HAVANA TIMES, June 23 – If I hadn’t seen the US film John Q on Cuban television yesterday, perhaps I’d be writing something quite different today on the system of health care here on our island.
The movie’s storyline is that the nine or ten-year-old son of John (played by Denzel Washington), collapses while playing baseball and, after a series of tests, it’s discovered he has an enlarged heart and will need a transplant, otherwise the boy will only have months or weeks left to live, perhaps only days.
The good news is that his blood type is B positive, what quickly raises his name up on the list of patients awaiting donations. The bad news is that simply to be included on that list his parents will have to pay $75,000, not counting the cost for the care that the boy is receiving in the hospital in the meantime. The operation itself, if he’s lucky enough that an organ appears on time, will cost a minimum of $250,000 dollars.
The boy’s two parents are employed, so John (Denzel Washington) is convinced that the insurance he had paid for years will cover the costs of the operation their son’s needs. Soon the hospital administration points out his error: the boy’s condition is not covered.
The couple sells everything that’s marketable, and friends try to contribute with what they can, but it’s not nearly enough. On top of all this, the boy is going to be released from the hospital, not because he’s improved at all, but because the medical services he had been receiving were not paid. Faced with his son’s virtual death sentence, John takes drastic measures: he decides to kidnap the surgeon, close off a floor of the hospital and take hostages so that his son is included on that famous list.
Starting from there, this is more or less what I have seen before with this type of plot, where somebody takes hostages to demand something, the hostages go from fear to solidarity with their kidnapper, and the viewers are moved to tears by the story.
And, as always, there’s the element of the curious public who remain outside the hospital trying not to miss anything in “the cause of the moment,” as the situation is described by one of the characters in the movie. Nor is there a lack of the standard political interests, concern for public opinion in the face of elections or journalists trying to squeeze out the maximum juice from the story.
In fact, it doesn’t matter how the story ends. There’s something that’s clear after the first half hour of the movie: It is an open and direct criticism of the healthcare system in the United States of America, the most powerful country in the world, where 40 million people live without medical insurance.
If the objective of showing this film on Cuban television was to make Cuban citizens reflect —especially those who dare to criticize the domestic political system and their government about the achievements of the Revolution in the field of public health that is within reach of all our people— then the film achieved that goal. Even before the first half hour of the movie, the first phrase that crossed my mind was, “That wouldn’t have happened here.”
I don’t mean that there wouldn’t have been the risk of the child losing his life on the operating table, procedures of that type are always risky. Nor am I implying that here there would have been a bunch of compatible hearts waiting for him. His parents would have had a ton of reasons to be concerned, but if they were in Cuba they wouldn’t have had to sell all their worldly possessions so that their son was included on a list, nor would they have had to think about the expenses of being admitted into the hospital, and less still about the cost of the operation.
Here, medical care is guaranteed for everyone who works, who doesn’t work or who never will work.
Does that mean that Cuba’s health care system is perfect?
No. Often you go to your neighborhood clinic and there’s no one there to attend to you, or there’s no film to take an x-ray, or in the pharmacy there’s none of the medicine you need. It’s become common practice for people to bring the doctor some type of gift to guarantee that they’ll be well attended, or so they don’t have to get in the tortuous lines when they go in for a consultation. People are convinced that they can’t go there with their hands empty, because the doctors also have to live.
Everybody knows that the salaries of doctors are insufficient, and that the majority of them have to chase behind buses the same as anyone of us. People know that physicians often don’t have the resources to work, that on occasions they go directly from their night shift duty to their regular consultations, that many want to go on medical missions abroad in order generate the income to build a house or to bring back a computer, or things to sell, that many have to extra work outside of their profession to make a living.
Likewise, many of them have abandoned their professions in order to make a living. We can’t criticize them. We can only give our thanks to those who remain in the field of medicine and carry out their work with the greatest of dedication, with no other interest than that of saving lives, and who suffer when they don’t achieve that.
Despite all this, which would have been the central idea of my comment just a couple days ago, I can’t avoid continuing to think about the situation of the characters in the movie, and —to repeat to myself— that wouldn’t have happened here.
Someone could argue that our health care isn’t really free, because the money the State uses in health and education is what it takes from our pay checks on the job, with the result being our so very low wages.
It’s possible, but like I said before, that right here is guaranteed even for those who have never worked. Yes, it’s complicated; nothing is black and white. There might exist people who are much better informed and who could possibly provide data on measures taken to “influence” the statistics on the public health care system in our country, or they might have information about medicines that are in short supply here but are exported to other countries.
I cannot substantiate anything concerning that. In this instance, I can only guide myself based on what our official national press says, but also from my own experience as a person suffering from asthma since I was a child, from the medical problems of friends and family members with afflictions that are even more serious than mine, and from anyone who has at any time needed medical care.
The movie could have been set in many countries
Most countries in the world could have been used as the location for the movie John Q. In many countries, people die from simple illnesses for lack of diagnosis. That’s not the case of Cuba.
What I’m asking is whether the fact of having free health care and education a strong enough argument to stop us from criticizing what we consider worthy of criticism, to stop us from demanding changes, to stop us from standing up for any right that is denied us?
No. Medical care is one right that should be guaranteed all human beings on the planet, independently of their social condition, economic situation or their political or religious affiliation. We cannot view free health care as a favor or charity. If we have to pay for it with our silence, conformism or sell-out attitudes, then it’s not free.
In the United States, 40 million people still lack medical insurance. This is a pending task for President Barack Obama and for all the citizens of that country, who should fight for that right. We have already achieved it. Free health care in Cuba is a right. Now we must conquer others.