After spending three months doused in wine in a bottle, a snake “pulled a Jesus and sprang to life,” biting the hand of a woman and sending her to a local hospital, China’s English-language Global Times reported in September. The woman (only her last name, Liu, was noted) lives in rural northern Heilongjiang Province and had purchased and pickled (or so she thought) the snake in the wine to treat her rheumatism.
On paper, China indeed provides universal healthcare for its rural population. In early September, the Chinese government announced that 99 percent of rural Chinese (800 million individuals) now receive healthcare under the country’s New Rural Cooperative Medical Scheme (NCMS), says The Atlantic.
At a time when House Republicans are tying the continued funding of the federal government to delaying President Obama’s healthcare reforms, resulting in a government shutdown, it’s impressive to hear that so many in China have healthcare (keeping in mind that, in China’s one-party system, there was no bickering about the constitutionality of universal health care).
Look beyond the official statistics provided by the government and there is a different story, especially for the vulnerable and those with disabilities. Says Dr. Qiulin Chen, Assistant Professor of Population and Labor Economics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, to The Atlantic:
… the rural population as a whole may be underestimated, leaving out unregistered people ineligible for the NCMS [New Rural Cooperative Medical Scheme]. These individuals remain uninsured. “Some rural people work in the city and are not covered [under the rural health insurance program] or any urban health insurance program,” Chen said. “Only those with official citizenship are [included].”
Chinese citizens with healthcare still face high out-of-pocket expenses and low rates for reimbursement, as Dr. Gry Sagli of the Institute of Health and Society, University of Oslo, points out. In addition, only a limited number of medical conditions are covered.
For those with additional medical complications, China’s rural healthcare provides inadequate coverage. Dr. Sagli states that, prior to the creation of the new rural health insurance program, “less than 10 percent of the people with disabilities in rural areas receive treatment and rehabilitation training”; this figure has not improved much under the new insurance. So far, the new program has been “inadequate in helping to improve their life situation and break the vicious circle of disability and poverty,” Dr. Sagli underscores.
Accordingly, traditional remedies remain an option and sometimes a dangerous one. The Global Times cites earlier reports of another case of “serpent resurrection in 2009 when a Hubei Province resident surnamed Zhang was bitten two months after he had placed a snake in a bottle of wine. In 2001, a resident of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region died a day after being bitten from a preserved wine snake.”
(No word in the Global Times about the snake who’d survived after three months submerged in wine and could teach us all something about staying alive in adverse circumstances.)
Other traditional Asian medicine treatments not only pose risks to those who use them but also to the rare, often endangered, animals used for them. Ground-up rhinoceros horn is thought to treat cancer, the gallbladders of sun bears to cure a host of ailments, including asthma and cancer and the skins, bones, teeth and claws of tigers to alleviate, among other things, a toothache.
Someone — in China, in Vietnam, in other Asian countries — is using these treatments; demand for rhino horns and the body parts of wildlife on the black market seems infinite. If China really provided sufficient universal healthcare for its rural residents at prices they could afford and for a broad range of medical needs, could demand for such traditional medicines lessen? Resorting to pickling a snake in a bottle is the sort of thing people end up doing when there aren’t other, better options for healthcare.
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