U.S. politics has for three-quarters of a century been shaped by the question “Do you support the troops?” The understood meaning of the question has been “Do you want members of the military to live or do you wish them dead?” The effective meaning of the question has been “Do you want unlimited unaccountable spending on weaponry and endless wars or are you an evil traitor?”
Such a question cannot be answered or undone, but it can be replaced with a different question.
What if we were to ask this question: Do you support the health workers? The understood meaning could be: Do you think that doctors and nurses and emergency medical technicians and health workers by whatever names should live or do you wish them dead? Are you grateful for their service? Do you believe they should have the sort of armor or protective clothing and equipment their colleagues in China have? Do you think they should have the tests and treatments they need to accomplish their mission, and that people should follow their guidance?
(Perhaps also: Do you think they should get on airplanes first and get special parking spaces and be thanked by everyone they meet? But if we don’t have to get carried away, let’s not.)
The effective meaning could be: Should the United States strive to achieve a decent standing in the international healthcare race? Should it address crises and routine health issues with enough resources and energy and dedication to achieve levels of health and lifespan and infant mortality and disease suppression to rival rather than be shamed by other nations? Should everyone do their part by engaging in behavior that supports the needs of the health workers? Should there be glory for those who volunteer to assist health workers in times of grave peril?
There should be a slight twist, however, in our transferring of troop language to health workers. We should try to do it without the corruption or the nationalism. The United States already spends more on healthcare than any other country, but it does so extremely inefficiently. While our new ideology should allow unlimited increases in health spending, the focus should be on results. That means a single-payer system has to be understood as more supportive of the health workers than insurance company profits, paid sick leave is health worker loyal far more than overcharging for faulty ventilators is, and open research shared worldwide is health worker friendly because it benefits the mission of better health far more than corporate monopolies do.
When I saw that Tom Hanks had coronavirus, I immediately thought of Inferno, the movie starring Tom Hanks, not the book. As in virtually all movies, Hanks had to save the world individually and violently. But when Hanks actually came down with a contagious disease in the real world, what he had to do was follow proper procedures and play his bit role to avoid spreading it further, while encouraging others to do the same.
The heroes we need are not to be found on Netflix and Amazon, but are all around us, in hospitals and books. They’re in The Plague by Albert Camus, where we can read these words:
“All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.”