In a country where federal inconsistency has left states to their fate in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, Texas Latina county leader Lina Hidalgo has had to fight personal attacks and denigration for her decision to do things right.
At only 29, Hidalgo turned over the seat of Harris County Judge in the 2018 election, forming part of the so-called Blue Wave of the midterm elections. After taking over the seat from Republican incumbent Ed Emmett, her tenure has been marked by natural disasters and now a pandemic that seems unrelenting.
Born in Bogotá, Colombia, Hidalgo immigrated to the United States at age 15 and received a political science education at Stanford University in 2013, the same year she received her U.S. citizenship. After working with international organizations in Thailand, she returned to continue her studies in law and public policy.
Although her intention was to pursue a career in health care and criminal justice, the 2016 elections turned her toward public service.
According to NBC News, the young Colombian woman has been sued, attacked on social networks and singled out among Texas county leaders for implementing more radical orders to wear masks to prevent contagion.
After declaring on April 22 that all residents of her county should wear masks or face fines of up to $1,000, state Lt. Governor Dan Patrick called Hidalgo “an AOC acolyte,” referring to progressive Bronx representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, triggering a wave of complaints from the conservative wing in Texas.
The arguments against her are often the same ones used by President Donald Trump in his attempt to lessen the impact of the pandemic: violation of civil liberties and constitutional rights, and even Texas Governor Gregg Abbott has undermined her authority by overturning legislative decisions passed by Hidalgo, whose county includes the city of Houston.
However, for the county leader, the public health crisis goes beyond any political battle.
“It’s understandable that, it’s an election year, folks want to pull this apart … but there’s a time and place for that,” Hidalgo said in an interview. “When I’m running for re-election, all bets are off. They’ll comment on why I did that, and criticize and complain and I’m sure say things that aren’t true and I’ll correct the record. But right now, to politicize things for the sake of it, is not good.”
Hidalgo said she wouldn’t let the uproar divert her from her mission to prevent her county from reaching critical points by COVID-19 as it has in other states.
“I didn’t want that to be our fate, as well,” Hidalgo said. “What we did is we tried to do things better [and] recognize that if we do the exact same thing they did, at the exact same time they did it, then we’re just going to end up in the same place.”
With nearly 4.7 million residents, Harris County leads the state with more than 9,800 cases of coronavirus and 207 deaths as of last week, according to NBC. Although the figure is small relative to its population density, the social and economic impact has been similar to what has been felt across the country, with an estimated 83,000 job losses by the end of the year.
This is why Hidalgo has been heavily criticized for her resolve to preserve lives before allowing the economy to reopen, and for having spent $17 million to build a medical shelter in case hospitals were unable to deal with the sick.
“What we did is prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed with the types of thousands of deaths we were seeing in other places, which would have been harder on the economy and harder to recover from,” Hidalgo said.
Instead, her strategy was to look closely at what happened in countries such as South Korea, where mass testing and social distancing prevented large losses of life.
Faced with a lack of resources and responses from the federal government, she decided to take matters into her own hands and enact more radical public measures, which have cost her attacks on all fronts.
“I didn’t want to shut down the economy. I would have liked to have a containment approach,” she said. “There just wasn’t testing available.”