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August is Civic Health Month!

Better health begins when every citizen has a voice in the public policy decisions that affect their wellbeing.

Civic Health Month: a project of Vot-ER

Civic Health Month aims to make voting and civic participation accessible to all–particularly those underserved by the healthcare system in the United States. Civic Health Month is a nationwide celebration held each August to showcase the strengthening relationship between health care, healthy communities, and civic participation.

Vot-ER is an organization committed to the vision of healthy communities powered by an inclusive democracy. They help clinics, hospitals, and healthcare professionals to support their colleagues and patients with voter registration and requesting their mail-in ballots. They also build coalitions of healthcare and democracy organizations through Civic Health Month.

Learn more about how to get involved in Civic Health Month here. Vot-ER would also love for you to sign up to get a free healthy democracy kit here to help get patients, colleagues, and staff registered to vote!

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“Vilomah:” An Essay by Kisha Patterson

Kisha Patterson is a historic preservation architect, artist, and activist practicing in Pittsburgh, PA. She is grateful for the health and safety of her children and urges everyone to demand a People’s Vaccine and sign the Open Covid Pledge. She has been volunteering with Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 since March of 2020.

“Vilomah” is the only word I’ve ever found to mean a mother who has lost her child. On September 22, 2020, Jamain Stephens was buried under a tree on a high spot overlooking the rolling hills of Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 220,000 deaths are so incomprehensible it is easy to become numb to its all, at the same time losing this one young life has been acutely painful to me. Jamain was nearly 21, a football player, healthy, and died from a blood clot he suffered as a complication of Covid-19 in the late summer of 2020. A New York Times article calls into question the safety of contact sports, and the college football team with which he had played and practiced. I don’t care for football, and this may be an argument against the institution entirely – but that isn’t what moved me. He grew up near where I grew up, and his mother is about my age. 

Since the spring lockdowns, I had started running and biking through this old cemetery nearly every day. The first lock-downs of the Covid-19 Pandemic brought a period of fear and isolation, I found solace among the graves.  Green leaves overtook bare trees like they do every spring. Manicured lawns lined with mausoleums and markers in stately rows seemed to imply a natural order to the world, even in death. I slowly realized that I have been crying over the death of this one stranger because I recognized the spot where he was buried.

On the occasions I strolled the winding paths with my children, we would read the headstones. We would say a special prayer for the interred mothers, especially the ones whose graves were dated after her children. It is an old cemetery, some remembered there passed away 175 years ago. I wondered if some of those mothers had any living descendants because they were buried next to two or more of their infant and toddler children. These were the graves of the wealthy, in the late 1800’s clean water and medicine were hardly commonplace, lots of children died quite young.

My 13-year-old son speculated about the headstones dated between 1918 and 1920, wondering how many were victims of the “Spanish Flu”. Like in 2020, an invisible contagion transformed life. I wonder if anyone gathered at homes or graves to try to console mothers having to bury their young adult children? In those times, some cities restricted funerals, and Pittsburgh was one of them. What was it like to grieve alone? In either case, no one could have sequenced the disease’s DNA or peered into the lungs of those infected. Science would not deliver any flu vaccine for another 20 years.

No one has set the grave maker for young Jamain yet, but it will say 2020. One hundred years from now, someone will see all the graves there, from 1840 and on. They will damn, as I do, the lack of sewers and science in the 19th and 20th centuries that resulted in so much suffering, death, and so many inconsolable mothers.

Jamain Stephens went to Central Catholic High School, not even half a mile from the University of Pittsburgh. In 1955, from this University’s Virus Research Laboratory,  Jonas Salk declared his vaccine for polio safe, and effective. More importantly, he wouldn’t patent this find.  He made this compassionate gift to be sure his vaccine would be widely available.

“Could You Patent the Sun?” -Jonas Salk

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Atmospheres of the Undead by Caitlin Berrigan

Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 participant, Caitlin Berrigan, has an essay published in the journal March titled “Atmospheres of the Undead: living with viruses, loneliness, and neoliberalism.” In it she talks about how living with Hepatitis C “reveals the structural inequalities of profit-oriented biomedicine.”

You can read it, or download an audio version.

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Aly Bancroft: Pharma’s Billions Sprang from the Taxpayer Dime

Image Credit: Dado Ruvic/Reuters/Washington Post

Megan McArdle was correct that the coronavirus pandemic has revealed the drug development system is working. What she didn’t mention is that the system is working as it was designed: to maximize monopoly profits for the pharmaceutical industry.”

Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM) board member and Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 participant Aly Bancroft submitted a Letter to the Editor that was featured in the Washington Post! Aly is also the campaign coordinator at Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines program. Read the full letter here.

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Meet our Participant: Dannie Synder!

Recently, I was given the opportunity to be able to learn more about one of our participants: Dannie Synder. Dannie has been living all over the place since the start of the pandemic, from Austin to Washington D.C. to Mexico City, but has been a dedicated participant of the Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 campaign since Season 1. Read more about her work throughout and beyond the campaign below!

What does the Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 movement mean to you?

I am an artivist: an artistic activist. I consider myself an activist, and I started out in mostly prison abolition. I began as a teacher in juvenile detention centers and through that became interested in the prison abolition movement, particularly because it touches so many different elements from homelessness to mental health to the Black Lives Matter movement — and I’m learning more how it touches access to medicine. This is an area that I have never had much experience and I’m still learning a lot. I’m still gaining confidence in speaking about this movement, and everyday it is shocking to me that access to medicines is an issue. That was one of the reasons I wanted to join this campaign — this is an area that I have been really hesitant to get into as it seems very technical and embedded in the legal system. This campaign is allowing me the opportunity to continue developing my abilities as an artistic activist. 

Given that you mentioned your experience working in prison abolition, have you made any connections with the access to medicines movement?

Well, I’m learning more about mental health issues and with the BLM movement and with everything else that is going on right now, we have to ask these questions like “who do we call when there’s an emergency?” We cannot call the police because it leads to violence, so who can we call and what kind of organizations are available in different cities?

This is really addressing the issues of communities with lack of access to not just physical medicine, but also mental health resources. I’m someone who doesn’t have health insurance, and I’m learning how difficult it is  to get health insurance in America. I did not realize until during this campaign that one in five people can’t afford their medicine and can’t get access to medicine — I am curious to learn more about prisoners in particular those with mental health issues how many of them actually had access to the essential services that they need.

What are you most looking forward to for this season? 

Right now in Season 2, one one of the leaders of our team of our lab is helping come up with really great tactics. One of the things I continue to learn about everyday is we can come up with all these really creative tactics, but what’s actually going to be effective? I really like working with the artistic activism side of this campaign, because we are really good at pushing each other and pushing everyone. I think working also with people from an access to medicines background helps us decide how we are going to get results, since they have experience dealing with the more legal aspects of medicine. 

One thing in particular: I have been super excited about the Jolene vaccine challenge. We made the video the trailer to our music video trailer season 1 and probably by the end of November early December we’re going to make the full-length music video. This is all super exciting for me; I felt very important and I felt very happy that we made something which got so much traction on social media. It was a really nice moment we felt like even though we didn’t get Vanderbilt University on the phone yet (who is our target) you know we still can get a response from them from the video. We felt like we did accomplish something by all the people who were exposed to our video, and learned something important and new about the access to medicines movement. 

What do you think would be a good outcome for this campaign? 

It would be great if we could garner an impressive number of universities to sign onto the Open COVID Pledge. If we could get an institution like [Major State University] to sign the Open COVID Pledge, we know that people like politicians for example are going to pay attention to that. We need to always push universities to do better, and if we can do that, then we have done our part as a campaign!

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Creative Actions for a People’s Vaccine

This week, our participants at Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 have continued to share their creativity with the world. Keep reading for some highlights from different groups who are working to convince universities around the world to support access to the COVID-19 vaccine!

1. Brittany Herrick took a photo of herself at Dr. Jonas Salk’s grave. Dr. Salk is known for creating the Polio vaccine, which he refused to patent on the grounds that the patent belongs to the people. His refusal to profit from the vaccine saved thousands and thousands of lives. Brittany and her team used Photoshop to send the message that Dr. Salk’s philosophy must be applied to the COVID-19 vaccine as well:

2. Our participants in London have been working hard to contact researchers at Imperial University working on COVID-19 research. To add a personal touch, they made a mask for their mascot which had more information on C-TAP, the COVID-19 technology access pool:


3. One group of participants re-enacted a fictional conversation between COVID-19, a concerned person, a university, Big Pharma, and the Plague Doctor:

Hawks Action

And many more! With the 2020 U.S. general election capturing the attention of hundreds of millions of individuals around the world, we must not forget that our organizing work must continue throughout and beyond this election, regardless of the outcome. We must continue to fight for access to a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine – as our participants have continued to do.

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Meet a Free the Vaccine Participant: Zeph

Zeph has been a visual artist and also an activist for most of their adult life. They came out of a visual arts background and have worked a lot with grassroots social movements. They spend a lot of time in the streets doing creative, direct action! Read more for wisdom from one of our Season 1 and 2 participants!

What does artistic activism mean to you? 

When I think of artistic activism, I think about bringing creative approaches to campaigns— specifically working with social movements that have concrete goals and objectives, and figuring out creative ways to meet those objectives. I also think about ways to bring radical imagining and more artistic methods to build radical imaginations and sustain communities in a way they are able to continue moving forward. They should be able to build the type of world that they want to be in. I think that it can be a larger goal than for a specific campaign; it can be about building those imaginative muscles. 

Why did you choose to join the Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 campaign?  

I joined because I have been following the work of the Center for Artistic Activism for a while, and I was curious as to how they collaborate their methodologies for working with social justice groups. I wanted to participate in their project and I had less connection to the access to medicines movement. The interesting thing about being in the project is working with students who are really committed to access to medicines. Their set of knowledge and skills and their own understanding of the issue— figuring out how I can bring my creative skillset into the picture to bring those things together feels powerful. 

In your eyes, what are some of the most meaningful moments or actions from the campaign so far?

In our first season, the group that I was working with specifically targeted one researcher. We made him a beautiful, customized sleep mask for him as a gift to try to pique his interest. It did not work— one of the lessons we learned was that they put a lot of effort into one individual. For the new efforts in Season 2, we want to reach an individual who is a decision maker at Arizona, but also somebody who has the ability to reach a wider audience. There is a potential to not only move him, but also use the same approach to talk to students, faculty, and staff at ASU who hopefully will have some attachment to the creative tactics they are using. 

Ideally, what do you hope for other participants, and yourself, to get out of the campaign?

I hope that students who are new to creative advocacy get excited about this approach and start applying it to all the interesting work that they are passionate about. The more people that are thinking creatively about how they can achieve the goals that they are imagining, the more effective work will be happening. It is exciting to see other people getting excited about these tools. For me, it is good practice to be thinking about ways to come with the creative toolset and really collaborate with people who are well-versed in the issues. It is a chance to sharpen my collaborative toolkit. 

See some artwork from Zeph’s website below. Check out their website for more!

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Atmospheres of the Undead: living with viruses, loneliness, and neoliberalism

Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 member, Caitlin Berrigan, published an essay called “Atmospheres of the Undead: living with viruses, loneliness, and neoliberalism” in a new journal called MARCH.

Setting a price for the cure of HCV was the golden spike that has since emboldened pharmaceutical companies to accelerate ever higher prices for “life-saving” treatments and cures.

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The Human Rights Defender: Ishtar Lakhani

Photo of Ishtar Lakhani from Chris Collingridge (Maverick Citizen)

Have you heard the news? A new avenger was just added— the human rights defender. Having participated in both Season 1 and Season 2, she just happens to be a key member of our Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 team. Ishtar Lakhani was recently highlighted as Maverick Citizen’s Friday Activist where her work involving many social justice projects around the globe was covered. 

Ishtar told the crew at Maverick Citizen that her mission is to “break new ground through creativity, humour, and play — putting the ‘fun’ in fundamental rights.” Sound familiar? As an alum of the Center for Artistic Activism, one of the collaborators for the Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 Campaign, Ishtar’s passion lies in creative activism and she brings her knowledge and expertise to advocacy work across several continents.

Ishtar exemplified her work in social justice and creative activism with an ongoing project in Australia. She is working with an organization to help raise awareness about the evolution of women’s rights from the 1920s to now by creating a “real life time machine” that would transport people back to the 1920s. Originally from South Africa, Ishtar has also worked as an advocacy manager for the Sex Workers’ Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), where she fought to decriminalize sex work in South Africa. 

Be sure to check out the rest of the piece highlighting the work that our own resident “freelance troublemaker” Ishtar does here. And keep coming back to hear more about the incredible individuals that make up the Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 team! 

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WATCH: Video from the London Carnival March for a People’s Vaccine!

Watch this video of the march, set to our viral “Jolene” parody track!

The Seal Lab organized this incredible march of 30 demonstrators—the maximum number allowed to gather—in London this past week! From the creative costumes to the brilliant UAEM banner, we’re seeing so much inspiration for future demonstrations. Check out the video and share with your friends!

The march was covered by the BBC (listen to the recording here) as well as in The Telegraph:

And everyone had a great time, as you can tell from the pictures below!

Free vaccines fighting the virus–for the whole world!

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