The Plague-Ground – When is a nurse worth more than a baseball player?

Yesterday, I tripped over one of those New Yorker articles that snatches you and carries you into the black holes of a subject you knew absolutely nothing about. It then pops you to the surface 30 minutes later gasping at the bizarre and amazing things thing you saw. So it was with Thirty-six Thousand Feet Under the Sea: The explorers who set one of the last meaningful records on earth, by Ben Taub.

Taub makes the point that every age of exploration runs its course by quoting Fergus Fleming who wrote in his introduction to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s diary: “When Shackleton sailed for the Antarctic in 1914, he could still be a hero. When he returned in 1917 he could not. The concept of heroism evaporated in the trenches of the First World War.”

This point was hammered home by none other than Winston Churchill, recently retired First Sea Lord, who replied to an appeal to help find Shackleton who had gone missing in Antarctica.

Churchill wrote: “When all the sick and wounded have been tended, when all their impoverished & broken-hearted homes have been restored, when every hospital is gorged with money, & every charitable subscription is closed, then & not till then would I concern myself with these penguins.”

We are in much the same boat today. Three months ago, we looked up to hockey players, celebrity chefs and tech gazilionaires, and paid them accordingly. Back then, nurses, janitors and bicycle couriers were on no one’s list of heroes, let alone highly-paid ones. Now…well, this reversal of fortune got me thinking about how all those arts groups are going to stay in business when their ticket sales account for a small part of their revenues – and will bring in even less when only one in three seats is allowed to be sold.

Next season, Stratford will need to raise $20 million from Ottawa and Queen’s Park plus $20 million more from individual donors if it’s to stay solvent.

Will tens of thousands of new small-cheque senders suddenly leap to Stratford’s aid?

I sure hope so. But it’s likely that those same people will vote with their newly-changed values and send that cheque to the local hospital and their local heroes, the front-liners who kept COVID-19 from killing us all.

It’s not that many of us are having such a great year financially that we can donate money to Stratford and to our local hospital as well, let alone more money to both.

But there is a group of donors who can step up. They are the ultra-rich philanthropists whose private donations have made Toronto one of the great medical research centres in the world. Just walk down University Avenue from College to Dundas and you will see the banners:

• Princess Margaret Cancer Centre – “One of the top five cancer research centres in the world.”

• Toronto General Hospital – Ranked “fourth-best hospital in the world.”

• Peter Munk Cardiac Centre – “One of the Top 5 cardiac care centres in the world.”

• Hospital for Sick Children – “One of the Top 5 Children’s Hospitals in North America.”

• Toronto Rehab – “The top-ranked rehabilitation research institute in the world.”

It’s important to remember the money that got them to these glittering heights comes mostly from private donors. Basically, government funds keep the lights on in our hospitals, leaving philanthropy to do the rest. This is an astounding record when you think about it, and most of it has happened in the last few years. It’s also a reminder that in the words of Mary Lasker: “If you think research is expensive, try disease.”

When the fog of the pandemic lifts, I have no worries about who will fund our hospitals and research centres. It will be the millions of us who don’t want to face this ever again, and who have a new set of priorities for where we send our donations.

What I do hope is that the very people whose private dollars have turned Toronto into a world-beater in medicine, will donate the same tens and even hundreds of millions they gave to healthcare to help the arts in their time of dire need.

We have some of the best hospitals in the world, and some of the best Shakespeare in the world.

We can afford to keep both, Churchill be damned.

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Get your tickets to the TWO upcoming RamsayTalks Online: May 14th  with Jared Diamond, “one of the deepest thinkers of our time,” and May 25th with Roger McNamee who believes tech is too important to operate without adult supervision.

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11 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – When is a nurse worth more than a baseball player?”

  1. Andrea Geddes Poole

    To appropriate the classic union-organizing slogan of the 1890’s, “We must have bread, but roses too”

  2. Jamie Laidlaw

    Quite right. This weird little backward province barely free from a dreadful war brought the Bard to a new home, prospered and made Canada proud. The mighty Cirque is tottering and in distress with no revenue in sight for either aesthetic marvel how do we sustain them until health can be restored? Bob wonders if one cheque at a time will be enough. I would suggest breaking down by day how much Strattford will need to sustain itself in these times of maximum peril. Why? I got through C19 all by myself so I can assure you this is an exercise in one day at a time perspective. It works.

    Can someone do the math, please?

    1. David,
      I like your thinking, and I generally believe in the ‘one-pebble-at-a-time’ approach when faced with a large problem however I’ve done some basic math and if Stratford needs 40M to sustain itself, they stand a better chance soliciting larger donations vs. small cheques. Stratford would need $50 from 2,191 donors EVERY day for the next 365 days to hit their target. Those numbers aren’t encouraging. Either the target needs to be reduced or the donation strategy needs to be layered. Either way, it’s not a great position to be in. It’s akin to trekking to Antarctica for the first time all over again.

    2. You had COVID-19? Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrghhhhhh! But I see, in a Proof of Life kind of way, that you survived!!

  3. Although my daughter is completing her masters In Math literacy, I do not have that skill although ‘doing the math’ (as a daily need) is an excellent suggestion.
    Let us continue to support all we can. Now that we better know our needs from our wants, we can perhaps tailor our gifting. As my brother, Sydney, often says, give, give, give.
    Health is one of the gifts we cannot take for granted. The arts is the other.

  4. I would draw everyone’s attention to the very worthy small arts organizations that serve as the incubator and launching pad for so many artists. They barely make it through banner years so what will happen to them. We need the new, the experimental, the avant-garde for they take us forward as a society. Not to denigrate Stratford or the hospitals the big philanthropists will step forward forward for them. But let’s not forget the other tier or arts organizations in our generosity.

    1. Niki – I agree with you; small theatre is to big theatre what basic science is to applied science. They both need each others. Thanks for writing. Cheers. Bob

  5. Jackie Maxwell

    Well said, Bob.
    I also echo what was said in the comment above…let us not forget that the arts range from the large prestigious institutions that mean so much to so many , to the smaller, lesser known organizations where many of our most revered artists, actors, writers, directors , designers and more, got their start.
    Here is an eco system that needs to be nurtured from the roots to maintain quality, diversity and new ideas…..with the hope and confidence that they will ultimately be featured on our justly celebrated larger platforms.

    1. Hi Jackie — I agree, it’s all about the eco-system. Starve one part and the whole thing will eventually. I trust you are safe and sound, high and dry? Cheers from Jean and me. Bob

  6. Adam Plackett

    I don’t want to rain on the parade here but so much of what I read these days including this article seems to assume that we are just going through a temporary tough period and everything will return to normal in two or three years. So we should take some extra special steps to bridge the gap. What if things never return to normal? What if we can never develop a vaccine? We simply may not be able to hang on to everything we cherish today. Many small businesses are not going to return, the travel industry will never be the same, and sporting crowds are likely a thing of the past. Regrettably, our society needs to start thinking about the new normal and some very tough decisions will need to be made.

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