Monday, April 14, 2014

Where We're Vulnerable

When I was in 9th grade, I came down with a case of walking pneumonia, the result of taking a day-long field trip to NYC in January while recovering from a bad cold. My doctor told me from then on, I'd be more susceptible to respiratory bugs. Sure enough, since then, on an average of every 8-10 years, I've gotten bouts of bronchitis or near-bronchitis. I've at least learned which germs are likely to head for the lungs. I've also learned that the more I try to do during the bouts, the harder they are to get rid off. The last one in 2003 put me out of action for 6 weeks.

A couple weeks ago, I went to a 3rd district Town Hall meeting and a woman sat next to me. Ten minutes into the meeting, she started to cough--not a polite little cough, but one that said she had a major respiratory illness. By last Sunday, I knew I had her bug and that it was made of the kind of germs that could easily turn into bronchitis. Because of it last week, I missed the school board budget meeting, a workshop about sustainable food in Norristown, palm braiding and helping to decorate St. Pat's church, the opening of Mina's Mart, Family Feud night at Caffe Galileo, a music event at the University of Delaware that I'd already paid for, 4 days of blogging, and most importantly, a paying teaching job and 6 days of work on my current writing project. I still have laryngitis, so I couldn't sing in church for Palm Sunday, and I'm not sure if I'll be able to do Holy Week services. If you know me, you know that when I can't sing or write, I get really grumpy.

So I spent a lot of time last week wondering why that woman felt she had to attend that meeting, sick as she was. And I spent time thinking about Norristown's particular health vulnerabilities.

One vulnerability has to do with one of our economic strengths. We have a lot of businesses run by self-employed locals. As I've explained before, if people who live in or near Norristown run our businesses, the profits stay in town, instead of going to some out-of-state corporate headquarters. Many of our businesses patronize each other, strengthening our town economy further. We have a growing number of these new entrepreneurs, and we need to support them for the heroes they are, for the good they're doing our community.

But if you're self-employed, you don't get paid sick days, and you don't always have enough staff to keep your business running without you. Losing a week's worth of business can be devastating to a small operation. Yet, part of your business is to bring in the public, so how do you avoid germs?

Our other vulnerability is that our average income is lower than surrounding communities. We have a per capita income of about $20,000 and a median household income of less than $43,000--about half that of King of Prussia, for instance.

If you're low income, you probably avoid going to the doctor until you absolutely HAVE to. Even if you have health insurance, you know that the cost of your co-pay for an office visit is only the tip of the iceberg. You'll come out of his office with scripts for medication or bloodwork or both. It's not the health insurance that has kept low income people from going to doctors--it's the unknown out-of-pocket costs. You can't budget for an illness.

So I don't blame anyone in Norristown for not going to the doctor when they're sick--I only blame them for going out in public and spreading their germs around. Work is one thing--I've worked for idiot companies that don't allow enough sick time and encourage workers to come in when they're ill or risk losing their jobs. But when you're that sick, you DON'T need to go to public meetings. You don't need to visit our small businesses--they'll be happy to wait until you're better. You don't even need to go to church.

The vast majority of our citizens don't earn money when we're sick at home, so we each need to take responsibility for keeping our town healthy, and therefore keeping our economy healthy. Do your part and please stay home when you're contagious. Do it for Norristown.

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