Monday, October 20, 2014

Ebola and the Need For Single-Payer Health Care

A screenshot from Fox News' Sean Hannity Show.

Forget about Ebola. The real disease is capitalism.

America is a strange country--a "land of superstition," as Henry David Thoreau wrote. Our sensationalized, "If-It-Bleeds-It-Leads" corporate media has us all scared to death of Ebola, even though your chances of actually contracting the disease are pretty minimal. Meanwhile, anthropogenic climate change is causing the planet to hurtle full-throttle toward a catastrophic 4-6 degree rise in temperature, yet the media do not seem to be that concerned.

Point being, in the grand scheme of things global warming represents a far greater, more immediate, and decidedly deadlier threat to human civilization than Ebola (or, for that matter, ISIS.)

But try telling that to the average Fox News-watching American.

That is not to say Ebola is completely harmless. It is not. Officials at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are right to take proper precautions to prevent the disease from spreading.

But, as AlterNet's Larry Schwartz points out in a recent article titled, "Ebola is Scary, But These 6 Things are a Lot Scarier" (10/15/2014), we have far more to fear from lack of gun control, smoking, vehicular fatalities (wherein the victim was not wearing a seat belt), and over-consumption of alcohol which is responsible for over 88,000 deaths annually.

Schwartz, a health, science and nutrition writer, goes on to explain that the only way to become infected with the Ebola virus is through direct contact with a victim's "blood, vomit, or other bodily fluid," via one's "eye, mouth, nose or [an] open cut."

"Ebola is very hard to get," he writes. "Period."

Schwartz goes on, "Americans tend to worry a great deal about illnesses they shouldn't worry about, while at the same time not worrying about very real threats to their health."

So wash your hands, folks (with soap and warm water--not that generic Purell crap), and chill out. The Ebola outbreak is not the long-anticipated "zombie Apocalypse" many have feared and/or hoped for.

But if you want to talk about something really frightening, let's consider how the U.S. for-profit health care system impacts the Ebola epidemic. Indeed, our lack of universal health care both hinders efforts to contain (and ultimately treat) the virus and almost assures it will spread further.

(For the record, "Obamacare" is nothing like single-payer, universal health care, even though a number of liberal pundits--Paul Krugman most notably--routinely claim it is the same thing.)

Consider, for instance, the budget-cutting austerity measures politicians have enacted on most of the West and parts of Europe. Much has been made of Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital's botched response to the death of Thomas Duncan, the first person to die from Ebola in the U.S. on Oct. 8.

While conservatives have pointed to the hospital's failure to properly diagnose Duncan and its various other missteps as evidence that "Big Government" is incompetent and incapable of responding to widespread health emergencies, if anything, these failures are more an indictment of the (fictional) "free-market."

In fact, the budgets for both the CDC and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have been cut in recent years in the name of austerity, according to the New York Times. The NIH saw its budget decrease from $31.2 billion in 2010 to $30.1 billion in 2014.

Likewise, the nurses who treated Duncan at the Dallas hospital were woefully ill-equipped to properly protect themselves from exposure to the virus--again, due to budget-cuts and a lack of clear protocols.

According to the Los Angeles Times, nurses at THPH "described a hospital with no clear guidelines in place for handling Ebola patients..." And their protective gear was almost laughably inefficient, consisting of "gloves with no wrist tapes, gowns that did not cover their necks, and no surgical booties" according to the Times' story.

As Nicole Colson states in an article for the Socialist Worker (10/16/2014), "The idea that critical government agencies in charge of protecting the public health could have their budgets slashed in the richest country on earth is absurd."

Yet, in a move straight out of the Ayn Rand screw-the-workers-playbook, THPH and health officials are placing blame for Duncan's death on Nina Pham and Amber Vinson--the two nurses who treated him. CDC Director Dr. Thomas R. Frieden claims 26-year-old Pham became infected with Ebola due to her own "protocol breach," in a press conference shortly after Duncan's death.

It is worth pausing to ponder why it is that Europeans are not freaking out about Ebola the way we are in the West. Much of it could be due to the fact that most European countries have two vital worker-health laws the U.S. lacks: Single-payer health care and paid sick-leave.

Indeed, as Dave Lindorff observes in a recent post on his news-blog, This Can't Be ("Dickensian US Working Conditions Almost Guarantee Ebola Catastrophe," 10/12/2014):

One reason Europeans are not in a state of hysteria about Ebola the way the US public is, besides the confidence Europeans have in their universal health care systems, is that they know that waiters, maids and housekeepers have a right to paid sick leave, so they are not going to be on the job infecting others if they get the disease. They'll be availing themselves of free or next-to-free healthcare and getting tested and if necessary, treated.

The nurses' union, National Nurses United (NNU) has made a similar argument. "As NNU pointed out in a statement," Colson writes in her piece, "because the U.S. lacks a national health care system, preparedness for a crisis like Ebola is woefully uneven from hospital to hospital."

America remains the only industrialized country in the world that does not treat health care as a basic human right. Even post-invasion Iraq has single-payer health care as guaranteed by the Bush-drafted and Iraqi-approved 2005 constitution. In other words, single-payer is good enough for the people of the countries we illegally invade and "democratize" via gunpoint, but not for citizens of our own country.

So take a deep breath, America. Turn off the fear-mongering cable-news talking heads. Many of them are simply using the Ebola outbreak as an excuse for racism. There is plenty of truly scary stuff out there to be worried about--capitalism being chief among them.

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