By Daniel Lichtenstein-Boris, MPH
Chicago’s People’s Response Network, a grassroots organization of public health workers, organizers, and activists, has been advocating for a stronger, fully funded, public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The United States of America is number one in the world for COVID-19 deaths. But despite over a million Americans dying of COVID-19, vaccination campaigns and infection control has drastically decreased as the surge of cases slowed following the omicron variant’s spread in the early winter of 2022.
Anti-vaccine, anti-mask extremists have pressed public health officials to stop indoor masking, temperature checks, mass testing, and mandatory vaccinations. But despite these trends, there are still grassroots organizations supporting public health.
These groups have continued to organize and advocate for public health interventions and the need for a full-on government mobilization against this deadly and incredibly contagious virus that has killed more civilians than any war in American history.
In Chicago, the People’s Response Network has proposed legislation in the Chicago City Council for a large-scale public health intervention to vaccinate and provide infection control information to residents. By focusing help in vulnerable communities this would reduce the spread of covid and the racial health disparities of COVID-19 morbidity and mortality. As of May 9, 2022, only 55% of African American Chicagoans were vaccinated against COVID-19, as compared to 70% of White Chicagoans.
Originally introduced in the spring of 2021 by Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez as the “Take the Vaccine to the People” ordinance, the legislation has been periodically reintroduced since then. By fielding mobile teams of community health workers and nurses to vaccinate and provide information to Chicago residents, the ordinance’s proponents argue that only a large-scale education and outreach campaign can both convince residents to vaccinate, and reduce the health disparities between Black and White, and rich and poor Chicagoans.
Community health brigades of nurses and community health workers would provide information on social services, and infection control, as well as distribute masks, and provide COVID-19 vaccinations and booster shots. They would go door to door in the community and in nursing homes and other congregate care settings. Based out of decentralized locations such as precinct polling places, libraries, park district fieldhouses, schools, and the offices of community-based organizations, these health brigades would saturate neighborhoods with life-saving public health interventions. According to the Peoples Response Network, these brigades of health workers would do “testing, contact tracing, distribute masks, teach preventive measures against COVID-19, and provide resources on people’s rights to food and housing, stop evictions and foreclosures and utility shut-offs.”
Further, workplace brigades would identify and organize workers at worksites to test, vaccinate, and provide masks, infection control educational materials, and information on their rights to sick leave, isolation, and quarantine. As workplaces often are vectors for the contagion of communicable diseases, these healthcare professionals would help mitigate the spread of COVID in these settings.
Twelve of fifty Alderpersons endorsed this “Take the Vaccine to the People” ordinance. Citing low vaccination rates and higher hospitalization and death rates among African Americans as opposed to White Chicagoans, the People’s Response Network would close the racial health gap by focusing on health education, testing, contact tracing, and vaccination in the hardest hit, poorest Chicago communities with the highest barriers to healthcare access.
I had the opportunity to interview some leading members of the Peoples Response Network. Here are their stories.
The goal of the People’s Response Network is a mass popular mobilization against COVID-19 and the real funding of public health departments. If we had that, we would have been ready to go into action when an epidemic or pandemic happens, instead of being ill-prepared to respond to infectious diseases.
We would have had people in the community working for the public health department who had won the trust of the community and you wouldn’t have vaccine hesitancy.
We see that the goal of funding real public health departments that employ public sector workers in their communities equipped to move lighting fast to respond to public health crises is necessary.
For the movement for social justice, revitalizing the public health infrastructure needs to be imperative with universal healthcare.
Bernie talks a lot about universal healthcare, but he speaks so little on public health infrastructure. People in the movement for social justice in Chicago are starting to get that public health is of equal importance as the right of every individual to universal healthcare and the right to health insurance.
We must have a public health system that can respond to the climate change, events such as the heat wave crisis with cooling centers and outreach to elderly and vulnerable residents. The ordinance we proposed during the start of the vaccination campaign, along with what we do with parents of school children is a main part of our organization’s priorities. We have ten to thirty people on a weekly zoom call. These are people from various communities who take this public health perspective and then take it back to their organizations and communities. We have press conferences about the need for radical community-based organizations and mass preventive health. We need universal vaccinations and infection control to prevent covid.
I’ve been involved for two years. I also am chair of Black Women Organizing for Power. I saw the press release that the Peoples Response Network sent to an NAACP group that was organizing around covid. We did a grassroots action and petition around covid. Seventy out of the first hundred persons to die of covid were African American. Two years later, the disparity still exists. Covid is a big cover up now. It’s not as newsworthy as before. Back in April, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner, of people who passed away of Covid related complications, in Chicago 7,000 Chicagoans died and over 3000 were African American. The last I recall, two out of every five who died were African American. That is this year. These disparities still exist. The media isn’t covering it. It is as if we’ve moved passed it. There is a significant undercount of people who have died of covid. Dr. Howard Ehram can talk about the undercount since he’s a public health expert. Our ordinance is our rally call to rebuild public health. As we are aware, Covid will not be the only pandemic. We are going to need this too for future pandemics and climate related issues such as extreme heat. Last month, three women in senior housing in the Rogers Park neighborhood died of heat related illness. We need health brigades in partnership with the city and the people. That’s how we can have healthy communities. The legislation is to build a mass movement to rebuild the health infrastructure to combat neoliberal forces that have taken so much of our government away from us.
I first got involved in the People’s Response Network with Paul from Northside Action for Justice so people can start paying attention to what is going on in the schools. It is a Covid disaster. The Chicago Public Schools were not ready. They promised so much. I am on the local school council. I am just one person – but at least we know we tried. We want accessibility, and everything to be equal. Every school should have a nurse, someone to do contact tracing. The neighborhoods should be able to get tested and vaccinated at their neighborhood school.
Transportation is not safe. It’s cold in the winter. There needs to be someone to check on the elders, disabled, and give vaccines to people. I’ve been protesting since I was six. I love helping people. I also don’t like how they put our children back at school. The ones who wanted them back were working at home. We don’t even have air conditioning. That is a set up for failure – especially on really hot days. Elderly people have died. But also, we’re set up in school the same way. There is poor air circulation.
We have set up so many tests, so many vaccinations. We did it with no help from the city. We didn’t shy away from areas. We went where people needed it the most, where it helped
Public transit isn’t safe. People are coughing and not wearing masks. We need public health workers to bring vaccines and masks to people.
They have opened up stores and restaurants. They don’t care. It’s profit over people. It’s not right. We don’t shy away from this.
We have a ten-point system. This is what you need when your kids are at school. This is your right to safety for your children. A parent refused to send her parent to school; then they called police. The baby was back in school for two weeks and then got covid.
People are off work. They only do contact tracing once a week in the schools. This is what we fight for. We welcome everyone. We have a press conference every week and we are starting to get a lot of recognition.
Whenever necessary if we can do something to help, we will do it.
I’ve been advocating for progressive policies; I organized a march for Medicare for all last year. My own health story is that I’m at high risk for Covid. I have a rare neuro-muscular disease. It makes it difficult to lift things and it impacts my lungs. I’m at high risk and my doctor said I shouldn’t leave the house.
Because I have a rare condition, I’ve been more cautious than the average person. I wear safety glasses and N-95 masks. I’ve got the booster and double booster. I manage our twitter account and post about covid.
My dad’s best friend died of covid in the first wave, before the vaccines. His daughter is a retired medical social worker and knows all the resources people can get, but because of the high death toll and short staffing, she couldn’t even get a doctor to call her back or let her in to see her dad. He got covid while at the hospital. She is high risk herself. He ended up dying and they lost his body for two weeks.
It was so horrible, and it impacted me personally. I want to convince people to stay vigilant. I got mad because the pastor of my church would take his mask off while he was preaching. It’s hard to navigate these things sometimes.
Even with the masks, the ones they were distributing weren’t k-95 masks. We’ve been pushing to get organizations onboard. We got the endorsement of Chicago Democratic Socialists of America to try to get this ordinance passed. We want a state and federal ordinance passed. We’ve lobbied Congressman Danny Davis and State Rep Camille Lilly to pass it at a state level. We keep getting stonewalled in the city. You can be asymptomatic, and you can still spread it.
People trust the CDC and our own Department of Public Health because they are minimizing the seriousness, especially of long covid. I have a chart and spreadsheet of disparities. I showed every zip code in Chicago and compared the majority black zip codes vs latino and white ones to see who is dying and hospitalized.
They don’t have booster data online.
From our first meeting, we’ve been developing a three-prong approach. COVID is here and it is dangerous and serious. We will need masks, etc. We want to show the connection between COVID-19 and the global climate catastrophe, intensified over the past 40 years by neoliberalism and destruction of the public health department. People are dying who don’t need to die because of privatization and the destruction of our public health sector. This is related to the destruction of the public sector in this country.
We were not first talking about just rebuilding public health, but a revolutionary democratic public sector. Things would be better in 2020 vs 1995 if it wasn’t privatized and twenty years-ago they had 2000 employees instead of 200, but we need to democratize the public sector as well.
We need a revolutionary base strategy. Our public sector has to be rooted in this.
Our response is based on dual power as discussed by Lenin and interpreted by the movements of the global south, the Black Panthers, Young Lords, and Young Patriots – the original Rainbow coalition.
The vast majority of mutual aid is charity, not solidarity. It is not based on building up an organization like what Fred Hampton and other people did.
We’ve had twelve vaccine and testing events. We’ve vaccinated 6,000 or 7,000 people and tested thousands of people. We did that because our public health department is in worse shape than in Los Angeles County.
We need to rebuild the health department from the grassroots up. We need to take on the approach by every Democratic governor and mayor whether Newsom, Cuomo, or Pritzker. They privatized the majority of money coming in for COVID.
They gave Blue Shield authority over vaccines in California until county public health departments raised hell, for example.
We can’t hire permanent employees because they don’t know where funding will be from in a few years. The LA school system has listened to their health department, unlike in Chicago and other places.
Unless we deal with the root causes – neoliberalism – the public health departments have to be rebuilt and go out to the people – not brick and mortar – it is important, but to go out, change the environment, and the way people live.
There was a major brainwashing of the American people from Thanksgiving to Christmas. They are erasing COVID from the memory of people. People think it is all over, that it is safe, and they are willing to take the risks. But you need to wear masks, and you need to get your boosters. Most Americans have not yet gotten even their first booster.
The media and government pretend like the pandemic is over and it is safe now. They are wiping out of our memory the million dead US citizens and residents, our neighbors, coworkers, and family members. Let’s not forget. Let’s not let their deaths be in vain.