HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

Santa’s New Knapsack

On television, in magazines, on the internet, we see Santas doling out toys to children and gizmos to adults. The season of giving has morphed into the season of getting. Maybe it is more blessed to give than receive, but, in the frenzied exchange of stuff, we’re all receiving our fair share of whatever our hearts desire.

Here is a modest proposal in the spirit of whatever you want to celebrate. How about a Santa who metes out not gifts, but years of life? Let Santa give a few more years to some fellow-inhabitants of the planet. This season, let’s look outside our bailiwicks, and write a few more checks.

• As a gift from the United States to Africa, let’s wipe out malaria. This is audacious. But prevention is not difficult (treated nets and indoor spraying will do much of the job), and treatment, if started early, often works. So this disease that kills 2200 children a day, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, could be quashed. A net costs $10. In this holiday season, think of the public relations potential. The West, including the United States, spent centuries plundering Africa’s wealth and its people. Eradicating malaria would be a welcome recompense. (See

• If malaria seems too mammoth a pestilence, try polio. Polio has been on the cusp of extinction for years. Western physicians don’t see it. But in pockets of the world, a plane ride away, last year 600 people died, and some of the survivors were left blind and disabled. The US Fund for UNICEF pegs the cost of vaccines for 100 children at $27. (

• Give pregnant women, stuck in refugee camps, a safe, sterile delivery. We take that for granted: every American woman goes into labor surrounded by skilled personnel, working with sterile tools. In refugee camps, the reality is starker. Many refugees have fled their hellish homelands, only to wait, in limbo, in a country whose services they cannot use. In Pakistan, Liberia, Rwanda, Thailand and Uganda the American Refugee Committee offers basic services. $17 will buy two clean delivery kits, with sterile gloves, gauze, scissors, and antibiotics. (

• Scatter clinics throughout the globe. Physicians without Borders has sent 27,000 health care workers to help people in 60 countries cope with the aftermath of natural disasters (earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis), as well as the man-made ones, like war and starvation. They deliver babies, perform surgeries, provide medicines, fit patients with prosthetic devices, and treat victims of the inevitable epidemics that follow disasters. Physicians without Borders relies on private dollars. (

• Tired of sending dollars overseas when we have home-grown misery? Consider the 44 million Americans who have no health insurance. Our nation’s non-profit hospitals and clinics will treat them, albeit reluctantly (poor people eligible for Medicaid at least provide a stream of revenue, compared to the uninsured). Across the nation “free clinics” have sprung up, dedicated to this population ( If you have insurance, recognize how fortunate you are, and send a check.

The checks can be small. We are a wealthy country. We’ve just spent a day giving thanks for our bounty. A sliver of us (1.7 million households, 1.5% of the population) earn more than $250,000 a year. Another 4.3% earn more than $150,000. The rest of us may earn more than we hoped, even more than we did last year, but we earn fare more than subsistence. If all of us gave a modest amount – less than the cost of a sweater – we’d alleviate a lot of misery.

Surely many of us can buy one fewer sweater for somebody who has a bureau full of them.

This season Santa will not bring peace on earth. But he can do better than toys and gizmos.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2010

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