The Value of a Human Life

There’s a story in Mountains Beyond Mountains (I’m telling here from memory) about a Haitian kid who has a rare type of cancer that at first appears to be treatable with 70% probability. He had three siblings, all of whom died from tuberculosis. His father died from the same. So now, all that was left of his family is him and his mother. This all sounds terrible, until you realize (as the book describes) that this is a common situation for many people there. They live in the kind of poverty that doesn’t allow for the basic necessities of nutrition and clean water, and so any and every disease spreads like wildfire.

There are a lot of shocking bureaucratic details surrounding his story, but that’s not what I’m writing about here. A couple doctors take initiative and decide to take him to one of the only places that can treat this child, that happens to be in Boston. You have to fly there, obviously, from Haiti. However, the kid is in such bad condition (face, neck in large tumor-like swellings) that they can’t fly him commercially so they order a medevac helicopter which costs them $20,000 for the trip. Then they spare no money treating the child there, and they find out eventually that the cancer has spread and is no longer treatable. The child dies leaving behind a large bill that the PIH doctors (donate to them if you can) end up having to raise money for.

There are thousands and thousands of such children, and in an inspired moment the decision was made to try to save this one child. Why this child? Was it worth it to try? Could that money have been spent better on the many children in Haiti that have a higher chance of survival (at a much lower cost)? The point the book makes is these questions are morally absurd and that you cannot talk about human life in terms of money, as is often done, especially as part of the capitalist mindset. You must fight in a sort of mad sprint (and it is mad) to save every life possible. Because only with such insane existential fiscal policy can you achieve something that resembles self-powering morality. The moment you start making decision about human life based on money, you may save more lives in the short term, but in the long term you will corrupt the will of the few people that are willing to put all their being behind helping those in need.

The book dwells for a long time on this subject without ever really making logical sense. That’s the point. There is no logic to spending that kind of money on one child when literally thousands of other could have been saved with that money. But there is something that goes beyond logic in the way we look at human life, something beyond the doctrine of objectivism and others like it. It’s hard to put into words, but it’s there: the impossible glue of our common humanity.

Dr. Paul Farmer calls the struggle to save people dying in these regions “the long defeat”. You fight to win, with the knowledge that all common sense screams that the odds are against you. And still you go on fighting.

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