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Selective Sympathies: Haiti and the Health Care Debate

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During the debate about health care this summer I was appalled by the fact that Americans were not exactly appalled by the fact that 45 million of their countrymen are going without health care. At the time, I wrote that we suffer from a compassion deficit. After all, how could so many of us be insouciant about the millions unable to get medical treatment? But maybe I was wrong. Witness the compassion and action in response to the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti.

This weekend there was the mega-event of the "Hope for Haiti" concert. Talk shows and football games run banners on how to text a ten spot to the stricken. It is both a national and local effort. Students at the college where I teach are spearheading all kinds of charitable efforts. There are billboards and even telephone solicitations. Help Haiti! Truly, I've never seen anything like it. Apart from a few pathologically mean spirited cranks, Americans on the right and the left agree that this is one time that we need to throw money at a problem. Still, I have to confess that the wave of generosity makes me wonder, what is it that unlocks the floodgates of fellow feeling in America?

How is it that Americans can be lachrymose about Haiti and comatose about the plight of the multitude of folks who can't afford medical treatment? As the reaction to the earthquake attests, it is not as though we don't have a heart. And yet some of the very people who are reaching for their checkbooks to help children with twisted limbs in Port-au-Prince have a "hey let's not rush into anything" attitude about sick boys and girls in Detroit.

This veritable sigh is not to suggest that we should hold back from Haiti. Heaven knows we need to be there for those people. But if this country of rugged-to-rigid individualists can get heart sick about the suffering in that island nation, why can't we go a little soft about Americans who are sick and don't have the right cards in their wallets? If what is holding some back is a repugnance for government programs, that's fine - but where is the sense of urgency that we need to do something about the throng of ill and injured buried beneath the rubble of economic circumstances?