Hit TV series reminds us why we need a public health system

Several years ago musician and labour advocate Tom Juravich reminded us that popular culture can be a means of comprehending an issue at a much deeper level than traditional political discourse.

Tom’s comments came to life while watching the new BBC series Call The Midwife. The six episode series has recently become available on DVD and BluRay in Canada.

Based on the 2002 memoirs by the late Jennifer Worth, it deals with a group of midwives working amid incredible poverty and ruin in London’s East End in the late 1950s. We are continually reminded that without the UK National Health Service (NHS), that the lives of these women and children would be considerably imperiled.

While this scenario would likely not have received the green light of any Hollywood producer, the series has been a runaway hit in the UK, prompting a Christmas special and a second season. Maybe it was all those babies. The final episode pulled in more than nine million views in Britain – more than that other famous export Downton Abbey.

As one reviewer states: “Call the Midwife openly celebrates the birth of the NHS. Suddenly people could have walking sticks and glasses, and the poorest could see a doctor. This was some kind of miracle.”

The film doesn’t shy away from the shortcomings either as we follow the relationship between midwife Jenny Lee and an elderly man who is evicted from his home and ends up losing both legs from lack of consistent care in a shabby and overburdened long-term care facility.

The series doesn’t shy away from tackling issues around mental illness, aging, abortion, class, and even incest.

Not surprisingly, after being aired by PBS in the U.S., reviewers south of the border were quick to suggest that the show may be more than casual entertainment. In the UK, where the public system is also under assault, the timing couldn’t be better.

In Canada we have had several generations grow to adulthood without understanding what it was like before Medicare.

Call The Midwife does shed that light even if it is about experiences in the UK. Perhaps an enterprising Canadian producer will look at the remarkable popularity of this series and make a pitch about a similar show that looks at the birth of Medicare here in Canada. As much as we are critical of our present health system, clearly life without it would be so much worse as Call The Midwife illustrates.

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