Sun, August 8, 2021, 5:00 AM
“We become what we tolerate.” A friend of mine said that the other day and I can’t get it out of my mind as I watch the delta variant of COVID-19 mow down thousands of Americans and threaten our tentative steps back to “normal.”
I’m haunted by the story of a fully vaccinated 90 year old man who contracted COVID-19. After more than a year of total isolation, he began to eat in the common room again. 95% of his fellow residents were vaccinated. It seemed as though his long season of caution had paid off. Then came the symptoms followed by the positive test. After his hospitalization, his family demanded answers from the facility. It turns out that while residents were almost all vaccinated, less than half the staff took the shot. Out of their fear and pain, his heartbroken children are asking — How can anyone who works with vulnerable elderly people be so selfish? Why wouldn’t they get vaccinated — if not to protect themselves, then to protect the vulnerable?
As I process their pain — I can’t help but think of my friend’s wisdom: We become what we tolerate. I imagine that if we could gather the unvaccinated workers who care for our children, our parents, our neighbors undergoing chemotherapy and actually ask them ‘how can you be so selfish,’ they might turn that question right back on us. So many people don’t believe in the common good—especially when it comes to health care–because they’ve never experienced it.
Many of the working poor who assist our teachers, bathe our disabled loved ones, and stock the shelves of our stores have life-threatening chronic medical conditions or love people who do. And while the children of lawyers and doctors and pastors have treatment and medication to keep their asthma under control, the children of first responders and nursing home attendants often do not. While those who work white collar jobs have health insurance that provides insulin pumps that make diabetes a mostly-manageable chronic condition, those who clean their offices often are forced to ration their insulin in risky ways. Some of us have access to regular high quality medical care like mammograms that discover and treat conditions before they become life threatening. Others can only access that life-saving care if they find a free clinic and risk harassment and verbal assault by protesters who call themselves pro-life. Some of us can afford both to go out to eat and live in neighborhoods with clean air and safe drinking water. Some of us earn a living waiting tables and cannot.
We justify these immoral disparities by saying that those who really deserve good care are getting it—and those who cannot have to do better to get better. For decades we’ve taught that health care is an individual concern and a matter of personal responsibility. It seems that lesson has been received. We’ve designed a health care system whose mission is to create wealth, not heal bodies. Why are we surprised when many people who have been largely left out of the system aren’t interested in upholding it?
Now many privileged Americans are experiencing the frustration of having life disrupted by an avoidable medical issue. Or worse—the agony of watching loved ones suffer a preventable health crisis and we are outraged. But this has been the lived reality of many of our neighbors for generations. Some of us are carrying the burden of this risk and pain for the very first time. Others of us are still paying off the funeral expenses of the last loved one who died for lack of health care.
In this country every day people lose their homes, their businesses and their loved ones from wholly treatable medical conditions. They die, not from their diseases, but from lack of access to care. People have been asking for a better way, but the majority said no. Change would be too disruptive, too expensive, what we have is good enough. We decided their lives, and the lives of their children, were an acceptable risk.
Now we want to gather our early childhood educators, home health aids, nursing home attendants and first responders together and scream at them, ‘why don’t you care about anyone but yourself?’ And many of them could hurl the same question right back at us with just as much righteous pain. We’ve finally become what we always tolerated — a country that lets its neighbors die from a preventable disease.
Kate Murphy is pastor at The Grove Presbyterian Church in Charlotte.