Illness is one of life’s inevitable events; it happens to all of us eventually, unless sudden accidental death erases the possibility. Like most other complex living things, the human body is naturally resilient and capable of self-repair, but only up to a point. Nature, in her steadfast and relentless fashion, constantly tests human endurance and strength by generating microbial entities, some toxic others not, which cause human illness.
Coping with illness, then, is as commonplace as illness itself, both the illness of others and our own. As any parent can attest, there are few times in life more trying than helplessly watching one’s child succumb to serious illness. And the protective, compassionate feelings that arise from within that experience are ones we then quite naturally extend to others when we witness their suffering, pain and struggle to overcome infection.
There is fear, too, of course, the fear of contagion for example. As our scientific knowledge of disease has grown, so too has our anxiety about it, fueled by a global communications network alerting everyone to the emergence of any new highly contagious pathogen, like Ebola or Zika. These fears are generally impersonal, which is to say few of us know or have had contact with anyone so infected; they are fears of the unknown.
But caring for the ill is particularly human, both our ability to do so and the impulse itself. In so-called primitive society this care takes the form of religious ritual combined with the application of plants and other natural substances. In modern society, it is from our caring impulse and desire for action that our complex health system has arisen, and alongside it, the pharmaceutical industry. Like the primitive cultures before ours, we seek out substances and methods which relieve illness and human suffering, and thus the underlying values of compassion and care gave rise to society’s collective medical institutions.
In nearly every modern country in the world, accordingly, medical care is universally offered and most often free; a notable exception is America, where health care has become our number one growth industry. The inevitability of illness and the allure of high profit have combined to create an inversion of values. What is a natural outgrowth of human compassion has been converted by greed into a vehicle of human suffering.
This inversion pervades the entire medical industry but has never been more blatant than in the behavior of “big pharma.” Chemotherapy drugs, for example, are now ten times the price they were a decade ago, though many of today’s standard chemotherapy drugs were developed more than a quarter-century ago. In some cases, pharma is purchasing older, single-source drugs for limited populations of patients, and having secured a monopoly, then raising the price an obscene 1,000 times higher.
Such practices are more than an inversion, but are a perversion of values, a perversion of our natural inclination towards supporting health, our own and each other’s. In this way, pharma is not in the health business, but rather the illness business; using human suffering as a tool for profit is not only callous but plainly immoral, violating the most basic values of decency.
One can only hope and work for a social sea-change, a tide of compassion which sweeps away pharma’s craven cruelty and avarice and allows America to enjoy the benefits of a healthy, universal and free healthcare system.