Canada’s universal health-care system makes us live democratically
TheStar.com – opinion/commentary
May 02 2013. By: Arthur Haberman
Several years ago I was diagnosed with that ordinary male disease — I had prostate cancer. The cure — and cure it came to be — was to get a series of radiation treatments, five days a week over a period of eight weeks.
I was asked which part of the day I preferred to have my treatments. I chose the morning, and so it was for the two months.
When I went to get my zapping, as I explained it to my grandchildren, I developed a routine. I saved my newspaper, took the subway for several stops, got a cup of Tim Hortons coffee to take to the waiting room and settled in to wait my turn.
After a few days, I realized I was seeing the same faces around me each day — other patients in for regular treatments, some for prostate, some for other cancers. Of course, being polite Canadians, we first acknowledged one another by bidding each other good morning. Then, a few days later, we began talking about the weather and the news. After a week or two, some of us would talk about ourselves or ask our neighbour how the treatment was going. We became something of a club, even welcoming newcomers in a gentle way. When someone was having her last treatment, we all went out of our way to wish her well.
Who were we in this waiting area in Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto? There were two farmers from northern Ontario, a Bay Street lawyer, a young woman studying anthropology at a local university, a professor of history, a saleswoman, an officer of a big bank, a retired carpenter, and a teacher. And others. And sometimes the ill person was accompanied by one or two family members.
It is said that death is the great equalizer. Well, it can be said that a brush with death can make us all behave like citizens in a democracy. Status meant nothing in this waiting room. Colour, age, gender, they were hardly noticed. We all believed that we were getting excellent, compassionate care. We responded to one another in humane and even tender relationships, thrown together arbitrarily by our universal health-care system.
It didn’t need to be said. We were all getting the same care, whatever our fortunes or status. We never discussed it, but there was tacit agreement that this was a good thing.
We responded to one another as human beings brought together in unfortunate circumstances. In most of our lives we would never have met one another at all, but this became an opportunity to learn about our fellow citizens and to get out of our daily boxes.
There is something that political philosophers — those like Tocqueville and Mill in the 19th century — have come to call living democratically. By this it is meant that voting is but a small part of what being in a democracy is about. It also includes volunteering in small ways to make our communities better, participating in decisions about what happens to your town or your neighbourhood, judging your fellow citizens by the quality of their character and not by the size of their homes or wealth, and treating all as equals.
Our society has decided that we needed to expand what living democratically means to the realms of education and health. We hope to make education universally available to all, a good education, providing more equal opportunity. We don’t succeed here as well as we would like, but the goal is a meaningful one.
We also hope to make health care available to all so that no one will face the misfortune of not being able to afford decent care and so that all have access to something that will enhance the quality of their lives. Here, it seemed to me in those eight weeks in the waiting area, we are succeeding very well in living democratically.
So universal health care is not only about the bodies of our citizens. It is also a statement about the values we want to forward in the body politic. May it flourish.
Arthur Haberman is University Professor Emeritus of History and Humanities at York University. He is the co-author of The West and The World: Contacts, Conflicts, Connections.
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