NYC/Long Island

“I was feeling like little was going to be done, but now I have hope.”

1199SEIU hosted Dr. Jasper Goss, Wendy Verheyden and Ayuba Wabba – trade unionists from West Africa - on July 8 for a panel discussion on the Ebola virus and its effects on the region at the Union’s Manhattan’s headquarters. More than 200 guests turned out for the event.

Moderated by SEIU’s Dr. Toni Lewis, the discussion focused on the virus’ devastation of West Africa’s most vulnerable nations. The guests also talked about the grave consequences for healthcare workers and how they’re rebuilding their countries, their lives and continuing as caregivers.

1199SEIU Pres. George Gresham praised West Africa’s workers, many of whom made ultimate sacrifice in the epidemic and reminded attendees to never forget those who stand on the front lines in protecting the world’s health. During a moment of silence attendees held small electric candles in memory of Africa’s fallen caregivers.

Goss and Verheyden are representatives of Public Services International (PSI), a 20-million member global trade union federation that includes 1199’s parent, the Service Employees International Union. Wabba has led several large healthcare unions in Nigeria. They were in New York City to attend the International Ebola Recovery Conference at the United Nations, which was convened to ensure recovery efforts in West Africa address improved rebuilding and greater resilience for the region’s healthcare systems. Goss, Wabba, Venderheyden and others were at the U.N. to lobby on behalf of public health systems in West Africa and to give voice workers’ rights issues and long-term change.

“One of the things I wanted to point out tonight was that there are situations when we have resources, workers have no rights. And they are losing their lives,” said Wabba. “The minimum standards for working conditions are not being met.”

The panelists shared stories of Ebola overwhelming frontline caregivers, largely in poor, rural areas. Workers were without proper or any supplies and facilities. Funding streams that could have helped went elsewhere or were hindered by bureaucracy. Workers going without pay for months while caring for Ebola patients. Other caregivers dying from the virus, leaving behind orphaned children or destitute families. And as long as all of this was going on within Africa’s borders the world’s developed nations looked away.

“For the world to address Ebola it had to get to a point where it was a global crisis,” said Goss. “It had to get to the point where Europe was going to face a crisis, where North America was going to face a crisis.”

The fight now is to ensure the availability of personal protective equipment, safe working conditions, the availability of resources and a strong health infrastructure. Workers also need social and economic security for themselves and their families. Organizing and unions must play an important role in this, said the panelists. For example, in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, where unions are weak and public healthcare workers cannot legally organize, the World Health Organization reported 5% of all Ebola deaths were among health workers.

“We have to stress the importance of organizing in these challenging conditions,” said Wendy Verheyden. “We can lend our voice to the right to belong to a union. It is a basic right.” “I felt so proud tonight,” said Mercy Karne, a home health aide with New York City’s Best Care Agency, who is originally from Liberia. “It was terrible hearing that my country was going through that, but I want to thank 1199 for this. I was feeling like little was going to be done, but now I have hope. We might be ok.”

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