Health is not a Human Right

I am about to make some shocking suggestions: 

Health is not a human right.

The Morrison-Turnbull budget cuts to Medicare Rebates are not completely bad.
Running in the dark this morning, I noticed the illuminated sign outside the local hospital. It read:

PRIVATE HOSPITAL.

 

I felt unhappy reading that. A hospital is a place where human beings help other human beings with their health. The meaning of a hospital cannot be realised with that label. ‘Private’ tells the reader that some humans will be admitted and others turned away. Privacy as a personal property might well have been eclipsed by the internet, but ‘private’ survives with this message, unkind to some, saying ‘keep out.’

 

If health were a right we’d need to outlaw Down’s Syndrome, premature death and disability. We would legislate and make ourselves ridiculous. The error of language here betrays an error of thinking. We cannot assert a right to health, but we can create a right to equal access.

 

I am a private doctor. I am a public doctor. The public is composed of private persons. I treat one person at a time, privately. That is, personally, confidentially; two humans together, doing what every human does in a lifetime: ordinary transactions of care.

 

Doctors generally share a number of characteristics. We are serious, careful, committed and proud. We are defensive of our liberties, self-righteous and voracious of cures. We are expensive; I mean someone, somewhere, always pays for cures. In its new budget the government has pegged Medicare rebates. This skewers doctors and patients: either the doctor loses or the patient loses. There is nothing new in this.

 

When Hayden-Whitlam introduced Medicare I bulk-billed everybody. I thought it was a wonderful thing that a person, be she rich or poor, might consult a doctor equally. I thought so then and I think so still. To assure doctors they would not lose, the Hayden-Whitlam Government set up a referee who increased the rebate in pace with the rising costs of practice. This was costly. So the government told the referee to stop indexing rebates. And I stopped bulk billing. Often patients found themselves facing a choice – see the costly doctor or feed the family. When this occurred all doctors I know abated their fees so the patient might afford both cure and food.

 

What a government does in tightening benefits is to create the need for a new force to operate in care. The force is not one of rights but of grace. The doctor and the patient gaze upon each other as we did through all history, unmediated by refunds and rebates, freer now of the obscuring presence of the insurer. Two humans in a situation of human need.

 

The words ‘Private Hospital’ jolt me. They remind me that health is not merely a matter of economics or of civil rights, but of civil opportunity.

 

Ushpizin*

The last time I took a photo in a public toilet it was to record the visit of unexpected guests. The occasion was a visit to the Men’s Banios at the Alhambra, in Granada in 2010.

Twenty years ago when I made a maiden visit to the toilet in my cabin in Broome, the gleaming green frog sitting contentedly in the white bowl caused me such aesthetic delight that it overthrew, for the time, the excretory impulse. I never took the beautiful creature’s photograph. Instead, like D H Lawrence chucking a stone at the snake drinking at his well in Sicily, I flushed away my serene guest. I never forgave myself; it was, as in Lawrence’s ‘Snake’, ‘something to expiate/a pettiness.’

These reminiscences surfaced a few moments ago when I visited the Men’s at my work. The cubicles, until now separated and enclosed by timber miniskirts, were guarded by maxis. I sat and mused. It felt how I imagined solitary confinement in the Kremlin, a dark, quiet, a place where man is alienated from his fellows. I missed the collegial sight of a pair of shoes arriving in the next cubicle. I missed the moment when the orientation of the newcomer’s shoes declares his intention and his need. Gone were the sounds, wordless but declarative of the action. I was alone.
I took some photos. Such a spiritually potent change in decor called for some record.
My workmates informed me the changes were made following the arrest by the police of a gentleman seated in a cubicle in the Ladies. It appears that the gent was an habitue of our female Conveniences, spending whole mornings in aesthetic delight, enjoying the reflected details of his lady neighbours on either side.

The opposite occurred to me in October 2010 when Nature summoned me to the Banios. There was one door for ingress and another at the far end for egress. On my right a number of cubicles with opal grey doors concealed their tenants; on my left a series of white porcelain appliances gleamed their welcome. I stood facing one of these, enjoying the slow movement that is the lot of a man in his sixties. I had reached that stage when the greater part of the volume has been discharged but the bulk of the time is still ahead. In other words I was still committed when the unmistakable tinkling sound of laughter announced the arrival of three teenage girls. The young ladies entered. They sighted us men and advanced. As they neared us it was every man for himself, one breaking off and hurrying away, the rest of us burrowing closer to the porcelain in some anxiety. The girls formed a line behind us and stood still. No-one spoke. Was this a quaint local custom? A welcome, perhaps? My Spanish was not good enough for me to essay an enquiry.
Eventually my hands were free, my clothing decently enclosing all, and I turned around. I found the new arrivals standing with backs resolutely towards us, facing the cubicles, waiting until one should be free. The arrivals behaved as if their presence were unremarkable. I turned to leave, looking back from the exit to gaze on the scene. I remembered I carried a camera. I took a shot of the males and the females standing back to back in that narrow rectangle and departed.

Five minutes later a ringing voice challenged me at the kiosk where they sell gelati. A girl’s voice, it shrilled its plaint in Spanish, then in English, with excited hand movements for emphasis: Why you take picture? You delete!
I didn’t reply. I didn’t delete. I lacked the skill to do either. But I’ve never opened the photo, never shown anyone. The ethics of lavatory photography come to one, like wisdom, slowly.
*Honoured Guests. Google if curious.

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What Can We Do Once We Lose Our Freedom?

We started gmail and we surrendered the final shred of privacy. We used the net and opened ourselves to every hacker, most of them those we elected. We read of the twin towers and were alarmed; we saw the beheadings and were rattled. Those we elected rattle us often and hard and by reflex and in all sincerity and – as in the case of asylum seekers – in the sincere anxiety that we might unelect them. Once thoroughly rattled we allowed our governments to suspend habeas corpus. We are each of us now, all citizens, all merely Mohammad Hanifs, awaiting the knock on the door of our terror police.

Terror has triumphed. As it usually does. Terror wins when we pay heed – as we need to; it wins when we panic – as we need not.

So what can we do once we lose our freedoms?

I saw an odd movie a score or more years ago in which an Orwellian change had occurred and citizens were forbidden to own books. Books were collected and burned. Publishers were taken away for re-education. The Good Book says: ‘Of making books there is no end.’ But this was an end.

A few resisted, silently abandoning the cities, coming together to meet in the forest. Here each escapee became a talking book. One became ‘War and Peace’, another recited ‘Animal Farm’. Those whose mental muscles were less hypertrophied recited ‘Ozymandias’, or ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, or the Twenty-third Psalm. All these texts threatened the regime that murdered thought. All reciters risked death but inherited life.

Back here in my real life. I resolve to read poetry every day. I’ll rescue myself and succour others.

The Eve of the Eve of Yom Kippur

The house, emptied now of the insurrection that is a bunch of grandboys on school holidays, is quiet. These are the peaceful moments when the house exhales, the pulses slow and thought recovers.

Tonight is the night before the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, our Sorry Day. What am I sorry for? For what need I atone? Almost all my sins are those committed in words: I am sorry for the words shouted in anger at my grandrats, sorry for careless slights and unkind witticisms, sorry for speaking faster than my thinking.
And as this blog consists of words, I should search them.

I wrote (in How we Killed Leo) unkindly of Mister Scott Morrison. Elsewhere I have written uncharitably of Mr Shorten and Mr Abbott. All of these public people have private families who would feel wounded when writers such as I play the man instead of attacking the issue. I referred – wittily I felt – to our homegrown press baron as Murd. I should wash my mouth out. I am sorry for the hurt I have done those men and their families.

I remain sorry – and ashamed – that we Australians choose representatives who follow our baser instincts instead of those who might lead us and inspire our finer selves.

In the person of the successor in Sydney to Cardinal Pell, we might have found such a leader. On the morning after his accession the new archbishop spoke like one repentant for wrongs, transparent in confession, compassionate towards those hurt, and creative and courageous in his declared resolve to seek out his brother clerics in the Muslim community, ‘to find ways we can work together to heal our community’. This on the very morning we all read of the arrest of one Australian suspected of plotting to kidnap and behead another – any other – Australian.

A few weeks ago a Jewish democrat, tirelessly active in the struggle to improve our policies towards refugees, shared with me a bright new idea. “Howard,” he said, “Instead of attacking politicians I want to mobilise members and leaders of all of Australia’s faith communities to work together with government to create some softer policies that will be less cruel in their effects on those already here and kept in limbo.” Many, many are the Australians who wish our practices were not so harsh. Many are ashamed. Many have raised voices – as I have – in rancour. What I heard now was the echo of the quiet wisdom of Petro Georgiou, former Member for Kooyong, the man who spoke softly to a hard-faced Prime Minister and brought some humanity into policy.

As the prophet said, “Come, let us reason together.”