One Year Later: PPF-PA Members Reflect on the Pandemic and the Failures of the State

On the day the United States official Covid-19 death count reached half a million, PPF-PA member Tammy Rojas posted on Facebook reflecting on the Covid-19 demands PPF-PA put forward to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf with endorsement from many other organizations at the beginning of the pandemic. As we mark the passing of one year since the coronavirus began to spread in the US, we lift up Tammy’s reflections and take stock of our experiences of the pandemic, both personally and collectively. Over the next few weeks, the PPF-PA Media & Communications team will post stories about the impacts of the pandemic from PPF-PA members as we reaffirm our demands, recommit to our organizing work and reflect on the failure of our government to meet the needs of poor and working class people during this crisis.

Click here to read our Coronavirus demands to Gov. Wolf from Spring 2020

As Tammy reflects on our unmet demands:

Seeing as the State never enacted universal testing for Covid-19, we don’t know the truth of how far this virus has spread or if folks have gotten it more than once cause you CAN get it again. 

Because corporatized hospitals have been eliminating beds and staff for decades to cut costs and have closed and sold hospitals for real estate deals to increase their profits, our hollowed-out hospital system was not prepared to meet the needs of a pandemic.

Because the State didn’t reopen closed hospitals or bring private hospitals under public control, the healthcare system didn’t have the staff or the capacity to properly tackle this virus. 

Because the State didn’t direct private companies to mass produce proper PPE for EVERYONE, tens of millions got Covid-19 and over HALF A MILLION people have died from it so far. 

Because the State didn’t expand Medicaid to everyone, the TENS OF MILLIONS who have and will contract Covid-19 are not being properly treated or examined. This is because our healthcare is at the mercy of insurance corporations and healthcare conglomerates like University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), Penn Medicine, Geisinger and others across the nation, who are more concerned about profits and securing a system in which they reap the benefits than actually properly fighting back against this virus to save our lives. 

These healthcare profiteers have no desire to truly learn all they can about the virus to fight it. They just want the information that could help them use the virus to make  profits… and the icing on the cake y’all is healthcare profiteers like UPMC and Penn Medicine are the very entities that our elected officials on ALL levels of government put in charge of fighting this pandemic… with OUR labor and tax dollars. That’s the biggest slap in the face our government could give us. This pandemic has shown how healthcare is run by the same corporate class that evicts us from our houses when we can’t pay rent, keeps folks locked up while telling them to socially distance, denies us safe places for young people to get education  and why we MUST unite the poor and dispossessed and demand our basic human rights — because it is the only way the working class will survive. Join us!

We already knew in March 2020 that this oppressive system did not value the health or economic safety of poor people: we were already fighting for our lives. We already knew that no oppressor has ever oppressed everyone in society equally: People of Color, Black and Indigenous people are disproportionately forced into poverty under an economic system that was designed to exploit all of us, but keeps us in check by pitting us against each other. We already knew the connection between poverty and health disparities all too well through our lived experiences, a link that has been made even more apparent as Covid-19 has taken its deadliest toll in the poorest  communities. In March 2020, we knew the ruling class would use this crisis to reinforce the myth of scarcity, that those in power would try to balance their budgets on our backs by cutting public programs instead of taxing healthcare profiteers like UPMC. While we face the compounded crises of health, housing, job loss, education, and voter suppression, the government has used the economic crisis to continue to deny the human rights and basic protections we outlined in our demands. Meanwhile, healthcare profiteers are allowed to make record profits while more than half a million Pennsylvanians were uninsured before the pandemic, and many more have lost employer-based healthcare coverage this last year.

How many lives could have been saved if the Governor had enacted these measures to protect poor and working class Pennsylvanians? How much unnecessary suffering could have been prevented? Can you imagine just how different this cruel year could have been? Throughout this blog series, we will post stories from PPF-PA members reflecting on our pandemic experiences: our health and economic struggles this year, and the ways we are fighting back, building solidarity, supporting each other, and continuing to organize, organize, organize.

Members of the Pittsburgh Healthcare Rights Committee offer support with Medicaid and food stamps applications at a Project of Survival in collaboration with House of Manna

A little more than a year after the first Covid-19 deaths occured in the United States, we are still fighting for our lives. In 2021, we continue our struggle for healthcare as a human right as we fight for vaccine equity and access and build our campaign for a Public Healthcare Advocate in PA, a public office that would fight for the healthcare rights of all Pennsylvanians at the State level. Across PA, we are organizing Projects of Survival, supporting our communities to meet the basic needs the government has failed to address while building our collective power to uproot this violent system. We are building the Nonviolent Medicaid Army with organizations across the country and developing leaders to demand our basic needs be treated as human rights! Stay tuned as we look back at personal reflections on the pandemic, and look ahead to where we are going from here. Forward together!

On Monday, June 7th, the PA Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival (PAPPC:NCMR) joined states around the country and Washington DC to put our US Representatives on notice. Drawing on the transformational history of the First Reconstruction following the Civil War and the Second Reconstruction of the civil rights struggles of the 20th century, today we need a Third Reconstruction to revive our moral and political commitments to democracy and the founding principles of the country.

With this resolution, we (1) acknowledge the deep harms we have suffered from systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation and the denial of health care, militarism and the false narrative of white supremacist nationalist extremism and (2) commit to heal and transform the nation by addressing these interlocking injustices, beginning with those most impacted, with moral and just laws and policies.

Several Put People First! PA members wrote Letters to the Editor leading up to these actions. Read these letters here:

Tammy Rojas, Lancaster

*Submitted and accepted to the Lancaster Newspaper

I’m a co-root coordinator with Put People First! PA and an organizer with the National Union of the Homeless. I was outraged to hear that 78 acres of beautiful farmland are slated to be redeveloped as the site of the new and much larger Lancaster County prison.
It’s sad to me, because we are destroying a beautiful piece of land to continue what I view as causing harm and violence to our people. I do not believe that the majority of those in the county prison need to be there to begin with. A bigger prison, in my view, allows more harm to be done to more people.

I was an inmate at Lancaster County Prison for two weeks because I didn’t have $150. While there, I was denied my mental health medications. According to the Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, in Pennsylvania over $500 million of our tax dollars go to lock up over 13,000 people who could be immediately released with no risk to public safety.

This is why I’ll be taking action with that campaign at 1:30 p.m. June 7 in Harrisburg on the front steps of the state Capitol building. We will demand a moral state budget and deliver the proposed “Third Reconstruction” congressional resolution ( Join us!

(Article published in the Lancaster Newspaper here.)

Matt Rosing, Lancaster

*Submitted to the Lancaster Newspaper

Re: Lancaster County Prison Board approves of plan to buy Lancaster Township farm for new prison site (May 20, 2021). My name is Matthew Rosing, I’m part of Put People First! PA Lancaster Healthcare Rights Committee and a leader in the National Union of the Homeless. I have many concerns about the building of the new prison here in Lancaster County. As an ex-inmate of LCP I’ve seen first hand the horrible conditions of the prison. I also am very aware of the minor things 90% of the inmate population are actually in there for, such as technical probation violations, or simple possession.

It’s time to release minor offenders and stop jailing those who can’t afford bail, which criminalizes poverty. Realize the harm that these prisons cause people and use the money for healthcare, housing and treatment. It is cheaper and more productive to give these preventative measures to these human beings, than it is to put them in a box. Demolish the old prison, don’t build a new one.

The PA Poor People’s Campaign is demanding Harrisburg “redirect appropriations from the Department of Corrections and Board of Probation and Parole to housing, healthcare, food, and other essential needs.” Lancaster County must do the same. That’s why I am taking action on June 7 at 1:30pm outside the state capitol in Harrisburg with the PA Poor People’s Campaign to demand that state lawmakers center over 5 million poor and low-wage Pennsylvanians in the state budget.

Lizzie Anderson and Eleanor Anderson, Pittsburgh

*Submitted to the Post-Gazette

Dear Editor,
In a June 3rd Editorial, the Post-Gazette claimed state officials should require Pennsylvanians on unemployment to prove they are actively looking for work. We are tired of these old shaming tactics targeting the poor. Pennsylvanians are doing our part. Our state and federal elected officials need to do better.

We need just and moral budgets at all levels of government and support from PA congressional representatives for the national Poor People’s Campaign resolution, Third Reconstruction: Fully addressing poverty and low wages from the bottom up.

Even before COVID, over 5 million poor and dispossessed working class people in Pennsylvania were living at 200% of the federal poverty line or below. For an average Pennsylvania family of three, that means living on $43,920 or less each year. Enrollment in Medicaid has increased by almost 300,000 people, or almost 10% since February 2020. And, the richest Pennsylvanians and companies in our state pay little to no taxes, while the lowest 20% of income earners pay more than double their share of state and local taxes compared with the top 1%. This hurts all of us.

We are members of Put People First! PA, a member organization of PA Poor People’s Campaign, a National Call for Moral Revival. This is why we are taking action on Monday June 7th from 12:00 pm – 12:45 pm at Rep. Mike Doyle’s office, 2637 E Carson St, Pittsburgh, PA 15203. Pennsylvanians deserve better!

We are ecstatic to release the Spring / Summer 2021 edition of The Keystone, Put People First! PA’s member created, biannual newsletter.

Read it here in virtual magazine form.

Download the KEYSTONE PDF here.

The Keystone is a labor of love produced by Put People First! PA’s Media and Communications Team. Here’s the team “Letter from the Editors” for this edition of the Keystone:

To our Readers:
Put People First! PA (PPF-PA) is a mass, base-building, human rights organization, dedicated to building each other up as leaders to unite the poor and dispossessed in Pennsylvania. We’re organizing across the state to change the systems that deny us our basic needs through our Healthcare is a Human Right Campaign, our 10 local Healthcare Rights Committees, numerous Statewide Teams and members in 19 counties.

You are reading The Keystone, our biannual newsletter, produced by the Media and Communications Team. The Keystone is a gathering of writing and art produced by our members, who are the best people to tell our stories—our struggles with healthcare, our experiences organizing, and how our collectivity in PPF-PA has shaped us. We call the practice of writing our own narratives the Battle of the Story, a term we borrow from the Center for Story-based Strategy. If we don’t tell our own story about the solutions we need, the mainstream media will tell that story for us in a distorted way.

One of our Statewide Teams is the Media and Communications Team, which works to share our work and our narratives with the public, and to bring our members closer together through our shared stories. We do this work through publishing The Keystone, through our biweekly E-News, our social media presence and our work with the press.

This is the Spring/Summer 2021 edition of the Keystone! You’ll hear from leaders on what feeds their organizing work, the importance of building our membership base (base-building), and the ways the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced our commitment to the struggle for healthcare as a human right. You’ll find updates on our campaign for a Public Healthcare Advocate in Pennsylvania, a public office that would fight for the healthcare rights of all Pennsylvanians at the State level, and our struggle to restore a comprehensive dental benefit to Medicaid. You’ll read about how we combat ruling class ideas with our Projects of Survival, which meet our material needs while developing leaders. Not to mention artwork from leaders, reflections on our internal political education, and articles from our sibling organizations.These are our stories—your stories.

All the content in this edition of The Keystone comes out of the context of this moment: an economic crisis amidst a global pandemic. The past year and a half has reinforced what we know all too well to be true: we already knew that this oppressive system did not value the health or economic safety of poor people. We already knew that no oppressor has ever oppressed everyone in society equally: People of Color, Black and Indigenous people are disproportionately forced into poverty under an economic system that was designed to exploit all of us, but keeps us in check by pitting us against each other. We already knew the connection between poverty and health disparities all too well through our lived experiences. This year of COVID-19 has made these truths much more visible, and exposed more cracks in our broken system. So how does PPF-PA combat this oppressive system? We organize! We unite across lines of division under a common demand for our human rights.

We want to dedicate this edition of the Keystone to all of those we’ve lost this year. We dedicate this to those that ignite our struggle, inspire us continuously, and forever live in our hearts.

Thank you so much for being here.
The Media and Communications Team

Want to look at past Keystone editions? Here on the website is our archive.

PPF-PA Member and custodial worker reflects on pandemic working conditions and organizing for our survival

By Chris, PPF-PA Member

I am a custodian at a private liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, and therefore, I am an essential worker. I work in the residential dorms. It’s hard to put this whole year into order, so much has happened. So many of my coworkers came down with Covid-19. Some were very ill, and are still suffering the repercussions. Others bounced back ok. Some lost family members. Many of my immigrant coworkers can no longer send money back home because of the inhumane policies of the U.S. ruling class towards their countries of origin.

It’s hard to say what all the impacts have been on the workers at the college, because the institution has not bothered to keep track. Although there is a system for regular Covid-19 testing of students and faculty, testing for our department has been sporadic and random. It’s almost like every now and then they pull a name out of a hat. The college, which constantly touts their “diversity & inclusion,” does not include custodial staff on the online Covid-19 Dashboard they put out to track daily cases, despite the fact that custodial and trades staff are the workers who have been on campus daily throughout the pandemic. Meanwhile, the custodial department is the most diverse on campus, employing people from Cuba, Nepal, Ethiopia, Mexico, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic & the U.S. But to the college administration, diversity & inclusion is all about the show, the facade. 

The list of grievances about how the college has mistreated workers during Covid-19 is long. In January 2020, students were arriving back to campus from all over the country and internationally. After we custodians had already been back in the student dorms, the local paper printed an article about our school having students in quarantine and using special bathrooms in the dorms. This was news to us. The administration showed blatant disregard for the custodians by not communicating with us directly about any Covid-19 protocol for returning students or safety concerns for staff, and even now we continue to get important information that is relevant to our jobs and safety after the fact.

Every once in a while some senior staff and a human resources person will call a meeting with the custodial department.  Most of the senior staff don’t even come to these meetings in person, while we go to work on campus every day. They call in over zoom and are projected up on a huge screen, looming down upon us. These meetings are supposed to be an opportunity for us to explain what’s going on in our department and to raise important issues like, “Why were our healthcare contributions raised in the middle of a pandemic? My co-pays on my meds have doubled and my doctor visits too!” or, “What happened to the sliding scale health care contributions system that we were told was being considered?” But we only get insufficient answers, or no answers, and are left in the dark. It is not a transparent, participatory, or equitable process, like the ones we have in PPF-PA, built on the foundation of our human rights principles.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to get by on what I earn where I live because our city is in the middle of another kind of pandemic: gentrification. If my landlord chooses to jump on this train and raise my rent, there will be nowhere I could possibly afford to move in my community. I still have a job and I am thankful for that. I actually like my job. I like physical labor. What I don’t like is feeling like I don’t matter, like I’m disposable. Not important enough to be included in the conversation about issues that affect my life and my safety.

They show us we are disposable to them by denying us hazard pay for working on campus while everyone else stays home. I even called Governor Wolf’s office to confirm that we should be eligible for hazard pay, but Human Resources has still ignored my questions. To make matters worse, I’m on a wage freeze. They stopped our retirement contributions. When we went in to work over the winter holiday to clean the dorms while the students were away, the college had turned off the heat in the buildings because “no one” was there. We are there! We are someone. We were trying to work and we were freezing. Another time, when the school was shut down for snow, the boss asked me to go in because I live within walking distance. When I saw my paycheck, those hours were paid as straight-time, not overtime. I questioned Human Resources through email, and they said “Ask your supervisor.” His answer? ”This is the way it’s done.” We have no meaningful way to address these issues. Whenever we raise questions or grievances, the boss says things like,”We have to be careful, they could outsource us.” 

And the response of the college to the Black Lives Matter protests this year?  Embarrassing. They rebranded the campus police by getting new uniforms for Police & Safety Officers, and posted an article on their website calling it “Friendlier Look”. Meanwhile, the custodial staff were not given uniforms this year, with no explanation of course. These are the repeated slights that add up, and that make you ask, “Do their words match their behaviors?” No, not the powers that be at this college.

The good news is, I found Put People First! PA. Being part of this organization is helping me to channel my anger and energy and to focus on solutions. It’s opening my mind to different ways of thinking, to ask questions like “Where do we go beyond the protest?” All my life I’ve been out there in the streets raising hell all over this country, but I haven’t seen real change or felt part of something lasting. I’m coming to understand that you have to get organized, that it is the collective that will bring any lasting change.

I’m still not completely sure how this all works, but I am learning. And I am excited for that! I welcome the political education that is so central to everything PPF-PA does. Sometimes it can be painful when illusions are shattered, but I want truth. I recently joined the statewide Projects of Survival team, and I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to join that team. We will be studying the history of several mutual aid groups to get a clearer understanding of what works: how we can organize and build our movement by helping people with their immediate needs, while at the same time inviting them to join us in fighting to change the system that keeps us in need. This will help us all the most in the long run, and this is what Put People First! PA is all about.

PPF-PA Member Tammy Rojas Reflects on Covid-19 illness, longterm symptoms, and barriers to Covid-19 testing and care

By Tammy Rojas, PPF-PA Lancaster Healthcare Rights Committee

I contracted Covid-19 the end of January 2021 and the lasting health effects make it extremely difficult to do the simplest of the day to day tasks. I’m still experiencing fatigue, inflammation in the chest which causes chest and back pain, trouble breathing with the slightest exertion and COVID brain fog which is affecting me in a variety of ways. I find myself feeling wiped out just doing simple tasks like cleaning the cats’ litter box, cleaning the toilet or gathering trash. Walking up and down the steps in my apartment building causes me great pain, exhaustion, and causes my heart to overwork and takes my breath away. 

The COVID brain fog has me experiencing depression symptoms, trouble thinking deeply, forgetfulness, getting my thoughts to come out in words or phrases that make sense to others and the oddest part is I don’t feel the sensations of hunger, thirst or even feeling full. So I have to be really on point that I’m not eating too little or too much.. Covid-19 affects everyone differently and for many the symptoms linger on. It’s been over a month for me since I was exposed/experienced the first symptom and I’m still having symptoms. On top of struggling with these lasting symptoms I have to fight with healthcare profiteer Penn Medicine to demand the care I need. 

My struggle with Penn Medicine began the moment I reached out on January 24, 2021, about experiencing the first COVID symptom, the loss of taste and smell. Communications with them, about getting a Covid-19 test, went back and forth for a few days, until I started becoming really sick and didn’t have the energy to fight with them anymore. I reached out again, once severe symptoms passed, about February 9th, to once again request a test for Covid-19 because I had all the symptoms and someone I was in contact with tested positive and my partner and roommate were both sick. My family doctors office, Penn Medicine, were still reluctant to give me a test and were not going to treat me for COVID until I had a positive test result. After two days of getting the runaround I decided to look elsewhere for a test. I went for my test Friday February 11th at CVS and received my results Sunday February 14th, POSITIVE for COVID! 

I have since been to see my Penn Medicine family doctor and they have reluctantly acknowledged that I do in fact have Covid-19 and lingering symptoms that could go on for weeks and the “care” they are offering is minimal. 

At that visit they decided I should do follow up visits periodically to see if symptoms had improved after  4-6 weeks from a positive test result.  I’m past that point and I’m STILL experiencing covid symptoms, which are currently causing me serious issues that make every day tasks seem like life milestones if I can complete them. With trouble breathing, chest & back pain and a weakened heart, MAYBE Penn Medicine will now grant that I qualify for the “luxury” of getting a scan, xray and/or a specialist referral.  

On Wednesday February 24th I went into the Penn Medicine LGH Emergency Room to be seen because the chest and back pain and trouble breathing I’ve been experiencing had intensified on the days following my visit to my family doctor. I went in scared and frustrated because my concerns about my health up to this point had not been taken seriously by my provider, Penn Medicine, and I didn’t know what to expect and seeing as UPMC had closed St Joseph’s hospital I had no other choice for emergency chest pain care. Thankfully, since I was there for chest and back pain I received an EKG and X-ray, which is pretty standard ER practice when someone comes in with chest pains. The results were upsetting; it appears Covid-19 has left scarring and that scarring is causing inflammation, which is causing the pain and trouble breathing. 

Thankfully I haven’t been alone in this fight and struggle to get the healthcare services I need. I have been supported by friends in my community who relate to my healthcare struggle and other fellow members of Put People First! PA (PPF-PA). As a form of “Community Care” a member of the Healthcare Workers Team in PPF-PA joined me, via phone, for my visits with my family doctor where they helped advocate for the services I need. I wouldn’t have been able to make it through this crisis if I didn’t have the support that I received from both friends in the community and my comrades in PPF-PA. 

I’m a Medicaid recipient, I don’t make Penn Medicine money, so to them I don’t matter. Instead of treating me for Covid-19 and examining me in a way to get a thorough look at how COVID has affected my body and thus overall health, i.e. the necessary medical tests that should be done, they have decided to just manage my symptoms, not treating the cause itself. I’ve been prescribed an inhaler and multiple pain medications.

This virus is NO JOKE and it’s high time the working class demands we get healthcare as a human right because hundreds of millions of us need it and tens of millions are needlessly suffering without it.