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Forget the Olympics: Great Britain Beats U.S. in Providing Safety and Healthcare

British residents don't worry about affording medical services, while undocumented immigrants in the U.S. have limited access to healthcare.
 
 
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As the London 2012 Olympics draw to a close, it is worthwhile to reflect on how, despite the disparity in medals won by British and American athletes, the host country has upstaged the United States when it comes to protecting the health and well-being of its population.

While film director Danny Boyle was teaching dance steps to the doctors and nurses the nation would honor during the Olympic Games’ opening ceremonies, the United States Congress took one of its more than 30 meaningless votes to repeal the new universal insurance system.

Shortly before the Games commenced a gunman opened fire on a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado killing or wounding more than 60 people. Then, during the Games, another American gunman fatally shot six people in a Milwaukee Sikh Temple. By contrast, Great Britain, which had 58 murders by firearms in 2011, had to make special arrangements to allow the Olympic shooters to bring their weapons into the country. 

Moreover, in choosing to show the world that British residents need not worry about whether they can afford medical services, Britain also, perhaps unintentionally, highlighted the intransigence of American politicians to discuss humane and reasonable immigration reform policies.

These three issues of affordable healthcare, gun violence and anti-immigrant political grandstanding oddly intersect when it comes to America’s shameful refusal to extend health insurance benefits to undocumented workers. As reprehensible as it sounds, this failure is potentially more dangerous than allowing gun owners to shoot any illegal immigrant they happen to encounter or target.

Recent news reports have detailed the costs of denying these undocumented residents-- estimated to include 8 million workers or 5.2 percent of the workforce--access to health services. The result is that tax-paying, law-abiding human beings will likely refrain from seeking medical help until they are in need of emergency services from a hospital that is prohibited by law from denying them care. Not only does the delay needlessly prolong an individual’s suffering; it also exponentially raises the cost of care, which, when rendered in an emergency room, can run into the thousands of dollars. For those without means or insurance, taxpayers will be handed the bill.

As if to emphasize its disregard of the consequences of such a myopic policy, the U.S. Congress also cut funding for more cost-effective community clinics that would provide health services without regard to immigration status. When undocumented individuals wait to seek care until their suffering overwhelms their fear of discovery, we all suffer.

A more scary consequence arises if the individual who delays treatment has an infectious disease. It is a sad fact that many countries experience endemic and epidemic diseases no longer present in the United States. We should be disturbed by reports of cholera in Haiti, Ebola in Uganda and drug resistant strains of tuberculosis in Africa, among others. To be sure there is no reason to suspect that immigrants are any more likely than American international travelers to bring in a disease. But just like all of us, immigrants get sick on occasion. If they are afraid to seek medical care until they are very ill, they may needlessly expose tens or hundreds of others to a contagion.

America’s history of epidemics is a shameful collection of incidents of blaming immigrants for the spread of contagion, which was due largely to the failure of public health authorities to provide services to the poor, many of whom were immigrants. By blaming these “others,” we overlooked the real causes and effective means of containing contagion, thereby causing unnecessary suffering and economic loss. 

The irrational blame game was on display during the 2003 SARS epidemic. Although the disease was most prevalent in the countries of East Asia and Canada, customers steered clear of New York’s Chinatown on rumors that illegal immigrants infected with the disease were hiding there. By some estimates businesses suffered up to a 75 percent drop in trade, although no case was diagnosed among any resident of the area. There could have been a more disastrous ending that no boycott would have prevented given the daily movement of people in and around the city: the rapid spread of a deadly disease throughout the city and beyond.

Even more troubling is the possibility that barring access to medical care will result in preventing many of the estimated 350,000 undocumented children from being fully vaccinated against infectious childhood diseases. When parents fear discovery of their undocumented status, they may be reluctant to seek regular medical care and prophylactic vaccination for their children, which can endanger an entire playground, school, neighborhood or community. If approximately 10 percent of a community is unvaccinated the residents lose what is called “herd immunity,” meaning that those for whom the vaccine may not be 100 percent effective or those unable for health reasons to take a vaccine lose the protection that comes when a high proportion of the population are resistant to the disease due to vaccination. When influenza pandemic infects both adults and children, we are all at risk since we may not know for whom the vaccine may be less effective.

The Olympics’ closing ceremonies will likely again remind Americans that international travel and our engagement with individuals across the globe will only increase in the years to come. Xenophobic and mean-spirited immigration and health policies not only endanger American’s physical and economic health--they also diminish our humanity.

Leslie Gerwin is the Associate Director of the Program in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University. She teaches public health law and policy as an Adjunct Professor of Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University and is a participant in The OpEd Project’s Public Voices Fellowship.

 
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