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Photo by Emily KenCairn of Apiary Studio on Unsplash

Yesterday, I posted in a Buddhist group my reflections on the Coronavirus crisis and how it points to the urgency of universal healthcare. A member of that group responded as follows:

“Isn’t ‘Universal Healthcare’ a very non Buddhist concept? In order to have ‘Universal Healthcare’ some will be forced to pay for the care of others. Is coerced contribution a Buddhist concept.”

This is interesting. It is almost exactly the same argument that many members of the Christian Right use to argue against the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and deny other services to the poor. Such argument reflects a profound ignorance about both healthcare and economics, not to mention its inherent incompatibility with the teaching of love and compassion in all major world religions. That the Christian Right can come up with this argument to withhold and discourage assistance to the poor takes some creativity. Due to the prevalence of this argument in conservative circles, it is worth our while to examine its validity, or the lack thereof:

First, about the legitimacy of taxes. Very few people want to pay taxes. It is just like few people want to pay a big bill for the medical services they received. Yet, it is our responsibility to pay them. Taxes represent payment of our share of the expenses needed to maintain the well-being of our society. How does our society operate to perform various public services such as education, transportation, sanitation, policing, emergency services and defense? Yes, some people maytry to evade paying taxes. But if they are successful in evading taxes, it just means that they have become free-riders and have managed to have others pay for the services they receive.

Second, about the repugnance of coercion. This is assuming that the government is an alien body which governs us against our will. But do we live in a democracy? Are our public officials elected through a democratic process? You may not like the results of a particular election. But there is a democratic process in place. To say that paying taxes is coercion is to overlook or cover up the fact that we are part of that democratic process. Using that logic, we may argue that we are coerced to obey the law too. But then again, this overlooks the fact that, in a democracy, the laws are created through a democratic process.

Third, it is crucial that we understand that health, just like a clean environment, is a public good. A public good is something you cannot consume by yourself and exclude others. Germs, viruses and environmental toxins do not discriminate. You can be infected no matter how much money you have and how much you have paid for medical care. You are only as safe as the most vulnerable people in the society. If the poor people are infected, then you will have a chance to be infected too. This attests to the Buddhist notion of Dependent Origination, which is the central tenet of Buddhism. Essentially, it says that we are all interconnected and interdependent. As a result of this fact, we rise or fall together. The Vimalakirti Sutra says that “because the myriad sentient beings are sick, therefore I am sick.”

Dependent Origination is not only the most important teaching of the Buddha, it is also a universal truth and a scientific truth. This is why selfishness is often self-defeating. If we pollute the environment for self-gains, we will reap the consequences eventually. This is Karma 101. Because of Dependent Origination, the entire planet is an ecosystem and we are one body. Similarly, if we don’t offer the low-pay workers in the service industry paid sick-leaves and access to quality healthcare, that failure to care for others will come back to haunt us in one way or another. The current epidemic of Coronavirus is just a reminder that we are all linked. It is that simple.

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Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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