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In This Together

The Human Right to Health Care in the Time of COVID-19

Several weeks ago, World Health Organization officials finally named the global transmission of the novel corona virus with a powerful word previously avoided: pandemic. Cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, are spreading rapidly and now top 85,000 in this country, touching every state in the union. New York is becoming a global epicenter of the contagion.

Millions of Americans are staying home to “flatten the curve,” or delay transmission of the virus to avoid overwhelming our health care facilities. The U.S., it turns out, will struggle to care for the many who fall ill with this new malady. The shortage of hospital beds, equipment, and supplies is raising alarms.

How can it be that a democracy with the historic wealth and technological advancement of the United States will struggle to care for its sick, and fare worse than many other countries in the face of a public health crisis like this one?

Earlier this week I spoke with Fran Quigley, founder of Faith in Healthcare and a professor in the Health and Human Rights Clinic at Indiana University McKinney School of Law. You can watch the full interview above.

Profits before People

Fran described a number of pitfalls of the current U.S. health care and public health systems—including the outsize profit motive that has meant higher bills and lower quality of care, and has left our nation ill prepared to handle a crisis like COVID-19. Already, some patients are recovering from the disease to face hospital bills of ten thousand dollars or more for treatment not covered by insurance. The Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services recently told Congress he couldn’t make guarantees about the affordability of a corona virus vaccine, which would be left in industry’s hands.

A Moral Message on Health Care

In response to systemic failures like these, Fran and his allies at Faith in Healthcare are building of a multi-faith movement calling for universal health care as a moral imperative. Reflecting on his own Christian faith, the biblical witness of Jesus’ healing ministry, and the common thread of conviction that runs through many religious traditions, Fran sounded a hopeful note about the potential of this multi-faith movement for health care reform. He pointed to the example of Tommy Douglas, a widely admired Canadian who began as a Baptist minister and, inspired by the Social Gospel tradition, later shaped the nation’s universal health care system as a public official.

“Faith communities have a moral message,” Fran explained. And because they’ve long been at the fore of providing charitable health services, they can speak with credibility to the real need for systemic change.

As a human rights lawyer, Fran underscored how well accepted the human right to health is around the world and under international law. Although the U.S. is not a full participant in the treaty that addresses health care most directly, it has joined the companion covenant on civil and political rights and pledged to protect the right to life, which is ultimately at stake when healthcare is inaccessible or unaffordable.

What Faith Communities Can Do

In closing, I asked Fran what people of faith can do today to advance the human right to health care. This advocacy work must begin with our congregations, he said, because we’re more powerful as a collective force than as separate individuals. Together, communities of faith can make equitable access to health care a priority in our public life. As cases of COVID-19 mount, we’re reminded daily how crucial this is—not only for those who’ve long been on the losing end of an inequitable system, but for our society as a whole.
If you don’t already know your faith tradition’s position on universal health care, look for it in this article or on your denomination’s web site. Consider using some of the downtime of these stay-at-home days reflect on your tradition’s stance and consider your own. For more insight or inspiration, explore the thoughtful resources Faith in Healthcare offers. And of course, watch the full interview above for more in-depth reflections.

Perhaps, as Fran suggested, a redemptive silver lining to the daunting dark cloud of this pandemic can be found, as it helps us to realize, “we are all in this together.”

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