In the fourth chapter of Petryna’s Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl, the author reflects on how illness from radiation began to redefine social and economic expectations of workers in the Ukraine. She brings up many topics including that of the ‘sick role,’ a sociological concept from the 1950s (pg. 89).
Petryna presents the struggles that the government has had in defining what is ‘sick enough’ for social benefits, especially after the transition to an independent democracy and the subsequent economic crisis. I found this discussion very interesting, as I think it is applicable internationally even in non-disaster affected locations. Regardless of where in the world you live, governments can only support so many people in this ‘sick role’ at a time.
Take, for example, disability benefits in the United States. While the Social Security Act has a strict definition of ‘disability,’ a growing number of cases seemed to be decided at a doctor’s discretion. In this article, Joffe-Walt spoke to a Dr. Timberlake about how he decides on disability status.
“We talk about the pain and what it’s like,” he says. “I always ask them, ‘What grade did you finish?'”
What grade did you finish, of course, is not really a medical question. But Dr. Timberlake believes he needs this information in disability cases because people who have only a high school education aren’t going to be able to get a sit-down job.
Dr. Timberlake is making a judgment call that if you have a particular back problem and a college degree, you’re not disabled. Without the degree, you are.”
This concept of relative disability is an interesting one and can tie back into Petryna’s ethnography, as she discusses how certain jobs are rewarded more liberally for the danger of radiation exposure. Of course, that pattern seems to be the opposite of what Dr. Timberlake suggests, with the wealthier and more skilled workers receiving the most benefit. Ukraine did face a different situation with regards to corruption and bribery in requesting and receiving medical compensation. However, the issues for a country surrounding people not being able to work due to illness – or at least saying they cannot – is the same.
The example in the NPR article of Scott Birdsall is indicative of this. Scott became unemployed and, after a while of searching for a job in vain, he went on disability for heart bypass surgery that he had had done previously. While imperfectly analogous to the Petryna reading, both the NPR article and the readings show how such programs, though necessary, are large contributors to the national debt of their respective countries.
Questions to consider:
What is a solution for these strained services – stricter guidelines on who receives benefits or something else?
What point, in this regard, did you feel Petryna was trying to make? And if you feel she was trying to be neutral, how successful do you feel she was?