Pediatric surgeon Ala Stanford waited and waited for someone to enlist her in the fight to combat the worst pandemic in more than 100 years. By the beginning of April 2020, she decided she would have to do her own enlisting, which is how the Black Doctors Covid-19 Consortium came to be. She called her physician friends, medical colleagues, associates, and attracted volunteers who believed fervently that the most vulnerable desperately needed to be tested for the coronavirus. Knowing whether you have it is key to stopping the spread.
By the first week in July, her mobile testing unit had administered Covid-19 tests to more than 6,000 Black people in the Philadelphia area, some weeks and some neighborhoods with positivity rates approaching 24 percent. Most horrifying to her were the stories she heard from those they tested: funeral home directors who were being overrun with bodies and yet were refused testing because they didn’t have a doctor’s referral; folks with no cars who therefore couldn’t access drive-through testing sites; uninsured people who had no regular source of care to provide referrals for testing.
Dr. Ala Stanford, one of the women of They Carried Us, is a woman who met the moment. She grew up, as Poor People’s Campaign Reverend William Barber might say, in a “low-resource household” in Philadelphia. She knew what it was not to have enough. Her early years were challenging, and she chose a profession where she could both earn a secure living and deliver health care to vulnerable Black people. She did not expect to deliver health care against the backdrop of a world-wide pandemic that killed 130,000 Americans in less than four months.
It is haunting that some of the problems Black people are having during the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020 mirror those faced during the deadly 1918 flu pandemic. When the flu first struck, newspapers like the Chicago Defender and the Philadelphia Tribune ran articles claiming that Black people were not as vulnerable to the flu as whites. When it came roaring back in 1918, Jim Crow segregation relegated poor and sick African Americans to poorly resourced segregated hospital settings or closets and basements of white hospitals.
Dr. Vanessa Northington Gamble, another black Philadelphia physician who is both a medical doctor and professor of medical humanities and American studies at George Washington University, describes a situation in 1918 eerily similar to today: “…the number of Black people who got influenza in 1918 overwhelmed the health care and social services institutions that were available to black people. So Black hospitals were overwhelmed. Black nurses were overwhelmed. Things such as the National Urban League, they had volunteers to go into homes to try and take care of people. They were overwhelmed, and especially because the black community, for the most part, was left on its own.”[i]
Although no longer limited to under-resourced segregated institutions, that is exactly what Dr. Ala (as the many patients who managed to get tested by her operation call her) thought in the year 2020: Black people were being left on their own, without knowing who had the coronavirus or how to find out.
There is danger, of course, in identifying Covid-19 as a disease that Black people get. There are many examples of health issues like drug addiction and gun violence that are ignored when they are believed to primarily affect Black people. But unless you know who is likely to be affected, how can you prevent or treat it? Statistics pried out of the Centers for Disease Control by the New York Times reveal that Black people and other people of color are three times as likely to be infected with the coronavirus as whites.[ii]
Which is why Dr. Ala acted. She recruited her colleagues. She contacted city, state, and national politicians to focus attention on the epidemic-within-the-pandemic—the crisis facing Black people who were exposed but somehow could not get tested. She rented a van and recruited her husband (a certified public accountant) to drive it. She got her mother to man the phones. She entreated her pastor to help her set up testing sites in the parking lots of the many trusted black churches in Philadelphia. She asked her brother to serve as the administrator of the operation, scheduling testing sites and setting up media opportunities. She set up a GoFundMe campaign to support the purchase of personal protective equipment and other expenses. In two weeks, she was rolling.
By early June, the City’s Health Commissioner reported that Black Philadelphians accounted for 46 percent of known cases and 51% of deaths.[iii] But since so many Black people were unable to get tested for the virus, these were likely underestimations of its toll. In June, the City signed a $1million contract with Black Doctors, acknowledging that the City’s testing efforts were inadequate.
Dr. Ala remains focused on the needs of the community. “Stop blaming the patient,” she says. And there are three ways for the medical establishment to improve its performance. “Improve access,” she says. “Remove the barriers that keep Black people from being tested.” She also believes that empathy is required. “Listen to what people have to say. You don’t know how or whether they may have been exposed.” And finally: “Take action! Don’t sit around and wonder who’s supposed to be taking care of these problems! Connect people with a source of care. Follow up!”
As she told the Philadelphia Inquirer: “This whole enterprise came from a life of being Black in America and having to wait, of people telling you, `Be patient, don’t worry, help is coming,’” Stanford said. “I was tired of waiting for someone to save us."
When we say, “They Carried Us,” this is what we mean.
_____________________________ [i] Soraya Nadia McDonald, “In 1918 and 2020, Race Colors America’s Response to Epidemics,” The Undefeated (blog), April 1, 2020, https://theundefeated.com/features/in-1918-and-2020-race-colors-americas-response-to-epidemics/. [ii] Richard A. Oppel Jr et al., “The Fullest Look Yet at the Racial Inequity of Coronavirus,” The New York Times, July 5, 2020, sec. U.S., https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/05/us/coronavirus-latinos-african-americans-cdc-data.html. [iii] Wendy Ruderman, “Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium Wins City Funding for Testing after a Reversal,” https://www.inquirer.com, accessed July 9, 2020, https://www.inquirer.com/health/coronavirus/covid-19-coronavirus-testing-african-american-churches-20200609.html.