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Social Class and Health Care, Essay Example

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Essay

In the United States, as in most first-world nations, access to health care is accessed through one form or another of health insurance. Some countries, such as Canada and Great Britain, have nationalized health care systems; these systems are often referred to as “single payer” insurance programs. In the United States, most health insurance is provided to individuals by their employers, or is paid for out of pocket by the insured. Tens of millions of people in the U.S. do not have health insurance; those without it are invariably at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. The disparity between social classes that can and cannot afford health care is nothing new; examples of this can be seen throughout history. Those on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale are often the most likely to become ill, and are just as likely to have little recourse when they do. There are times, however, when being wealthy is a greater risk factor for illness; an examination of several works of literature will demonstrate these differences.

            In “The Peloponnesian War,” Thucycides describes a plague that overcomes the people of Athens. The disease is quite virulent, killing most of those who become infected with it. The details offered about the symptoms of this disease are quite graphic; those who catch this plague are likely to vomit “every bilious substance ever given a name by physicians (pg 77);” most of those that survive that will go on to expire from excessive diarrhea, while those that survive are likely to lose eyes, limbs, and even genitalia. Thucycides notes that “physicians were the first to treat the disease, but they did so ignorant of its nature and were no match for it (pg 76).” The plague was particularly hard on the “newcomers” and those who were crowded into the cities; these people “lived in stifling huts because they had no homes of their own, and the death rate was out of control (pg 78).” While no one seemed entirely immune to the plague, it is clear that those who can afford to distance themselves from the poor masses in the cities stand a better chance of staying well.

In Boccacio’s “The Decameron” is found the tale of a plague that is nearly identical to that found in “The Peloponnesian War.” People react to this disease in different ways; some shun those who are infected, while others throw caution to the wind and spend all their time in public places, as if daring the disease itself to infect them. As is the case in the time of Thucycides, the physicians in the Decameron are baffled and overwhelmed by the disease; none of their treatments seem to have an effect.  The plague described by Boccacio is also as undiscerning as that described by Thucycides; it infects and kills both the rich and the poor. Because it is spread through contact with the infected, or things the infected have touched, it affects the poor in much greater numbers than it does the rich. “Most of them stayed in their homes,” writes Boccacio,” either because of their poverty or their hopes of remaining safe, and every day the fell sick by the thousands (pg 7).”

In “Measure for Measure,” Shakespeare offers accounts of the ravages of syphilis, a disease that was fairly common in his day, as well as much more virulent than that which is seen today. While the previous writings demonstrated that the poor were more likely to succumb to the plague than were the wealthy, the spread of syphilis –referred to as “the French Velvet” in “Measure for Measure”- was often seen affecting the wealthy. Shakespeare himself referred to syphilis as “selfishness The Disease,” as it was spread largely among those who frequented brothels or otherwise engaged the services of prostitutes; those who were simply promiscuous were also more likely to acquire and spread the disease. Lucio, for example, sees promiscuity as “sport” and readily admits to having contracted venereal diseases. Referring to the brothel of a local Madam, Lucio asserts “I have purchased…many diseases under her roof (Act I, Scene II).” Just as they are for the plague, treatments for syphilis in Shakespeare’s time are almost entirely ineffective (if not outright dangerous); also just as with the plague, it is only the wealthiest who can afford any sort of treatment, danger notwithstanding.

It is clear that the chasm between the “haves” (those who can access health care and avoid disease) and the “have-nots” (those who cannot access health care and who are often the most susceptible to disease) is nothing new. From the time of the Peloponnesian War all the way to the 21st Century, the economically privileged are also the most likely to stay well, or at least to be able to afford a visit to the doctor. In some ways, civilization has grown and evolved over the centuries; when it comes to treating disease, however, some things are just as they were in the Middle Ages.

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