Thursday, August 06, 2009

Of Medical Care, Middle Class Moralism and the Failure of Mass Media

A few months ago at the height of the Mexican swine flu outbreak, the Washington Post ran a story on the epidemic on its front page. Among the statistics and quotes from various public officials, the reporters offered a number of explanations of the reason so few Mexicans were being treated. One of the comments from Mexico City doctor Angel Flores read like this:

"In Mexico, we are very unaccustomed to going to the hospital. Here, if someone has a cold or anything else, they buy something in the pharmacy, or they leave it be," Flores said. "This is why Mexicans are dying. Because we are very indecisive about going to a hospital until it's too late."

Further down the page was this quote from Emelia Segura Vázquez, a homemaker who sought a consult with the on-site doctor at the Christ Medical Pharmacy in Iztapalapa (an impoverished Mexico City neighborhood) for her 6-year-old son, Omar Israel, who had diarrhea:

"People prefer to come here because it is cheaper."

Of course, the Post ate it up. Why are the Mexicans dying from this epidemic? Stupid habits, primitive customs and, of course, consumerist preferences. They don’t go to hospitals with their dying family members because they’re not in the habit of doing so. They prefer to go to a pharmacist with their possibly dying child rather than a medical doctor simply because it’s cheaper.

As I noted atop the article I sent out to a number of people this was

"clearly spun from a capitalist, first world perspective. It’s not that Mexicans are unaccustomed to going to hospitals or prefer pharmacies because they are cheaper. About 45% of the country lives below the destitution poverty line ($2/day). Much of the poor work in the informal economy primarily as street vendors. As usual, the presumption is that people are sick – and poor – because they somehow choose to be.

What a bunch of nonsense. “

In all fairness, the story did offer a glimpse of reality:

"Delaying medical care is a characteristic of poverty. For people living close to the edge, taking off a day to visit a doctor or staying home sick is literally taking food out of their mouths," said Paul J. Gertler, a professor of economics at the School of Public Health at the University of California at Berkeley, who has worked in Mexico.

And, in truth, this is probably the only explanation that makes a lot of sense in a country where 45% of the population lives below the UN’s standard of extreme poverty, less than $2/day. It has little to do with customs, lack of education and certainly not consumer choice, the mantra of America’s middle class. Indeed, it’s ultimately about a lack of choices and desperation. I know. I’ve been there and I’ve seen it.

The notion that somehow the poor are responsible for their own misery is a persistent and obviously a comforting myth pattern for the beneficiaries of a soulless consumerist capitalist system. And perhaps there is no better example of it than the current debates over health care in America.

In the current edition of Time there is a very insightful graphic comparing how President Obama’s Health Care Reform program would affect various groups of people categorized by current medical care, the description of the “current situation” of the Uninsured (which includes 15% of all Americans) reads as follows:

“People without insurance typically put off basic medical care and end up in emergency rooms when they get sick. They are often less healthy and more likely to develop chronic diseases, the costs of which must be absorbed by the entire health care system.”

Again, note the same victim-blaming tactics: the uninsured “put off basic medical care.” Clearly they are lazy, irresponsible and negligent regarding their basic medical care which every responsible middle class American would attend to with regularity. And because of their moral failings, the whole system ends up being burdened. So why should taxpayers pay for the irresponsibility of such slackers?

Speaking of irresponsible, how do such unsupportable assertions get by copy editors of magazines like Time? And how do such blatantly political statements somehow become the stuff of news reporting?

If you ever had any doubts that our news media have failed us, the current corporate campaign to defeat any kind of medical coverage for all Americans being waged on the pages and airwaves of their corporate media minions ought to be decisive. The days when Americans could plausibly tell themselves that they could become informed by consulting once venerable journals such as the Washington Post and Time Magazine are clearly over. Like the alcoholic waking up the night after driving home and not remembering the drive, the loss of the luxury of naivete is always painful.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


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