In Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950), Kochak (Lewis Charles), an illegal immigrant, is patient zero in a potential outbreak of pneumonic plague, a deadly disease that can kill a person “within four days.” An important issue in the film is illegal immigration and the risk to public health. Because illegal immigrants do not have the same access to health care as American citizens, if they are carrying a communicable disease, the disease can spread more quickly throughout the general population. The film also shows how American citizens without health insurance are equally at risk for contracting and spreading a communicable disease.
One difficulty in stopping the outbreak of a communicable disease is finding everyone who is already infected. The individual who is sick may not go to a doctor or a hospital, believing they will get better without treatment. After Kochak’s body is cremated, Dr. Clint Reed (Richard Widmark) and the police try to find Vince Poldi (Tommy Cook), the second person to be infected with the plague. The longer Poldi moves freely among the general population, the more likely the plague will spread. Whether American citizen or illegal immigrant, an individual who has a communicable disease needs to be treated and/or isolated.
In 2016, there were an estimated 11.3 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.1 Illegal immigrants face a greater risk of contracting and spreading a communicable disease because they don’t have the same access to health care as American citizens. In the U.S., under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), illegal immigrants “are either explicitly barred from accessing federal benefits or face significant restrictions on Medicaid and other programs for the poor.”2 Health care options are limited, and vary widely from state to state.3 Even when health care options are available, illegal immigrants may not access services because of “fear of deportation.”4
When access to health care is a privilege, and not a right, it is not only illegal immigrants who are at risk for carrying a communicable disease. In 1950, the year Panic in the Streets was released, the United States did not have Medicaid for low-income earners.5 It is almost certain that Poldi, who is poor and unemployed, doesn’t have health insurance. His only likely option is “charity care”6, which is why a nurse is “sent for” when he is sick in bed. Blackie (Jack Palance) later pays for a doctor to examine him, but there is nothing the doctor can do. Poldi needs to go to a hospital.
In Panic in the Streets an illegal immigrant is infected with pneumonic plague, and, tragically, two more people contract the disease and die. If there were a possible pandemic in the U.S., it is likely measures would be taken to inoculate illegal immigrants, if the disease were treatable. However, this does not change the reality that illegal immigrants are in a precarious position when it comes to accessing health care. Add to this the fact that over 28 million Americans do not have health insurance,7 and the entire population is at risk if there is an outbreak of a deadly disease.
- Jens Manuel Krogstad, Jeffrey S. Passel, and D’Vera Cohn, “5 facts about illegal immigration in the U.S.,” Pew Research Center, April 27, 2017, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/27/5-facts-about-illegal-immigration-in-the-u-s/
- Keegan Hamilston, “Obamacare Bars Illegal Immigrants—and Sticks Hospitals With the Bill,” The Atlantic, December 18, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/12/obamacare-bars-illegal-immigrants-and-sticks-hospitals-with-the-bill/282444/
- Lisa Zamosky, “Healthcare options for undocumented immigrants,” Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2014, http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-healthcare-watch-20140420-story.html
- Josh Hicks, “Ron Paul’s claims about life without Medicare and Medicaid,” Washington Post, February 1, 2012, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/post/ron-pauls-claims-about-life-without-medicare-and-medicaid/2012/01/31/gIQAedy5hQ_blog.html
- Virgil Dickson, “Medicaid a lifeline for the poor and disabled,” Modern Healthcare, May 23, 2015, http://www.modernhealthcare.com/article/20150523/MAGAZINE/305239941
- Dan Mangan, “The rate of uninsured Americans hits a record low as Obamacare’s future remains a question mark,” CNBC, February 14, 2017, http://www.cnbc.com/2017/02/14/the-rate-of-uninsured-americans-hits-a-record-low-as-obamacares-future-remains-a-question-mark.html