Out Loud–Raising our Voices for Access to Medicine

July 02, 2015

By Sherie Newcomb

The day prior to the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) protest in Washington, D.C., I had rehearsed in my head the way I anticipated the day and the votes would unfold. The day of the event I met with another AMSA activist and traveled by train to meet with other global advocates from various organizations, many of who had traveled from afar. My emotions were heightened as the activists began to appear in miniature droves. Student Global AIDS Campaign (SGAC), Partners in Health (PIH), Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM), GlobeMed,Article25, and HealthGAP; along with other organizations that represent the movement, Flush the TPP. Many of them wore shirts that boldly expressed their complex concerns about the information leaked in the Transpacific Partnership (TPP), such as dangerous reductions in environmental and food regulations, and intellectual property provisions that threaten access to generic medications.

These activists had brought artistic and thoughtful expressions plastered on poster boards. Many onlookers at Union Station could not refrain from staring at us as we openly constructed the last of our signs. We were now ready!

phoneimport2015 1405

Activists gathered near the Russell Senate Building to protest the TPA

We all headed towards the Russell Senate Office Building to meet more activists. To my surprise, there were people of all ages, backgrounds, and colors there to hopefully change the minds of at least two senators it would take to swing the vote and stop TPA.

Everyone huddled around our group’s spokesperson on the street behind the senate office buildings, as we began to rehearse our chants, sound our drums, and blow our whistles. “Hey senate you can’t hide, we can your corporate side!” then, “No Fast Track, no way, not ever, not today,” and then, “Vote no on Fast Track, we want our democracy back!” Our group was geared up and ready to deliver our message to our elected officials. As we rallied directly beside the senate buildings, our anti-TPA/TPP banners began to wave back and forth, and our voices one by one penetrated through the walls and into the offices. We could see officials within the buildings peaking through their blinds, some photographing this epic moment, and others rushing out of their offices and onto the ledge of the building to investigate.

My arms grew tired from holding up the sign, my voice grew faint from chanting, and the energy from the sun began to slowly dismantle my enthusiasm, but I began to think about the damaging effects of the trade agreements that TPA would speed along–damage to our environment and harm to the most vulnerable groups of people. Until recently, I did not understand the potential devastating effects of this trade agreement and the secrecy that envelops it. But, the more I learned, the more baffled I became. Why should major corporations be invited to negotiate terms of a trade agreement while civil society groups are kept out? Just the thought of promoting labor practices that amount to human rights abuse, more reduction to freedom of speech (including internet censorship), and more barriers to access to essential medications for the most vulnerable populations, poor nations, and senior citizens caused me to raise my voice with more passion and continue to march alongside other global health advocates.

Students and supporters from AMSA, Student Global AIDS Campaign (SGAC), Partners in Health Engage (PIH), Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM), GlobeMed, HealthGAP, and Article 25 joined activists from Flush the TPP to protest the passage of “Fast Track” Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) last Tuesday, June 23.

It was Alexander Woollcott that said, “I’m tired of hearing it said that democracy doesn’t work. Of course it doesn’t work. We are supposed to work it.” Advocates against the TPA across the states have been working democracy this past week, delivering their messages across the states through rallies, blogs, social media, and phone calls. Members of the AMSA Aids Advocacy Network recently published an opinion piece in “The Hill” the morning of the protest to try to persuade Virginia Senators Kaine and Warner not to give in to the desires of major corporations and to act on the best interest of the people in Virginia by opposing passage of TPA.

Unfortunately, despite these efforts, the Senate voted 60-37 last Tuesday to approve TPA, fast track trade authority, which will grant the president the power to approve trade deals without amendment and will ease the passage of deals like the TPP, the biggest trade deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with even further reaching impacts. Due in part to our efforts and the efforts of activists around the country, Ted Cruz and Democrat Ben Cardin changed their votes from an initial vote supporting TPA a few weeks ago, to an opposition vote on Tuesday. Unfortunately, TPA did still pass, by just enough votes to push through and make it to the President’s desk.

Like many other Americans and others around the world, I know what it feels like to go without, whether it’s food, housing, or medicine despite working to make ends meet. Serving as a participant in this rally against the TPA was personal for me. I felt as if I was taking action for others who may not understand the devastating effects of this legislature. As future physicians we must remember that we were called to be defenders of the poor and voices for the defenseless. “What do we do when our democracy is under attack? We stand up–fight back!”

Sherie Newcomb is a member of the AMSA AIDS Advocacy Network.

Update: The fight now moves to opposing the TPP, which will undoubtedly come before Congress in the coming months. AMSA will continue to advocate for access to essential medicines and access to healthy environments for those around the world.