You’re involved in some covid medical research.  

Linbeck: We have two projects. One is Pulmotect, a drug we were originally developing to protect cancer patients from getting pneumonia while they go through chemo. We had finished two clinical trials and were wrapping up another when covid hit. It just happens that a couple of years ago we did some animal testing against coronaviruses with this drug, and we had very strong effects in the animal model. So we have pivoted the company over the last 45 days to focus on covid-19. We raised another round of capital and got FDA approval to start clinical trials, which are under way. 

The other company is Brevitest, a diagnostics business. We are developing a way to detect antibodies using saliva. We had been developing that with grant money for application to opioid abusers, and this spring we made the decision to pivot. Now we’re gearing up to produce as many as a million of these tests by the end of September. That’s been a huge engineering and manufacturing effort. 

Philanthropy: How should we think about reopening? 

Linbeck: A society cannot function where everyone must accomodate the most fearful person. That is not a model that will work. It can’t be the lowest common denominator. There has to be an understanding that people have great fears. But we can’t function if we try to accomodate all worries. 

Being personally afraid, and maybe slightly ashamed of that, is a terrible combination. It drives people to insist that everyone has to feel the same way, to validate their concern, to comply with their wishes. Some people want to embed their fear in hard-and-fast social sanctions.  

You’ll hear someone say “that’s what science says to do.” But science has very little to say right now—there’s scant data, few proven hypotheses. So most of these decisions are judgment calls. We have to rely on people’s individual agency to make those judgments, knowing they’re going to get some things wrong and some things right. We can’t centralize all judgments, because the next step is tyranny. We have to push these decisions away from central authority, to governors, and particularly to local communities. 

Cities that depend on public transit are the ones who have gotten really hit. The idea of public transit and high urban density, which has been the hobbyhorse of central planners for the last 40 years, has been discredited by this virus. And as viruses go, this is not Ebola, this isn’t even measles, this is a relatively benign bug. Yet it has devastated cities that rely on public transportation and have lots of people packed together. That’s an unresilient mix.

One good thing that could come out of this would be some movement back toward multigenerational families. I think that would be a fantastic thing for society. Perhaps more grandparents living in proximity, rather than in old folks’ homes. 

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