Organizing for human rights as a nurse, during a pandemic

By Priyank Jindal, Philadelphia Healthcare Rights Committee

When I was a kid, the community college near me was offering free LPN classes, so my mom enrolled and got her degree, eventually going on to get her RN. I remember her graduation vividly.  I saw women with their families proudly beside them and I, too, was so proud of my mom. Growing up, it meant a lot to see my mom practice her independence and go to work everyday. Later, both my sister and I followed in her footsteps to become nurses. 

At the beginning of the pandemic I saw myself, my coworkers and my peers putting our lives at risk to do our jobs. I also saw how the interests of capital and big business were put before the lives of people in such a concrete way. The world has the resources to make sure that everyone has medicine, food, and housing, but the economic system we live in doesn’t care. Our current system is based on extracting profit from us to make a select few very wealthy. These conditions have always existed, but the pandemic highlighted them in an unprecedented way. I have seen the brutality of a system that left imprisoned folks to contract COVID and die with no health precautions, evict people in the middle of a pandemic, and workers forced to leave their jobs with no union protection due to lack of PPE. As much as I was enraged I also felt helpless about the power we had as a group of dispossessed people to change these conditions. 

I have been involved with activist work since I was young – working for immigrants’ rights or working with youth. Once I became a nurse I found it harder to plug into organizing work, so it’s been several years since I’d been involved in a mass-based organization. Then, a  friend sent me Put People First! PA’s (PPF-PA) Statement and Demands on the COVID-19 Pandemic. The demands were very clear, comprehensive, and resonated with my own feelings of anger and helplessness. I started looking into the organization more and really liked PPF-PA’s orientation towards organizing the unorganized. I also felt that, as a nurse, it was my responsibility to use my position to organize my peers and coworkers around the conditions we were facing. 

It’s important to build strong organizations that are based on the needs of everyday working people. In times of crisis, like the pandemic, these organizations can provide us with a way forward that continues to build political clarity and political power of the dispossessed. We don’t have the vast resources of capital, but we do have the power of the masses. The current system is based on exploitation of our labor and it is a parasite that is dependent on us to survive. The only way we will harness our power to defeat the current socioeconomic system is to organize. Separate we are weak, but together, united in our actions, we can exert our power and overthrow the current system that dehumanizes us all. This is why I joined Put People First! PA. 

Always Forward, Never Back!!!

Harder than Surviving Cancer, My First Year Teaching Virtually

By Farrah Samuels, Philadelphia Healthcare Rights Committee

If anyone had told me that teaching online as a first year teacher during a pandemic would be harder than surviving a rare form of stage IV cancer, I would’ve laughed them right outta’ town! As a teacher, I never thought of myself as an “essential worker” until the start of this school year. Now, teachers are expected to work no matter what, without hazard pay nor accolades, and we get blamed for everything!

If teachers don’t teach, there’s no future, and we just can’t afford to stop making that investment. That in itself is a crisis and a public health emergency- a generation of youth with no voice nor the know-how to wield the power of their words. Thankfully, I haven’t had to work in dangerous conditions, yet, though it took the Philadelphia School District (SDP) a minute to get its act together. This was only because of SDP meetings with community leaders, advocates, teachers, and families that lasted into the wee hours of the night with almost 100% advocating for virtual learning . Many teachers are struggling, however; we are busting our asses to teach your children well, and our spirits are dying and crushed everyday! We are breaking down and crying as we look at each other on screens, becoming “Zoombies,” and try to maintain some sense of community.

In the small ways I’m able, I continue to advocate for PPF-PA, COVID-19 PPE and the health care we all need and deserve, while I am spending seventeen hours daily lesson planning and trying to maintain my sanity. In my spare time, I barely hold together a consulting practice, recently focused on helping homeless shelters in Philadelphia apply for COVID-19 funding that they desperately need to help our most vulnerable “street citizens.” But I am lucky. I haven’t had to get a COVID-19 test yet, and have been able to stay relatively comfortable in my homemade kitchen office/ makeshift classroom. My “estranged” husband (who’s currently staying with me due to the pandemic), however, has been in and out of the hospital and recently diagnosed with pneumonia. He has had repeated COVID-19 tests, trying to figure out what ailed him. I visited him several nights at Jefferson Hospital in dire fear every time I walked into the hospital doors, masked and armed with prayers. Hospitals are breeding grounds, but what do you do when you love someone and you don’t want to leave them to face the horrors of an illness alone?

As much as I love, care and would die for my PPF-PA comrades, out of respect for the work, I decided to take a semi-sabbatical from my coordination duties. I tried to hold it together, but I have no spare time as a first-year teacher, trying to connect to our kids through “ Hollywood Squares” on screen, with increasing demands from administrators who say they “get it” and talk about “grace,” and self-care like they are hills to die on, but then don’t actually offer any. How do I remain committed, competent, caring, and connected when I am burnt out and have no time for the beloved community that has helped to keep me going in these last five years of my life? I’ll be back in quiet seasons, in the summer, when the weather is nice, the sun is shining, my little feeble garden is growing, and school is out. But even from the periphery, I’m still as committed as ever to fight for the world we all deserve to live in, where healthcare is a human right.

Graduate Students fight for Healthcare at Villanova University

By Harrison Farina, Montgomery County Healthcare Rights Committee

The COVID-19 pandemic has ignited a flame of graduate student-organizing at Villanova University, where I study and teach. Villanova conveniently classifies us as students, even though we do enormous amounts of labor for the university in the form of: teaching, reading, publishing, presenting, and promoting the school’s image. During our studies, we are subject to an extremely intense professionalization process in which we are said to be “branded” by Villanova. How, though, can they brand us without offering us neither basic human needs nor protection?

I believe they call us students because they want to silence our discontent with unsafe working conditions. We are not offered healthcare, and many of us are under- or uninsured. For years, we have been pleading with the school to provide healthcare to graduate student employees. Amid COVID-19, it became clear that Villanova’s Catholic values are just a veneer to cover what they really care about: making money.

The university took only one measure to address our COVID-19 concerns: they gave us the opportunity to apply for $1000 available through CARES Act funding. At the same time, they discouraged students from applying for this aid money. The fund required us to prove our hardship and the application was dehumanizing, making us prove our suffering.

This fight has taught me a lot about how power holders and decision makers tend to act when called upon to help those in need. The process of getting CARES funds signaled to me that this “aid” was just a way for the school to confuse us, appease us, and slow us down in our attempts to organize around healthcare. Instead, graduate students established our own summer support fund. Using my knowledge of Projects of Survival, I helped implement a “Summer Survival Fund,” which was a quick payout system to get support for medical, housing, food, or any other emergency expenses. The fund both addressed our material needs and was a way to build organizational power and collectivity; it was a testament to the success of the organization of the poor.

Now, Villanova has decided to reopen its campus for fall classes. While I can work from home this academic year, most of my peers are not so lucky. They are forced to go back to teach classes on campus. If I had to return to campus, I would constantly be afraid of getting sick. I would feel uncomfortable visiting any family or going to any organizing events, because I would be afraid of spreading the virus. If I were forced into this situation, as so many are, I don’t know what my life would be like.

To me, the wave of school reopenings is genocidal, because millions of children and essential workers are being forced to march to their deaths. Children could have life-long complications from COVID-19, both physical and psychological. Children are unique, because they will be affected by this for much longer, but they do not compose the majority of the enormous and rising death toll in this country. Not only children, but Black people, Latinx people, essential workers, homeless people, and the elderly are being killed by this system in huge numbers. For the sake of them and all of us, we need to replace this cruel and evil economic system with a system that supports human life. We must be ready to paint the portrait of a world governed by life, not profit.