Curt Smith: Indiana poised to emerge from pandemic strong

Curt SmithAs vaccinations take hold and the pandemic recedes, the emerging contours from this life-changing, generation-shaping calamity suggest Indiana will be stronger and better positioned than most states.

Regular readers will not be surprised by such optimism. This column predicted as much in April 2020.

“Making predictions in a pandemic is foolish. Doing so closer to its onset than its completion is downright foolhardy. But I will make one prediction that I am confident will hold up well in the coming days,” I wrote. “Indiana will fare far better than most other states because of our unique character.”

Those core observations held up well the past 14 months, with the exception of the then-lack of social unrest. The killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in late May 2020 triggered riots here and many other places.

But beyond optimism, what is the basis for such a view as we begin to assess the long-term implications of such a significant turning point?

Let’s begin with the resilience of the Indiana economy. While many Hoosiers struggled initially, swift action by Congress and the president gave us time to adjust. Despite dire and well-reasoned predictions of state budget deficits, high unemployment and massive economic dislocations, the indicators today point to a strong Indiana economy.

State budget forecasters reported an unexpected, jaw-dropping $2 billion windfall in mid-April as the Legislature finished writing the new budget. This reflected far higher sales- and income-tax collections, both of which are great proxies for economic activity.

Given that, it is not surprising our unemployment rate is at 3.9% at this writing, below the 4% threshold many economists consider “full employment.” Statewide, we have yet to replace all lost jobs. After all, unemployment in Indiana peaked at 16.9%. But we are close.

Central Indiana also got to shine for the nation when we hosted the 67-game March Madness tournament. The COVID-19 crisis did not prevent us from hosting a complex event with a careful eye toward the health of participants and spectators alike.

More recently, on a picture-perfect Memorial Day weekend, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosted 135,000 auto-racing enthusiasts in the largest gathering of fans in one location since the pandemic shut us down in March 2020. This time, the world, not just America, saw us with our best foot forward. Drivers and racing teams from a dozen countries took part in what may be the world’s most famous motor car race.

Our health care leaders, specifically Roche and Eli Lilly and Co., made early and meaningful contributions to bringing the pandemic under control.

This is not to say the crisis is over and all is well. About 750,000 Hoosiers have contracted COVID and perhaps 13,500 have died from or due to the disease. The level of gun violence—perhaps intensified by the pandemic—in Indianapolis is crazy bad. Mental health indicators show we lost ground during the past year (think addictions, domestic violence and such). Test scores show remote learning helped but did not equal classroom learning. The long-term health problems for Hoosiers who contracted the disease also remain uncertain, not to mention the mourning we are all experiencing for those lost and what the pandemic took from us.

Yet, resilient, resourceful and respectful Hoosiers have met and mastered the first year of the pandemic. Many more changes are ahead. Many daunting challenges remain, especially overcoming the learning loss among K-12 students and reversing the mental health declines.

But Indiana has much to be proud of as we assess our standing and survey the future. We have a stronger platform than most to pivot to the new normal in a post-COVID or at least COVID-managed society.•

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Smith is chairman of the Indiana Family Institute and author of “Deicide: Why Eliminating The Deity is Destroying America.” Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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