The Prophylactic Society

I’m back, readers! I’ve been concentrating on writing in forms other than my blog. But I miss my blog, and hope you do too.

I want to write on a piece of hopeful news. Yesterday, I ran across a profile of a Canadian named Harry Leslie Smith. The title kind of says it all, or at least says it interestingly: “Why Millennials Are Lapping Up Every Tweet and Podcast From 94-Year-Old Agitator Harry Leslie Smith.” I clicked on it because I wanted to know why.

And now I do. Smith is a Canadian-based expat from Britain, and his tweets, podcasts and books, are very popular with young people. His communications are all about life in the bad old days before the end of World War II, which brought in the Labour Party and thus healthcare and education for the working class.

I particularly like this because I spent part of my summer calling and e-mailing senators’ offices here in the U.S. about the attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). It simply amazes me that there was an attempt to repeal healthcare insurance for millions of Americans. That the attempt at least initially was to not let people (including many members of Congress) even know what was in the bill.

That the attempt is apparently going on in other forms, like defunding the exchanges that are the gateway to the ACA, shortening the enrollment period, and even what seems to be an almost stealth repeal via a bill by Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy in Congress. (This seems to have died as I was in the midst of writing this post. Good riddance, I say.)

This could mean that millions of people are left without healthcare. If that happens, it’s a return to the bad old days of “just get sick and die if you can’t afford healthcare out of your pocket.” As it happens, these are among the bad old days Harry Leslie Smith remembers in pre-World War II Britain. So let him (and the Star of Toronto) tell it:

“One of his two older sisters, Marion, contracted spinal tuberculosis…and, with no affordable medical help, wasted away. One day, Harry’s parents pawned their best clothing to hire a horse-drawn cart. On it, Marion was taken, Harry recalls, ‘like rubbish they hauled away’ to a workhouse infirmary to await death. At 10, she was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave….It was a miserable existence through the Great Depression and Smith recalls that ungodly screams could be heard from neighbours’ homes, the dying unable to afford any type of painkiller. A visit to a doctor or hospital might cost at least half a week’s worth of a subsistence-level wage. ‘It happened often, people simply died when they could’ve been saved,’ he says.”

And this is a man born in the 1920s, no less. I mean, yes, that’s a long time ago. But it’s not exactly ancient history, either.

As I’m typing this, I’m imagining your response, reader. Overly dramatic, maybe? After all, we don’t hear the screams of the dying here.

But I really don’t think so. One of the most ghastly attempts to rationalize the gutting of the ACA seems to be that medical costs would go down if we had no affordable health insurance not linked to corporate life. But that simply ignores how expensive medical costs currently are if one gets a catastrophic illness. Read this article on a family’s grappling with the breadwinner’s contracting a rare form of cancer. The costs come to $7 million just for one year.

Now fortunately, that family has insurance. But what if you don’t, and the attempts to gut it are successful?

One of my favorite theories for why this isn’t a front burner issue is that we live in a prophylactic society, using the dictionary definition of the term. To wit: “Acting to defend against or prevent something, especially disease; protective.”

People in general are protected from the vicissitudes of life. In general, we don’t hear the screams of the dying. There is reasonable medical care for the majority of people. True, the number of people without insurance was climbing upward prior to the ACA. But, as part of the prophylactic society, the uninsured are a rolling ball and not condemned permanently. They also are not, on the whole, visible to the rest of us. (What I mean by a rolling ball: their status is not immutable. They may be uninsured, then have ACA, then have a job that offers insurance; then be laid off; and etc.) So part of the response to them, perhaps, is an assumption that this is temporary.

Even the response to recent hurricanes Harvey and Irma are part of the prophylactic society. The emphasis is on the devastation initially, but then we move to fix it. Devastation is seen as temporary, mutable. We protect against its ravages.

So it’s very bracing to have an eyewitness account of what it’s like when you and yours aren’t in a protective bubble. Let’s not go back there.


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