Our Sickness, Our Segregation: Is Solidarity Possible?


By Isabel Gutierrez



Americans on both sides of the aisle have been holding their breath waiting to find out what will happen with healthcare, turning them both blue. It's been a while, though, since I was waiting with bated breath for something else: this kind of “bipartisan” moment.


I’ll admit as a “Bernie-bro” I truly believed that when the Trump administration took their greed and power-hungry authoritarianism a step too far, their credibility would shatter in one perfectly defining moment and therefore their power soon after, deftly and automatically. The common refrain among the left now is a sort of defiant defeatism, angry but incredulous still, that “nothing matters anymore.”


What’s embarrassing to me about it is that I knew better.


Call me cynical, young, dramatic, or black-and-white, but I knew that America’s democracy was on life support for some time, due to corruption coupled with our complete lack of appetite for true freedom or equality. Don't believe me? Ask some nice comfortable democrats you know how they feel about having absolute freedom in society or achieving complete equality for all people and they will start to shift their weight from foot to foot, hem and haw. Now, these things are not achievable in the near future and would have drawbacks like all systems and societies do, the point is we're not comfortable with the idea. And as this administration has taught me, all justice will take a lot of work; we can't wait around for others to catch up and “wake up.” But how do we work toward a true democracy, a revolution, that we can't envision and in our heart of hearts we are afraid of (like we've been taught)?


How do you make something unlikely happen? It’s the question all activists and artists face every day.


Of course, it is disheartening to find out that, no, human rights and corruption are not the line in the sand for many Americans, but we already knew that. Our history shows no evidence of a line, an event, that magically sets the people on fire for justice, but of people who set the groundwork, who defined the issues of the day with lines drawn by their own hands. So, this moment of healthcare crisis is an opportunity at most, not a watershed set to overflow on its own. And the unlikely part is, within our sickness are the seeds for a revolution. And I’m not talking about single-payer universal health care. That is a bare-bones requirement that all other modern industrial countries have. Nevertheless, we will still have to fight tooth and nail for this “concession” to our basic needs as a society. 


Much like the prison-complex crisis, there are institutional reforms that are urgent and demand our action, from sentencing standards, to jury selection, bail, and prisons themselves. But I think most of us would agree that these are merely Band-Aid solutions until we address why we are incarcerating so many people in the first place.


Why are we so sick in the first place? Why didn’t universal healthcare happen here, like most other countries?


Don’t believe the hype of the half-truth: diet and exercise are crucial, but what the various health industries are selling is not the panacea to the epidemics that they have largely created. It’s no secret that drug companies are heavily invested in medications that prolong disease over prevention and cures. The dialysis industry is a particularly egregious example, where the majority of patients are kept on dialysis indefinitely, even though it is, at best, an intervention until a kidney transplant can be made. Most patients are never told this; my grandma certainly wasn’t.[1] She even elected for the painful and draining treatment of dialysis up to her last days in hospice because she was still in the fight to live and live long.


On one hand, we have this type of greed in our drug companies, also seen in insurance companies and hospitals that collude together to jack up the prices of medication and care. Other factors include the agricultural industry that subsides low-nutrient, low-grade quality food such as processed corn, wheat, and sweeteners so that they flood the entire food landscape (from bread, pasta, deli meat, canned soup, and sauces) to the point of toxicity to our bodies. This situation is much to blame for the epidemic of diseases related to chronic inflammation: heart disease, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune diseases and even depression.


You generally hear them referred to as “lifestyle diseases,” a term that moralizes disease. It works like this: fat, lazy people get sick. In a way, though, the term “lifestyle disease” is accurate, just not for the reasons we might imagine. The truth is, although seldom acknowledged, diet and exercise do not have the greatest impact on our health, race and class do.[2]


Fat and lazy has long been code for brown and poor. This statement always seems to grind conversations to a halt, but that needn't be.


The first step, of course, is to admit we have a problem. And it goes much deeper than the mere effect of race and class on our habits of diet and exercise. This can look complicated. For example, the care we get is determined by race and class: following up on the earlier example of diabetes, black patients are more likely to donate kidneys but less likely to receive them.[3] There is also the effect of long-term stress that marginalization and lack of control can have on a person, one example is John Henry Syndrome, the long-term stress to succeed and outwork everyone to prove themselves seen in black men.


Our focus on “lifestyle diseases” or by the other more truthful term “western disease” has been on how modern life affects our bodies physically, through pollutants, processed foods and other industrial ills. We need to finally and loudly acknowledge how modern life affects our bodies physically, through its social structure and hierarchy. Hierarchy in society, in health, kills. But we already knew that, history shows that the marginalized and poor suffer more sickness and do not live as long. But when will this finally be deemed an urgent problem that demands our action? We have to draw a line in the sand to define this current health crises for what it really is. We need healthcare but we also need a revolution of caring for bodies.


It seems an unlikely thing for a political discussion about institutional reform to be lead by a wider, more far-reaching call to our sacred humanity, and yet it’s been done again and again in our history. If it is a social and cultural problem, a “lifestyle disease,” then it follows that as cultural actors together we must envision and enact the health revolution we need.


[1] Conte, Andrew; Fabregas, Luis. “Many on Debilitating Dialysis Not Told about Transplantation Option.” Tribune-Review. Sunday, Sept. 27, 2009.
[2] Tarlov, A.R. “Public Policy Frameworks for Improving Population Health”. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1999. (SOCIOECONOMIC STATUS AND HEALTH IN INDUSTRIAL NATIONS: SOCIAL, PSYCHOLOGICAL, AND BIOLOGICAL PATHWAYS) p. 281-293.
[3] “African Americans Least Likely to Receive a Living Kidney Donation” National Kidney Foundation. May 30, 2012. 

Isabel Gutierrez is an artist recently graduated from School of Visual Arts with an MFA in Fine Art. She is a painter who also works in installation and performance. Her work is primarily large scale and focuses on the figure to explore how perspective shapes narrative. She currently lives in Brooklyn.


The images in this article show paintings, props, and performances from Isabel Gutierrez's thesis "Never Tired" which investigates the body through a visual perspective and language through its own malleability. "Never Tired" refers to the heroic struggle of working class and POC bodies, refusing to separate exaltation from the gritty, gray exhaustion which exists in an empowering narrative.


View more of her work on her website at isabelgutierrez.com or contact her at gutierim@gmail.com.