Deja vu, all over again
Heads in the sand
“The more things change, the more they remain the same.” T hose are the words Barack Obama chose as the title for his presidential nomination acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic Convention.
How often did my late father make the same statement with a sigh whenever he got wind of something that reminded him of similar events from earlier times! And, how often do we aging parents say it when we encounter things that remind us of the past! It almost becomes a mantra.
Only those people who bury their heads in the sand like an ostrich, can avoid the reality of an ongoing crisis in the health care system in Newfoundland and Labrador.
One need not look far for the telltale signs. The media bombard us with reports of long-standing problems in the delivery of medical services. There are cramped working spaces, antiquated equipment and difficult working conditions.
May we never forget the key lessons that have emerged involving problems experienced with hormone receptor testing from 1997 to 2005! We ignore those lessons to our detriment. As George Santayana said, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
At the same time, politicians are sometimes the ones who bury their heads in the sand by denying there is any such crisis.
As recent as 2007, Premier Danny Williams, while touring the Central Newfoundland Regional Health Centre, Grand Falls-Windsor, insisted, “ Our health-care system is not in a crisis.” He removed his head from the sand only to continue his tour.
A page from the past
Recently, I stumbled upon an intriguing item from the past. It pertains to Newfoundland’s health-care system. The interesting thing is that it appeared in a local newspaper in 1919! It was published in The Guardian, the weekly newspaper edited by Charles E. Russell at Bay Roberts.
The article is entitled “Local Hospital and Board of Health.” The subtitle is more revealing “Citizens Should Demand Better Conditions.” Shades of 2009! After reading the article, I, like my father before me, sighed and said, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” (I cannot overlook the fact that this dates me. Aging is often accompanied by a healthy (?) dose of cynicism.)
The citizens of 1919 were upset about the lack of attention being paid by government to the need to catch up from a medical infrastructure perspective. More specifically, an influenza and smallpox epidemic forcibly reminded everyone of the desperate need for a local hospital.
The District Board of Health was inadequately comprised of a single person, a judge, who lived ten miles distant. To expect him to supervise and control public health was unreasonable.
The editorialist, in all likelihood the editor, C.E. Russell, suggested that a person of “ordinary intelligence” could see the need of a local hospital. What to do?
Outport vs. Townies
Outports had “been denied this blessing for years.” Deputations had repeatedly and unsuccessfully requested this right from government.
One had to look no farther than Harbour Grace to witness this demeaning attitude. Government steadfastly ignored the existence of a substantial fund that had been started by citizens.
“What chance, therefore,” Russell asked rhetorically, “is there for citizens of any other outport community to have their request granted?”
The editor regarded as “unfair and unconstitutional” that some taxpayers could have hospital facilities simply “because they happen to live in St. John’s.”
One senses sarcasm as Russell refers to the “wings” which had been added to the Fever Hospital. Government could always find money “to build anything in St. John’s, even a museum, where the mummies are kept.” He did- n’t insert an exclamation point into his editorial, but he could have.
Now, recommended The Guardian, consider the outport patients who traveled to St. John’s. They were often compelled to wait weeks to be admitted to the General Hospital. This was unacceptable in the twentieth century.
Politicians were well aware of these unfavourable conditions.
Granted, Newfoundlanders had never attempted Bolshevik methods to obtain their rights. Nor had they employed “strong constitutional means.” Instead, they “trusted their duly-elected representatives to see that they got a square deal.”
When the ill visited the capital city, all they got in return, after paying their proportional share of taxes, were electric streetlights, hospital accommodation and fire protection.
An obvious question was: What were the 30 outport government members doing? More to the point, what were the trio of Harbour Grace members doing? “Are they interesting themselves at all except in some trivial ordinary thing?”
Russell admitted that he had not “as much as seen our member for the past four or five years.” He asked, again rhetorically, “Is that good enough?” The only answer is that the residents deserved better.
Meanwhile, the citizens of St. John’s were not to blame. The editorialist’s complaint was “that outport taxpayers and citizens do not get their just share of public improvements and facilities.”
Russell asked readers to recall the many times when, because of sickness and accident, “a cottage hospital within easy reach would have been the means of saving life.”
Who to blame?
Where to place blame for the “negligence to the outport taxpayer?”
Russell pinpointed the outport representatives. “For,” he suggested, “ had they demanded better treatment for their constituents it would have been granted long ago.”
Next to be assigned blame were the citizens. “Have we not been apathetic and indifferent to the cries of the masses who appeal to us for their rights?”
The Guardian had consistently, since 1909, espoused “outport rights, based on the principle of equal rights because of equal taxation.”
Still, Russell was “more strongly convinced than ever that a big wave of public interest must be shown in this matter if anything is to be accomplished.” Citizens were encouraged to “elect men with ideals who will put their constituents’ interest first, first, first, not last, as they have been doing. Men who will fulfill the promises made on the eve of an election, not those who will sell themselves to the various influ- ences and cliques in St. John’s, to the detriment often of their outport constituents’ interests.”
Ninety years ago
There you have it. A cautionary tale from 90 years ago. Obviously the faces have changed from 1919 to 2009. And, there is little if any connection between the details of the challenges being faced by the health care system in the Newfoundland of 1919 and our Province of 2009.
However, the overall picture has remarkable similarities.
We see in 1919 a fixation on a health care system in crisis, at least from an outport standpoint. We see government lording it over its lowly outport subjects. We are reminded of a lack of interest by elected members to care for the needs of their constituents. We observe a litany of unfulfilled election promises. We detect an unresponsiveness to the needs inherent in the health care system. There is the age-old outport vs. townie mentality.
Yogi Berra is one of the most quoted sports figures of all time. He is credited with coining some deceptively simplistic observations. But he is also known for his flubs, one of which comes to mind after reading the article from The Guardian,“ This is like deja vu all over again.”
Burton K. Janes, who lives in Bay Roberts, is ever so grateful for the Carbonear General Hospital, where he was rushed countless times during an eight-year bout with kidney stones. He can be reached by email at email@example.com