I spend a lot of time these days thinking about death, Africa, and freedom of choice issues. In Canada we cannot choose to have someone help us die even if we have a terminal illness and are suffering unbearably. In Africa, people often cannot choose to live, because they lack access to health care, hospitals and education about sanitation and disease.
Canadians living in Africa are appalled by the relentless presence of death. Mike Klassen describes an all-too-common scenario in his blog from Ghana:
“Two people have died today – one is an old man from Gbanyamne, who was quite sick and expected to pass. The other is a 32 year old mother from Gbanyamne, whose own mother lives just a few hundred meters from me in Jana. The young mother of 3 was feeling dizzy while washing clothes in the morning, and went inside her house to rest. After a few hours, her husband returned from the farm and realized she was quite sick, with sharp stomach pains. He found a car to drive her to the hospital, but before even reaching Tamale she died in the back seat. They turned around and brought her body right back home.
Despite the knowledge that we all will die someday, I find the nearby knowledge of so many early deaths shakes me to the core every time.
Fatawu says it succinctly the next day:‘Dying, dying, dying. People are dying every day. Tell me, is it like this at your place?’ ”
Of course it is not like that at all in Canada. We have health care and hospitals galore, access to all kinds of medical supports and prescriptions. It is thankfully rare that young people here die suddenly of disease. On the other hand, our lives may be medically prolonged for much longer than we wish. Of course that seems infinitely preferable to dying young – but for people who are suffering unbearably, it is terrible. They are forced to endure pain and indignity against their wills.
In an article entitled Whose Death Is It Anyway, Daniel Wood quotes terminal cancer patient Wolf Obgielo: “I’ve got a horror vision of me gasping like a fish in the bottom of a boat. Just flipping around, you know. People who are against assisted suicide don’t know the pain of dying, the mental torture. You could live longer, drugged up. But what the hell do you live for? It’s not the quantity of time but quality of life that matters.”
People in Africa need the means to survive. They deserve the right to education, clean water, health care. In Canada we have far more than we need. We are almost unduly privileged, but we do not have the right to decide when life is no longer worth living. To say it’s ironic is an understatement.
There is something deeply wrong with the way we as human beings use our resources and our power. We devote immense resources, medical and legal, to force people in Canada to keep living when they have no hope of reprieve or recovery, but we cannot find a way to ensure people in other parts of the world have the basic resources to stay alive, a pre-condition for any other freedom.
For a long time, people in Africa were forced into slavery. It is almost impossible to estimate the negative impact this had on the development of African countries. Had history played out differently, perhaps people in Africa would not be enduring such hardships.
By forcing people to continue living against their will in Canada, we are simply imposing a different kind of slavery on them.
When will we ever learn?