Looking back at the ill-treatment and neglect I suffered as a child reveals an underlying cause of indifference. I endured a miserable existence with a communist-dictator father and a totally compliant mother. When father issued a decree that there would be “No illness in the house,” mother enforced the dictat with zeal. If you were sick you kept your mouth shut and got on with it. The only way to circumvent the great wall of inscrutability was “blood” and lots of it, alternatively a huge swelling might work. One day I was sent home from school with German measles (rubella) and the old man went ballistic. “That’s not an illness, that’s a malingerer’s excuse,” he raged. I told him I had to stay home from school for a week, to which he retorted, “Well, you can’t skive off that easy, you can come to work and make yourself useful.” On another occasion, mother dragged me out of bed despite complaints of backache and beat the crap out of me with her fists. Despite all protestations I was forced to go to school, then sent home due to agonising pain and spent the rest of the day enduring taunts as to what would happen when my father got home from work. Some years later an X-ray revealed I had suffered a herniated lumbar disc which was never treated.
But within such madness lurked enlightenment. I became aware that illness with physical manifestations got prioritised. Thankfully, the medical profession tends to act in a more rational way, but non-clinical people in positions of authority are to this day susceptible to being influenced by visual triggers rather than actual need. This perhaps explains why special cancer drugs, mental health resources, even special needs kids struggle disproportionately to secure adequate funding. When there’s no blood, no lumps and no bones projecting from limbs, it’s usually an uphill struggle.
Although the outcome was less than humane, 19th century treatment of lepers reveals an irrational side to societal behaviour. Visual images of leprosy were so disturbing, authorities dumped sufferers out-of-sight on islands and outposts on the pretext they were controlling disease, whereas in truth the visual images of lepers were deemed too terrible to countenance.
While modern society regards itself highly sophisticated, humans still respond to primal, even reptilian impulses that influence thinking. My mother would assess us kids in a millisecond, if there was no blood or swelling, there was nothing wrong. Nothing short of dynamite would sway her instinctive reactions. Alas, I would like to think that such prehistoric behaviour has no place in modern society particularly in priority assessment.
Many courageous people caught up in 20th century wars suffered combined hells of physical pain and mental torture. Almost to a man they agreed that mental pain was far more difficult to cope with than physical suffering. So, come on Christchurch, many young Cantabrians have been to hell and back with earthquakes and deserve better.
My father passed away in 2007 aged 88 and trust that a particularly fiery spot in hell has been his final destination. I have similar wishes for my 97 years old mother who is in a dementia unit in Britain.