One man's medicine is another's 'Mondial'

'Colon cancer turned out to be sexier.'

June 1, 2006 03:01
4 minute read.
katsav hunger striker 298.88

katsav cancer patient. (photo credit: Channel 10)

Last week, Ezer Mitzion held its annual drive to collect blood samples of potential bone marrow donors for cancer patients. The campaign this year wasn't as successful as it has been in the past. Only 18,000 people turned up to give blood at stations around the country. "We didn't manage to create a media hype around the drive this year," one of the people in charge of publicizing the event said this week. "We didn't have cancer patients who were capable of appearing well on television. Besides, the colon cancer patients' hunger strike took all the attention. Colon cancer turned out to be sexier." This might be the kind of cynical assessment one would expect to hear from a PR person after a disappointing campaign, but beneath the words lay a cold truth: The collective imagination and attention span has very little room for issues of public health and social welfare. In a system in which pressing problems only get seriously addressed by the government after the media take them up, priorities are arbitrarily determined by TV ratings. On Monday, the government finally announced that it was adding NIS 350 million to the national health basket, allowing the hunger strikers on the lawn near the Knesset to proclaim victory, have something to eat and go home. But were they really victorious? According to the Health Ministry, the Avastin and Erbitux drugs that they were demanding won't be included in the basket so quickly. Apparently, there are other medications more urgently needed by patients ahead of them in line. So why did they call off their protest immediately following the government's decision? Because they instinctively understood that what had been born in the camera's limelight would either have to end there, or die of obscurity. This is only the latest absurdity in the ongoing health basket farce. The committee charged with deciding which medications, procedures and technologies will be subsidized by the government should have finished this year's round months ago. Instead, they agonized over and postponed every decision. Then, when they finally were ready to deliver their verdict, Attorney General Meni Mazuz ordered another delay until after the elections. In the next round, the committee announced it couldn't give a final decision because the budget wasn't sufficient, and kicked the ball back into the government's court. But there was no government yet. So the health basket was not only held hostage to the coalition talks, but got pushed even farther down the priority ladder when it turned out that none of the powerful parties was asking for the health portfolio. In the end, it took one attractive, 22-year-old - Ella Kleine, fasting on behalf of her mother who was diagnosed with colon cancer - to break the impasse. Oozing with star quality, Kleine proved irresistible to TV producers. Her series of impassioned appearances did a lot more to put the plight of cancer patients at the top of the agenda than the pathetic antics of radio broadcaster Nathan Zehavi, who tried to attract attention by setting off a couple of smoke grenades. But what if Shoshana Kleine hadn't had such an attractive daughter? Would that have made colon cancer sufferers less deserving? It's easy to blame the media for flattening out the issues and selecting them for their entertainment value. But in the end, it's the politicians' responsibility to deal with the problems of the public who elected them. Two months ago, everyone was talking about how the Israeli electorate had voted in favor of a social agenda, punished Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud and opted for parties like Labor, the Pensioners and Shas. It's still not clear what message, if any, the voters were trying to promote. What is clear is that the only government ship still waiting for a captain is the Social Affairs Ministry. Labor's Amir Peretz is much too busy with his new job at the Defense Ministry and with his party's infighting to get down to the problems that he promised his voters would be at the top of his agenda - tackling poverty and devising a comprehensive national pension scheme. Shas's and the Pensioners' leaders are no better. MEANWHILE, THE only social issues - other than the health basket - to catch any public attention were the rise in the price of bread and the battle over the exorbitant viewing fees for the World Cup. Of course it's hard for anyone not living in poverty to understand how an extra 30 agorot for a loaf of bread might affect a poor family, but does that mean the "no-confidence" motions in the Knesset - and Labor MK Yoram Marziano's walking out of the budget vote - were warranted? The matter that the members of the 17th Knesset have definitely expended the most energy on in the first six weeks of its existence has been that of allowing soccer fans to watch the finals for free. A special sub-committee has even been set up for this purpose. Twenty-nine years after the defeat of the all-powerful Mapai, Israel still hasn't made the transition from a government-dominated, socialist economy to a modern, market-driven one. Successive governments have yet to make up their minds about the level of their own responsibility. Should they be controlling the price of bread, spending billions on subsidies and compensating the bakers when the price of wheat goes up? Should public broadcasting have a monopoly over key sports events? To what lengths does the tax-payer have to go in order to make sure that every kind of life-saving, life-lengthening and life-enhancing medication is affordable to every citizen? The obvious thing would be for the government and Knesset to draw a clear line of their responsibilities, and instate a fixed mechanism and budget for the health basket. But the kind of difficult landmark decisions involved in doing so are ones politicians shy away from making - particularly when they know the popular and easy thing to do is continue funding the public's bread and circuses. Meanwhile, if anyone needs some urgent medication, he'd better look good on television.

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