Diverse, or disparate, that is the question. We prize the former, we loathe the latter, and yet they mean much the same thing. They mean different, dissimilar, distinct and distinctive: self-contained, unlike others, “not me,” us versus them. Diversity in a biological or sociological sense is a presumed source of strength. Disparities are signs of weakness or vulnerability. Regarding health in particular, disparities are cumulative indicators of morbidity and premature death. Most of that preventable or avoidable or treatable in theory; in reality, not so much. Why, and how is that?
I think it’s because diversity connotes a balance or blend of differences that yield an efficient system and process. In biology, for example, the microbiome within our bodies is very large and diverse, such that most of our cells are not even human; yet contained by the body as they are, they boost resiliency and vitality. Our existence and authenticity as Homo sapiens depend on the active participation of other organisms within and upon and around us. They are not us, they are different from us, yet they make us whole and keep us well.
Disparities do not make us whole. Just the opposite: disparities fracture and fragment, exaggerate our differences, hobble our ability and desire to function competently, turn our distinctions into antipathies, belittle or marginalize some of us for the benefit of others. In biology again, disparities manifest in racial characteristics that are just plain human, as human as anything else in the body, yet because they look dissimilar they are pronounced inferior.
Diversity builds us up as individuals (healthier, wiser, more competent, nicer) and as a species (social, adaptable, empathic, industrious). Disparities push us down and tear us apart by making individuals alienated, suspicious, stupid, aggressive towards others who are different; while clinging manically to rogues who seem more like ourselves.
Back to the question: Why do we prize diversity? Because diversity is natural; it is evolutionary; it is progressive; it is liberating; it affirms the bounty of life. Diversity is self embracing non self and engaging rather than exploiting the differences. The engine of diversity is Eros, or love. We are diverse when we love our neighbors as ourselves though they are not ourselves, they are different. Why do we loathe disparities? Because disparities are unnatural, arbitrary, ugly, toxic, malevolent, egotistic, vicious, futile, unnecessary. The drivers of all disparities are pride and greed.
Yet health disparities are so pervasive that they practically run the healthcare industry and the government that regulates it. Health disparities are the twisted distribution of health outcomes resulting from social rather than biological determinants. The obvious determinants are race, ethnicity, income, community, food insecurity, risky behavior, local medical incompetence and malfeasance, medication noncompliance. Far more damaging determinants are health illiteracy and learned helplessness: the inability of people to understand their bodies enough to care for them without medical supervision, and their unwillingness to try. In other words, the origins of health disparities are mental: ignorance, foolishness, bias, resistance to change, irresponsibility. The things that Humaginarium was born to mitigate.
Such social determinants are not baked into Homo sapiens; they are concocted by policymaking and economic interests. Why? Because they cost some of us nothing to ignore and they support a $3+ trillion industry that makes a good profit from sickness. Literally. Do not for a moment believe that the business models of healthcare promote health, because they don’t. They promote treatment, which unfortunately has such a random correlation with health that I doubt it is statistically meaningful for most of the population. Treatment correlates closely with economic measures, not with health outcomes. Our civic response to Covid-19 demonstrates this, but my point about disparities doesn’t need a crisis to stick. All it requires is individual experience of routine medicine in normal times.
Diversity is good, but we lack it because we are too damned prejudiced and self-interested to promote it. Disparities are bad, but we tolerate them because they reinforce injustice that benefits some individuals at the expense of others. What to do?
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them.
We are all swimming in that sea of troubles these days, some wearing life vests, some clinging to soggy boards, others floundering and going under. Taking up arms is a tough call for people who shoulder the most severe disparities. Most of them have little leisure or means for nobility in the mind.
Yet there is something awe-inspiring about that refrain, “No Justice, No Peace,” echoing in the streets and perhaps one day breaking down the doors of our clinics. Each of us in their own way, we must “end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” We can start by hallowing diversity rather than giving it lazy, mindless lip service, and ending disparities even if there is no investment-grade case for doing so.