“I can’t get tested?” 

That was my incredulous response when my primary care doctor at a major medical facility said I couldn’t get a COVID-19 test. I was quickly informed that there were no tests readily available at that time. Those that would be given were only administered with a doctor’s recommendation, and only to those at the highest medical risk. But that wasn’t all. The test, she said, if approved, would then have to be ordered. How much time would that take? A shrug.

The instant the COVID-19 crisis hit, the great fear was that African Americans would be last in line to get tested. The fear wasn’t unfounded. There’s an ugly history of stupendous chronic neglect of the health needs of blacks, especially the black poor.

There’s the equally well-documented history of the implicit bias of many medical practitioners and doctors toward African-American patients. A willingness to ignore or downplay the symptoms and need for treatment of illnesses among African American patients. Blacks have been by far at the greatest risk from every major health threat. The list of these conditions can fill out a medical textbook. There is a direct cause and effect between the astronomical disparities in illness and death from these afflictions and the lack of proper screening and testing availability and affordability.

COVID-19 presented special challenges to poor black communities. The first challenge was one that the general public faced. That is when would the tests be available? The message from Trump, medical professionals, the CDC and just about anyone else with knowledge of tests and the procedures was confused, mixed, even contradictory. The bottom line was there would be a big lag time before the tests would be widely available.

The next challenge was the question of where the tests would be available. The message on this was also mixed, with much uncertainly about the priorities of who would be tested. The press reports that high-profile celebs such as Tom Hanks, Idris Elba, NBA and NFL players, US Sen. Rand Paul, even convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein got tested without delay, heightening suspicions that there was indeed a pecking order involved.

Then there was the cost. Trump and Congress seemingly took that concern off the table when the emergency stimulus package to combat the crisis promised that the government would foot the bill to ensure that testing would be free. But even testing at no cost meant little if testing wasn’t readily available. The initial numbers where testing was available weren’t promising. With much fanfare Vice President Mike Pence noted that a half-million had been tested after three weeks. This was barely a blip on the chart. Many public and health officials resigned themselves to the fact that testing would be severely limited and that the only recourse for people, even if they had the symptoms, was to self-quarantine at home.

This didn’t address the question of who would get the tests. The great danger in shortchanging testing among the most vulnerable group in the population to illness — blacks — is that the absence of testing could have disastrous health consequences for the general population. Disease and afflictions can’t be walled off among one group. There is too much interaction across the population lines for that.

Prompt testing of blacks and lower-income groups that have greater susceptibility because of poverty, poor nutrition and lack of access to health care greatly increase the danger to the general population. It also does not allow doctors and medical researchers to collect the data to determine what types of preventive and public health safeguards need to be put in place to prevent further spread of the infection.

Some medical institutions such as Johns Hopkins recognize the need for accurate information on who is at greatest risk from COVID-19. However, the studies have been done almost exclusively based on gender, age, and to an extent location, but not race. In Los Angeles and New York City, with majority minority populations, residents will only be tested if a doctor recommends testing. But what if there is no doctor and or nearby treatment facility to get that doctor’s recommendation?

This is the Catch 22 for most blacks, including those who do exhibit symptoms and are aged and have chronic medical preconditions that tag them among the most at risk of infection.

As the numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths climb, the pressure will mount for expanded testing to determine who has the infection and its potential health effects on all. But more tests still won’t answer whether blacks will be at the front of the line for those procedures. That’s a question that all of us have a vital stake in making sure is answered. 


Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of “What’s Right and Wrong with the Electoral College” (Middle Passage Press). He is also an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of “The Al Sharpton Show” on Radio One and the host of the weekly “Hutchinson Report” on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.