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Chadwick Boseman did not publicize the fact that he was living with colon cancer.illustration by hanna barczyk

As the world mourned Chadwick Boseman this week, many things became apparent. We already knew that he was an extraordinary actor, and a role model to countless kids, thanks to the way he filled the character of Black Panther with grace and power. He was also, by all accounts, just a good human being – generous to the less fortunate, admired by audiences, respected by his colleagues.

He did not publicize the fact that he was living with colon cancer. Until his death at the age of 43, only “a handful” of people outside his immediate family knew about his illness, according to the Hollywood Reporter. The fact that he could continue to act while privately undergoing cancer treatment stunned people. Spike Lee, who directed Mr. Boseman in Da 5 Bloods, said he “never, ever suspected anything was wrong.” The director said that Mr. Boseman never complained, and called him a “trooper.”

Others echoed that description, calling Mr. Boseman a warrior and praising his strength. It’s understandable, when somebody that young and beloved dies, to praise the courage that saw him live his life the way he wanted. At the same time, it says something about the narratives we create around illness. Some people who are ill are held up as models of proper behaviour; others scorned and treated with contempt.

Alex Trebek gets at this question in his new memoir, The Answer Is …. Mr. Trebek has been more public with his diagnosis, revealing to the public in March, 2019, that he was living with pancreatic cancer. There was a huge outpouring of support for the Jeopardy! host. For someone who’s generally quite private and reserved, he’s been open about the negative consequences of his disease. He’s suffered depression, exhaustion and pain. At times, he writes, he’s wanted to “pack it in.”

He hasn’t chosen yet to pack it in, but he also doesn’t condemn those who do. He writes: “I don’t like to use the terms ’battling’ or ’fighting’ when talking about cancer. It suggests there are only two outcomes: ‘winning’ and ‘losing.’ If you don’t get well, then you are a ‘loser.’ If you have decided to stop treatment, you have ‘given up.’ That’s nonsense.”

Normally, society doesn’t talk much about illness, unless it’s of the celebrity kind – or, as we’ve discovered, of the global public crisis kind. This hideous pandemic has opened avenues of public conversation that were previously ignored and highlighted the ways we think about sickness. Do the elderly and disabled deserve the same quality of life as everyone else? (The answer appears to be “no” to a shocking number of people.) Are we biased toward “good” ways of coping with illness, as Mr. Trebek suggests? Do we valorize the idea of just toughing it out, no matter how sick we are?

For that matter, do we think that people who are ill should just suck it up and show up for work? Apparently we do, in Canada. Otherwise, we would have a more robust, humane policy for paying people to stay home when they’re sick or infectious.

Some 58 per cent of Canadians don’t have access to paid sick days, according to a recent report from the Decent Work and Health Network. That number rises to 70 per cent for those making less than $25,000 a year. (People in Quebec, PEI and federally regulated employees receive a small number of mandated paid sick days. And many employers provide sick days for their work forces.) The burden of Canada’s weak sick-leave policy falls precisely on those who can least afford it, the report notes: “Workers without paid sick days are more likely to be in low-wage jobs, which are disproportionately held by women, racialized workers and workers with disabilities.”

Ah, but didn’t the federal government just introduce a 10-day paid sick-leave plan for those affected by COVID-19? Yes, after arm-twisting from the NDP and Jagmeet Singh, who made the program a condition of supporting the extension of the suspension of Parliament. But the program is temporary, and only applies to those who have COVID-19, or symptoms of the illness. Mr. Singh has said he hopes the federal government will work with the provinces on a solution for “a permanent sick leave for all Canadians. Much like it’s become law in Canada to have a certain amount of vacation, this is something that should be a guarantee.”

“Paid sick days save lives,” says the report from the Decent Work and Health Network. They increase workers’ safety and mental well-being, and reduce infection in the workplace. They help parents of young children, and people in precarious work. They do not, as popular mythology would have it, increase malingering or shirking. So why does Canada lag so far behind other developed countries in implementing such a program? Possibly because the people who would benefit most from it have the least political capital.

And, possibly, because we’re in the 21st century world but still have antiquated ideas about illness, and who deserves care, empathy and recovery. This weird anomaly that we’re living through might provide time to reflect on those shared ideals, but increasingly I worry that it will not. Or that the list of what needs fixing has grown so long that no one can keep track any more. I keep thinking about something that the classics scholar Mary Beard wrote in the TLS: “History doesn’t suggest that societies are very good at using pandemics to kick-start reform.”

This means there won’t be a pandemic fairy dropping from the sky to fix things. When the illness fades, the hard work will have just begun, including making things fairer for those who are still ill.

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