What’s happening in Haiti looks like a pretty fair approximation of hell on earth.  People buried alive, survivors having limbs amputated without anesthetic, children left without parents, husbands who can’t find their wives (and vice versa) digging through rubble for their loved ones while worrying about aftershocks, an already deeply impoverished nation pushed to new realities of suffering.

In the wake of this catastrophe, people are responding.  Telethons on MTV and Larry King’s show are raising millions, on line appeals raise millions more.  People who call in are clearly and understandably moved by the stories and pictures coming out of Haiti, and they are responding.

This is a good thing, it is a human thing.  Reaching out to people in crisis is the right thing to do.  The fairy tales we’re raised on in the United States, the ones about rugged individuals thriving on their own, are exposed as lies.  When trouble strikes, humans need other humans.  Ideally, they need lots of humans acting together and benefiting from economies of scale–something referred to as "government."  Haiti has no functioning government, no infrastructure, no systems in place that can be used to deliver relief, and that is adding to the suffering.  Other governments from less distressed countries, including our own, are responding–as are large nonprofit organizations that also have the ability to accomplish more than disconnected individuals operating on their own.

What it makes me wonder is: if it’s the right thing to do to reach out to Haitians after the earthquake (and it certainly is), why isn’t it the right thing to reach out to people who are suffering less sensationally?

I’m thinking of Americans who sleep in parking lots to receive free health care, Haitians who lacked access to clean water even before the earthquake, people around the world who struggle and suffer quietly.

These are overwhelming questions, of course, questions that seem laughably naive–how do you alleviate world wide human suffering?  One way to make the question more manageable is to focus on specifics.  That’s what advocates for health care reform have been trying to do.  Health care reform is based on simple premises: everyone should have access to affordable health care, no one should be bankrupted by health care expenses, no one should have to sleep in a parking lot in order to receive long overdue basic care.

Over the past couple of weeks, there has been a stark contrast between the response to Haiti and the discussion about health care reform.  Rightly, there is a nearly united (apart from Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson, and the isolated moron who argues Haiti’s problem was it wasn’t colonized long enough) reaction.  Most people support helping Haitians after the earthquake.  By contrast, support for health care reform seems to be losing its way.

There is a disconnect here.  Health care reform is about alleviating human suffering, making lives more liveable.  Perhaps the reality that thousands die in the U.S. each year for lack of health insurance simply can’t fixate the media’s attention in the way an earthquake does.  This isn’t a competition over which suffering is worst, which deserves our attention more.  The point is that, if we care about suffering and death, then we ought to fix a health care delivery system that leaves thousands to die each year.

We can choose to change this, or we can agree to continue to let people die.  It’s really that simple, and a functioning Democratic party would make this message loud and clear, rather than leaving it to one relatively unknown congressman to utter this truth.  Americans are neither callous nor heartless: the response to the earthquake in Haiti demonstrates otherwise.  The question is whether people who are dying in the United States right now because they cannot get health care will have to wait for their own earthquake before anyone takes notice.

Chris Edelson

Chris Edelson

Chris is a lawyer and professor at American University who writes frequently about current political and media issues. His writing has also been published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Metroland (Albany, NY), and at commondreams.org