What We Should Be Talking About Instead of Hillary Clinton’s Pneumonia

As you probably know by now, Hillary Clinton made the news earlier this week for leaving a September 11 memorial event early and appearing to stumble as she got into a car. It turns out she has walking pneumonia, and as usual, everyone is freaking out. I can’t tell if they think catching an illness should somehow disqualify someone from becoming president, or if they think anyone who’s running for president must be the kind of genetically enhanced superhuman who never, ever gets sick, but either way, it’s absurd, and it’s pissing me off.

Anyone can get pneumonia, and it can be a really big deal (I know this because it put my grandma in the hospital for two solid weeks in 2014), although the “walking” kind is a lot less severe. People with walking pneumonia are generally still able to go to work or school and participate in a lot of their normal activities, but they also need a lot of rest and really shouldn’t be doing anything strenuous, such as playing sports or campaigning for public office at the national level. It’s really not that surprising that she got sick: just think of how long she’s been on the road, in planes and cars with lots of other people, shaking hands and signing autographs. She can’t be getting enough sleep, and she probably eats on a really weird schedule. She’s 68 years old, which means pretty much any illness she picks up is going to hit her harder than someone in their 20s. (I see this now a little bit with my parents who are 59 and 60.) On the other hand, though, her age does not mean she’s too old or frail to run for president. Yes, if she’s elected, she’ll become the second-oldest person to assume that office, but with all of our medical technology these days, it’s really not that big a deal. And let’s not forget that Donald Trump is more than a year older than Hillary.

The really important points that I’ve seen coming out of all this hullabaloo are 1) Americans have this attitude about having to “push through” illness that’s really not healthy and not nearly as prevalent in other countries, and 2) women are raised and conditioned to push through illness even moreso than men, and we’re not allowed to complain about it either. These ideas have been getting some discussion, but not nearly enough in my opinion.

Regarding the first point, I found a really interesting article from the BBC titled “Why Americans don’t take sick days.” (I find that the BBC is a really good source for articles about American politics and culture written from an outsider’s perspective.) It points out that the U.S. is the only developed nation in the world that doesn’t guarantee workers paid sick leave under federal law and contrasts this with sick leave policies in the UK and other EU countries. It also discusses the “hard-working American” concept that we’re indoctrinated with from the time we’re tiny. We have this idea that if we let sickness slow us down, we’re weak, and if we’re weak, we’re not valuable to the company, but if our jobs don’t provide us with sick leave, then it’s even worse, because not only are we sick and miserable, we’re not getting paid. I’m 27 years old and I’ve never had paid sick leave; the only times I’ve stayed home from work or left early due to illness were times when I was truly contagious and under doctor’s orders to stay home or I was unable to do my job properly, such as the time my cold medicine caused me to stay up all night long and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to properly supervise my kids because I was so tired the next day, or the few times I left my retail job after developing a migraine, which sometimes causes problems in my vision and/or causes me to throw up. (There were, however, lots of awful migraines that I did power through.)

Regarding the second point, I’ve seen several of my feminist friends discussing how women are expected by society to suck it up and move along when they’re sick. There are plenty of bosses out there who view maternity leave as nothing more than a way for women to cost their companies money and resources, so if we’ve been pregnant or ever plan to be, we may feel the need to avoid sick days in an attempt to mollify a chauvinist system. (I’m sure there are women out there who never get pregnant and are still treated with disdain by their bosses if they ever call in sick.) Despite the fact that it’s 2016, women in heterosexual relationships are still by and large the primary caretakers of their homes and their children, even if they have an outside job, and when they have a bad cold or a migraine or the flu, they’re often still expected to get up and get their children to and from school and go to the PTA meeting and take the dog to the vet and also possibly go to work. It turns out that a lot of men don’t realize how much this double-standard is ingrained in our culture; they just think their mom was really tough and resilient (probably because, you know, she’s a hard-working American). Also, we have this cultural perception that all men turn into big babies when they get sick, and isn’t it kind of cute and funny, haha? If sick women started acting that way en masse, you know the cultural perception of that would be that they’re selfish and needy, two things women are never supposed to be.

So what does all this boil down to? Well, it’s really more of the same: the media, the talking heads, and the people of the Internet are making mountains out of molehills and ignoring serious problems that are actually worth our time and attention. Hillary Clinton is not my first choice for president of the United States, but she certainly has my sympathy and my empathy in this case, and I hope she gets well soon.

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