The Irish famine and American health care

Opinion: Columns

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By John Hubbuch

In order to deflect my attention from the slow drip of Trump toxcity, I have taken to reading books about World War I, World War II and, most recently, The Graves Are Walking, an account of the Great Famine in Ireland, written by John Kelly.

This catastrophe resulted in a million Irish men, women and children dying of hunger in the 1840s. Another two million fled to North American shores and countries belonging to the British Empire. Ireland was a country of six million people. Mr. Kelly's book provides an abundance of personal accounts documenting the horror of death by famine. The stories are almost unimaginable. A starved mother holding a starved child in a pieta of death was a haunting reality.

The immediate cause of the disaster was a country-wide blight of the potato crop, the primary source of food for rural Ireland. Irish nationalists have long maintained that the famine was the result of an English campaign of genocide, but Mr. Kelly maintains that was not true.

The truth was more nuanced, yet for me, looking at it through the lens of 21st Century politics, still very disturbing. The same ideology that so terribly influenced the good men of Her Majesty's government is quite similar to Republican efforts to replace Obamacare.

The Whigs in 1840s England were, and today's Republicans are, enthralled by a laissez-faire economic orthodoxy of minimizing government interference in the economy. The almighty market will eventually create the best of all possible worlds. So England would not stop the export of grain (in order to divert some to the starving population of Ireland), and they terminated soup kitchens after only six months of operation. 

Republicans, meanwhile, seem unconcerned that millions will lose their health insurance, and millions more will have to choose between rent and health insurance premiums. The market abides. At least young healthy people won't have to pay a subsidy for avoiding coverage, and the rich get a tax break, which is nice.

The British upper and middle classes believed that the famine was a divine judgment upon the lazy, shiftless Irish. There was a moralism that the Irish were stained by character flaws of disorder, violence, filth, laziness and, worst of all, a lack of self- reliance. There was an underlying sense that they got what they deserved.

A similar moralism informs the current health insurance debate. In America, if you get sick and can't pay the doctor or hospital, then too bad. If you didn't buy insurance, then that's on you. If you are opioid-addicted, then stop taking opioids. All those Republican legislators born on third base and thinking they hit a triple are ideologically incapable of understanding that many Americans aren't even born on the playing field.

In England, there was famine fatigue. People just got tired of hearing about all the starving Irishmen. Today in America, we feel bad for a while about the poor, the drug-addicted, the obese and the handicapped — many of whom need health insurance but don't have money to pay for it. 

Then there is the inconvenient truth of helpless and hapless children. We feel bad if and when we think about it, but then we stop. Beyoncé had twins, and Netflix has an awesome new show. Look at that sinkhole. 

And, of course, most of us have insurance provided by our employer or by Medicare. I got mine.

I appreciate that a comparison of the Irish famine to the current health care debate is a bit strained. But the point is that ideology matters. How we think about a problem makes all the difference. If our minds can't be changed, maybe our hearts can.

We must find compassion.

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Ken Stucken  

Posted: July 26th, 2017 11:19 AM

@ Dwyer. Drumpfish is clever? Sounds like you're having a melt down.

Richard Stephen  

Posted: July 25th, 2017 8:53 PM

@John Hubbuch: If you need to read books about war and famine to clear your head of Trump "toxcity" (not a real word), you have a severe case of Trump Derangement Syndrome, a common disorder in liberals and "progressives" and various other forms of leftists. You may want to consider some self help books instead. Get a grip, man!

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: July 25th, 2017 4:41 PM

Another fractured fairy tale.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: July 25th, 2017 3:58 PM

Obviously you haven't noticed the many people born in OP who got thrown out at first or second and never made it home. And what's the snow "snow flakes," Ken. Some sort of Drumpfish attempt at being clever?

Ken Stucken  

Posted: July 25th, 2017 1:01 PM

Meanwhile in Oak Park everyone is born on third base. Maybe it's finally time for Oak Parkers to step up to the plate instead of just cheering from the stands. But, but, but....Trump! Donald Trump caused the potato famine! Get a grip snowflakes.

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