Guest statements

‘PPE for the People’ campaign to produce and distribute masks in Boston

The South End Technology Center @ Tent City and the Boston branch of the Party for Socialism and Liberation announce our campaign, “PPE for the People.” We are producing and distributing protective masks to frontline workers and people living in Boston’s oppressed communities, who are suffering disproportionately during this COVID-19 pandemic.

As Mel King, the founder of SETC always says, we want a city and a world that works for everyone. We cannot stand by and watch as this crisis lays bare the profound inequity and injustice in our city and country for all to see. Our Love for the People calls us into action; to both serve our communities and raise demands for a new form of society organized around human needs, rather than corporate profits.

a volunteer sews olsen masks at a sewing machine.
PSL and SETC volunteers make masks. Photo by South End Technology Center. Used with permission.

Both in Boston and across the country, new data reveals an alarming trend that COVID-19 is infecting and killing people of color at a disproportionately higher rate. As the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams recently pointed out, Black, Latino and Native American people are not biologically or genetically predisposed to get COVID-19. People of color are predisposed to higher risk of exposure because most do not have jobs that allow them to work from home; because of inequities in healthcare and income that make them more likely to suffer diseases that put them at risk for severe complications from the virus; because — in the case of those living in places like the Navajo Nation and Detroit — they experience a lack of access to water for recommended frequent hand-washing. As of April 9, in Boston, 72% of those who have tested positive COVID-19 are people of color.

The question of wearing masks is also complicated by racism. People of color are increasingly saying that they don’t feel safe wearing masks. In a Boston Globe op-ed, Aaron Thomas wrote that the practice “could lead to unintended attention, and ultimately a life-or-death situation…[and that] the fear of being mistaken for an armed robber or assailant is greater than the fear of contracting COVID-19.”  On the other hand, on April 11, a man in Philadelphia was dragged off of a public bus by police for not wearing a mask. This pandemic is shaped by capitalism and racism, and the fight against racism must be at the top of the list of priorities for any COVID-19 response.

Overall, as COVID-19 continues to rapidly spread in Massachusetts, workers in health care, grocery, custodial, food service and other sectors have clearly expressed their desperate need for personal protective equipment, including masks. Some of our most vulnerable such as elders, returning citizens and folks in recovery also have expressed needs. Additionally, on April 3, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially recommended that all individuals wear face coverings in public settings where social distancing is difficult to maintain, as it is in cities like Boston. Clearly, the need for protective masks and the need to address the inequities and injustices at work in our community is dire, and demand will only increase as Massachusetts approaches its COVID-19 “surge.”

SETC youth, staff and volunteers, along with PSL organizers are fabricating four types of masks with laser cutters, 3D printers and sewing machines in Fab Lab Boston:

  • 3D printed face shields with clear protective covers
  • sewn Olson face masks with filters inserted in pockets that can be fitted with skin-safe double-sided tape for those at higher risk for exposure
  • sewn face masks for everyday use by the people
  • and 3D printed N95-style masks that have demonstrated a potential to pass fit tests with proper filtering.
A young man wears a 3d printed face mask and holds two hand sewn masks
Photo by the South End Technology Center. Used with permission.

PPE for the People has already provided over 150 masks to people like the residents and Community Table workers at the Haley House, who are serving 70 free meals per day during the pandemic, to workers in the temporary shelter tents set up for people experiencing homelessness in Lower Roxbury, to young people distributing meals to elders at Madison Park, to nurses, to grocery workers, to families living in subsidized housing and to workers serving students with disabilities. The campaign will be expanding distribution in the coming days and weeks. Essential workers and families, particularly in Grove Hall, South End and Roxbury, are encouraged to reach out if their work and/or living conditions puts them in need of protective masks.

While the PPE for the People will do everything in its power to provide masks to those who need them, the campaign will inevitably be limited in scope. Neither the SETC nor the PSL — or the entire network of Boston area Fab Labs and makerspaces — have the manufacturing capacity to meet the vast need for masks in Boston. Ultimately, the responsibility and moral imperative for addressing this crisis falls on the U.S. government. Both Governor Baker and Donald Trump have special powers to take immediate action on this issue. As reported by The Boston Globe, the state of emergency currently in place in Massachusetts allows Governor Baker to “take possession (1) of any land or building, machinery or equipment…which may be necessary or convenient… for the better protection or welfare of the commonwealth or its inhabitants.” The Defense Production Act of 1950 grants President Trump similar powers to rapidly ramp up the production of critical goods, as well as set price controls, nationally. Organizations including the Party for Socialism and Liberation and at least 18 U.S. Senators have called upon President Trump to fully invoke the Defense Production Act.

A massive intervention is required to slow the spread of this pandemic and reverse the disproportionate impact it is having on oppressed populations. To this end, the organizers of “PPE for the People” demand the following:

  • The state and federal governments must compel companies that otherwise prioritize their profits over societal wellbeing to produce critical goods: COVID-19 test kits, ventilators, protective equipment and medical equipment at cost to meet the urgent need.
  • Provide free testing for the whole population.
  • Free testing only works with free treatment. Healthcare must be provided for free for all.
  • All essential workers must be provided PPE, paid sick leave, and hazard pay.
  • Provide secure housing for all. Empty dwellings should be immediately seized to provide shelter for all people without housing.
  • Release massive numbers of incarcerated people including but not limited to those in pretrial detention, elderly and other at-risk prisoners, and ICE detainees.
  • Native reservations, Black, Latino and other oppressed communities must be guaranteed equal access to treatment.

Our collective goal is that this city, our communities and world WORK FOR EVERYONE. The goal is NOT a return to what was “normal” before the pandemic. We believe that this crisis gives us the opportunity and moral imperative to change the persistent injustice and inequities exposed by this pandemic. This is, as theologian and Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign Liz Theoharis has pointed out, “a call to come together in new ways in order to survive, hold the powerful responsible for their unjust policies and the lies they’ve told to cover up injustice, and rebuild on foundations of love and justice” (Sojourners Newsletter). PPE for the People will be a local outlet for community and solidarity, and a step on the path towards a total transformation of our society.

For more information, follow the SETC and PSL on social media. Facebook:; Instagram: @southendtechnology center, @bostonpsl; Twitter: @zackboston.

Media contacts: Susan Klimczak and Michael King (SETC, [email protected] & [email protected], 617-578-0597), and Joe Tache (PSL, [email protected], 617-297-8372).

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