The United States government has done bad things.
Politics aside, we can all acknowledge that the U.S. hasn’t always been perfect. And we should all be able to agree that when the government repeatedly commits actions that harm and marginalize certain groups of people, this is wrong. Our response to these events should be striving to end negative historical patterns, and yet, so often they proliferate right under our noses.
Physically preventing already-marginalized people from receiving readily available life-saving medicine and healthcare sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? I want to examine how the U.S. has done just that in the past — and how it continues to do so today.
Let’s turn back the clock nearly 90 years, to 1932. This was the year that the Tuskegee Study began — the “experiment” has been cited as “arguably the most infamous biomedical research study in U.S. history. Rather than being known for its successes or discoveries, though, the study instead marks an abject failure on the part of the federal government to recognize basic standards for ethical human treatment. Worse yet, it explicitly targeted a group that had already been systematically discriminated against in the U.S. for centuries.
In hopes of finding a cure for syphilis, the Public Health Service collaborated with the Tuskegee Institute to launch a new experiment in 1932, which they called the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.” The study sampled 600 black men, 399 of which had syphilis. Researchers promised the men that they were being treated for their diseases, but in reality, no such treatment was being administered. Thus, the subjects never gave informed consent.
The study, which was slated to last only six months, went on for 40 years. As their untreated conditions worsened, subjects may have experienced severe headaches, difficult coordinating muscle movements or event paralysis, dementia and blindness. Then, in 1947, penicillin emerged as an effective treatment. But — and here’s the kicker — rather than administering it to the patients who’d they’d promised a cure to, the government researchers went to extreme lengths to prevent the men from receiving penicillin.
The study was finally terminated in 1972 when a whistleblower brought the study to the attention of the nation. Disturbingly, the Center for Disease Control had defended carrying out the experiment to its end, which meant waiting until the last patient died of syphilis. Our nation was disgusted and determined to never let this kind of atrocity happen again.
But let’s fast forward to 2019, shifting our focus to the U.S./Mexico border. In December, Carlos Vasquez, a 16 year-old immigrant from Guatemala, died in agony on the floor, lying in a pool of his own blood, after U.S. border guards spent hours seemingly ignoring him. After being diagnosed with the flu (and measuring a 103 degree fever), rather than being given proper medical treatment, he was quarantined and left alone.
Tragically, the story of Vasquez does not stand alone. Three children died from the flu while in federal immigration custody during the past year, which calculates to a rate of flu deaths that is 9x higher than the national average.
Just as in the case of the Tuskegee Study, there was readily available healthcare that could have saved these lives, and yet the U.S. chose to deny these immigrants treatment.
“It has never been a CBP practice to administer vaccines and this is not a new policy,” an official Customs and Border Protection (CBP) statement read in part. “Individuals in CBP custody should generally not be held for longer than 72 hours in either CBP hold rooms or holding facilities… As a law enforcement agency, and due to the short-term nature of CBP holding and other logistical challenges, operating a vaccine program is not feasible.”
This statement ignores the fact that the agency has struggled to deal with an influx of migrants and has elsewhere admitted that children and adults have been held in Border Patrol custody in crowded conditions for much longer than 72 hours. The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General reported that “the El Paso Del Norte Processing Center … does not have the capacity to hold the hundreds currently in custody safely, and has held the majority of its detainees longer than the 72 hours generally permitted.” Across all detention facilities in mid-2019, the average length of detention exceeded a week.
Clearly, it’s not just 72 hours. And even if it were, the fact would not change that people are getting sick and dying as they’re being held in these overcrowded, unclean facilities that have proven to be breeding grounds for disease.
The U.S. has not given an acceptable response. When people are being held indefinitely by the government and prevented from leaving, the least the government can do is ensure that their basic health needs are met. To hold someone indefinitely while simultaneously denying them medical care is to take away any ability for them to keep themselves healthy, and it’s very reminiscent of the way the government prevented the Tuskegee Study patients from accessing the healthcare they needed.
These are the kinds of historical trends that we need to scrutinize; these are the kinds of historical trends that we need to definitively put an end to. It’s 2020. As a country, let’s stop preventing minorities from accessing basic medical care.