By Dr. Meg Jordan, PhD, RN, CWP, Global Medicine Hunter
It's with great sadness that I read the news this past week. The reports of Guatemalans intentionally infected with venereal disease by U.S. government health researchers in the mid-1940s disgusts all of us. I am grateful to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for publicly apologizing to the Guatemalan president and making amends. Who knows how much suffering this act of medical hubris (life-threatening testing on "brown skin people who live elsewhere") has caused? There is an undertone of Tuskegee running through this Guatemalan study, although stark differences occur.
For one thing, the 600-plus Guatemalans who were encouraged to sleep with infected prostitutes (and when that didn't infect some, had pathogens scratched into their skin) were supposedly treated, although no documentation about the success of that treatment is available. For all we know, STDs were passed on to spouses, other adults, and children while disability and premature death ensued.
The other act is of course one more in a dreadful series: another suicide of a young queer person who succumbed to relentless cyber-bullying and harassment. Speak out, act out, make a stance however and wherever you can against such acts of hatred and discrimination, subtle and obvious, of a similar nature. Fill the blogs and live by example to transform culture now.
Just as Maslow mapped out a hierarchy of needs, there is a similar hierarchy of well-being in which societies can flourish: First, safety, then tolerance, then acceptance, finally on to celebration of diversity.
As a medical anthropologist, I chronicle how societies transform themselves from bastions of brutality to beacons of social justice, once we teach ourselves and others how to thrive in an atmosphere of safety. Next, we become accustomed to a safe environment, and grow to understand how tolerating what we don't understand, but tolerating it anyway, brings an added measure of health.
However, tolerance is not ideal, it's dismissive and coated in superiority. Societies must move from tolerance to wider acceptance in order to further their own goals of mutual respect and shared progress.
Finally, a stage of moving from acceptance to celebration requires that we no longer simply tolerate or accept diversity, we highlight it as life-affirming, rich with interest, strength and excitement. These matured societies are also marked by a commitment to ensuring none of its members suffer from vast health or income disparities that drag down the society as a whole.
Unfortunately, we have some stark examples in the U.S. just this past week that our society is nowhere near this level of acceptance or diversity. For that matter, I wonder if we've slid from past gains in previous decades where tolerance was the goal.
There is something heinous about elements in our society which fester cyber-bullying and harassment of children of difference, and also work to dismantle the Affordable Health Care Act, which finally removed the ability of insurance companies to deny children with pre-existing conditions.
These acts are cut from the same cloth: one of fear, laced with greed and reactionary, ignorant hatred.
But there is also a rising hue and cry among those who were formerly in a trance by the economic downturn, wondering where our own safe landing may occur among financial sharks and health care bullies.
There really is no safety for all of us if there is none for the weakest among us.
Stand together and shake off the icy chill that descends when we encounter these dreadful acts.
- Safeguard a child who shows signs of being "different."
- Voice your insistence that health care is a right.
- Make a stand against indifference of medical testing on people of color, people on distant shores, those assumed to be of less worth so that we can somehow use them as guinea pigs in unethical, inhumane manner. It still continues with vaccine testing and will continue by those with an eye on profits versus well-being of the whole, not the few.