Discrimination In The Time of Illness

This isn’t the first time we’ve done it; can we make it the last?

Photo by isco on Unsplash

Years ago, when the AIDS epidemic was first in the news and a fear of many Americans, my job at an insurance company was to write language for contracts that needed something out of the ordinary.

I worked closely with one of our company attorneys, who often would give me assignments based on the requests that came across his desk.

He called me into his office one day and told me one of our self-funded medical groups had requested we change their contracts to eliminate the coverage of any treatment with the diagnosis of HIV/AIDs.

I was horrified.

“They can’t do this!” I said to him.

“Yes, they can,” he calmly said, “You know they can legally pick and choose what they cover in a self-funded contract.”

I knew the only reason that they were excluding coverage for the disease was “moral” — the public link of the disease to the gay community.

“You can’t decide whether the way people get sick is acceptable before you cover their sickness,” I said.

“You obviously can,” he said.

I knew this attorney well and knew it was something he was against, also. I was sure as difficult as this assignment was for me, it was equally as hard for him.

“But even if they do discriminate for moral reasons, how about the people who are not getting this disease because they are gay? How about the babies born with it? No, wait. Everyone with it is sick. Even those who are gay and get it by knowingly engaging in risky behavior. Can they really say they will exclude treatment for sick people?”

He looked at me sympathetically but didn’t answer.

Yes, they could. For each person this would impact, there would be a story and a person behind that story. It didn’t matter much to the decision-makers at that company. Fear of the unknown cost of treatment and their moral judgments were more important to them than considering the real implications of their decision.

I wrote the language with anger burning, it was approved, and the contracts sent on their way. I have no idea how long they kept that clause in their contracts, but a minute was too long, in my opinion.

The terms of the contract were not our choice, and I never had direct contact with the people at that company to have the opportunity to argue their decision. My company wouldn’t have allowed me to do it anyway.

I’d almost forgotten that incident until I heard President Trump first say “that Chinese virus.” It started to take me back to that time. The more I have listened to that reference, the more disgusted I have gotten.

This morning I was listening to “The Daily,” a New York Times podcast. It discusses how Asian-Americans, and Asians in general, are being the target of attacks and blamed because the virus is in the United States.

Jiayang Fan, a staff writer for the New Yorker Magazine, beautifully discusses her fear stemming from taunts and threats she experienced merely walking down the street. There is a fear of looking Asian out in public because of the hateful words and attitudes that sometimes greet them.

Other Asians have reported verbal and physical attacks. You hear some of their voices during the podcast.

Instead of throwing hate around, why aren’t we uniting and seeing what we can do to help each other through this international crisis?

Ms. Fan was very compassionate in her response to the racist rhetoric she had heard. She noted that she didn’t know the backstory of what had gone on with the person spurting the hateful words. Did they know someone sick? Had they lost a job? Were they struggling financially?

COVID-19 is a new virus, and even now, there is so much we don’t know about it. There are speculations that this didn’t even first occur in people in China, but instead, they were the first to identify it.

Does it matter? It’s a worldwide pandemic, already impacting 210 countries. It’s a virus touching all of us. If we’re pointing fingers, we should all look first at ourselves. Are we doing all in our power to make ourselves and others safe?

We’ve never experienced a pandemic in quite this way, with almost worldwide isolation. How much worse would it be if we hadn’t implemented measures to flatten the curve? How much worse would it be if scientists and health professionals hadn’t shared information globally?

Could the process have been better? Of course, it could. We will armchair quarterback for years to come. But now is not the time to focus on that kind of criticism.

In the United States, our zest for freedom probably led to more conservative action and our personal freedom/carelessness to more sickness and deaths. Do we blame a carrier of the virus who may not know they have it or the person who dies from it? Should we blame the person who got it through their actions when they knew they were at risk?

Any of us can get this. Any of us can pass it on without knowing it. We’re all reacting to something new. Many of us are prone to occasional foolishness when we don’t fully understand things.

A sweet child’s voice in “The Daily” podcast, discussing President Trump’s” Chinese virus” comment, said, “It did make me feel different and (I) kinda didn’t really want to be Chinese ’cause of the coronavirus.”

I can relate, because as a white American woman. I don’t want to be identified closely with anyone who blames people for an illness they were unfortunate enough to contract or anyone who blames a country because that is where the epidemic first appeared. Even though some are not protecting themselves sufficiently and calling all of this an “overhyped disease,” I’d rather they remain ignorant than they suffer from it in any way.

Still, I believe there are some essential facts that we need to remember.

  • No country caused this virus. We are all victims.
  • We should not shame people or their families who get it or those who appear to us to be of the race that got it first.
  • No ordinary citizen is responsible for the behavior of their government’s handling of the virus or the thoughtless comments their leaders make.
  • We should extend some grace to the leaders of all countries, who hear so much information and yet are merely human beings having to make unprecedented decisions as they try to handle the crisis in their countries.
  • No child or adult should ever feel ashamed of their race or anything about themselves they don’t choose. Adults, especially, should exemplify good character and help children learn to develop theirs.

I loved what Ms. Fan said at the end of the podcast, as she reflected on this time and her decision to speak publicly about what she has experienced.

“By pointing out the ways that it is failing itself, making clear the way our in which this country still makes me feel ashamed, is possibly one way in which I can make it better.”

”And also that’s the best version of America , like in all the conceptions of America that exist in my head, I actually think this ability to call out the worst parts of America to itself, my freedom to do so, this feels to me the most miraculous part of America.” — Jiayang Fan

We have a history of trying to blame people for our problems. We have a history of trying to link sickness to blame. Usually, that blame doesn’t matter. What matters is to heal the sick and love each other through the tragedies and joys of life.

I love my country — and sometimes I hate it. I love my people — yet sometimes I dislike them.

I hope compassion, grace, and love rule our world, and my actions, because we (I) choose to base every decision on these qualities.

But as Ms. Fan said, we have beautiful freedom here. We should all respect it.

I hope we have grown from those days when some wanted to be the moral monitors of health care.

I remember my mother going to the homes of AIDs patients in the early days of identification of the illness as a public health nurse. Her patients were sick and needed care. It was her job and her calling to care for them. Even with five young children at home, and though I know she had to face fear, never did how they got sick override her calling to extend care.

We each choose our level of compassion. Your choice makes a difference in our world. Are you the bully or the caregiver? Think before you act.

Kim McKinney is a writer and a lover of stories and salutes the many people (all “essential employees” from healthcare workers to those in food service to those who are picking up her garbage and delivering her mail) who are taking care of our people during this pandemic.

I write about people, faith, travel, adventure, justice & life. I love a good story. I blog for fun at kimberleymckinney.com; twitter.com/kimmckinney719

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