For Dr. Nana Afoh-Manin, there has been a silver lining to the pandemic: Freedom.
As an emergency medicine doctor in Los Angeles, Afoh-Manin has struggled for years with what she and many others believe is an unjust healthcare system that puts people of color at higher risk for disease and delayed treatment. But as an employee in the medical industry — which she describes as both a hierarchy and an old boys’ club — she previously felt hindered in her abilities to fix the problem or provide an alternative.
While still working hospital shifts, Afoh-Manin recently co-founded MyCovidMD, a pop-up that specifically targets Black and brown communities for free coronavirus testing. The endeavor, launched March 2 and aided by a grassroots network of volunteers, gets tests to neighborhoods disproportionately affected by Covid-19. “These are areas where we knew the safety net was already fragile,” she says. Since its inception, her mobile organization has tested 3,500 people and is currently in negotiations with Los Angeles to potentially test 14,000 residents in one of the city’s predominantly African-American districts.
No Justice For Under-Served Patients
Before the pandemic, Afoh-Manin had long been frustrated with inequalities in health care. Working in emergency medicine, she knew that uninsured people from marginalized communities often don’t have their own doctors and seek medical care by coming to the emergency room.
“I remember just sitting and brewing with ideas and opinions about things, and feeling like I didn’t have the space to say anything, because it might jeopardize my career,” she says. Still wanting to make an impact, but separate from medicine, she and fellow doctors Briana DeCuir and Joanne Moreau in 2017 launched Shared Harvest Fund, a social-impact platform designed to reduce student loan debt.
That hummed along until Covid-19 hit — and Afoh-Manin and her co-founders, who are also Black, felt called to action. “We were just struggling with the new reality of knowing that we were part of this health system that was not meeting the mark,” she said.
They pivoted to launch MyCovidMD, quickly raising funds through online platforms and sponsors to set up mobile testing sites in 13 cities in three different states. “We were popping up at churches, coworking spaces, grocery stores,” she says, at one point converting a soul food truck into a mobile testing unit. “We just took advantage of the fact that at this time it was cheap to rent stuff.” The founders also developed a telehealth app to connect under-served communities to free resources in real-time.
One of Afoh-Manin’s early backers was Renee Fraser, founder of $30-million advertising agency Fraser Communications in L.A. “When I saw what Nana was doing I was impressed with her tenacity and clear vision,” says Fraser, who invested $16,000 in MyCovidMD and is helping other investors get involved. “As I saw the data on the disparities in health outcomes among people of color, I was very concerned. MyCovidMD was focused on these neighborhoods and the team is so passionate.”
Changing the Business Model
As the pandemic stretches on, Afoh-Manin and her co-founders are making adjustments to MyCovidMD’s business model. Currently, they’re experimenting with a membership structure, in which small businesses and other enterprises pay a fee to have employees tested and monitored through MyCovidMD; proceeds would be directed toward more community-based testing. Early clients include Blackbird House, a coworking space for women of color in Culver City, California. “It’s evolving,” she says.
The team seems well-situated for making an impact. Thanks to medical connections, Afoh-Manin says the doctors were able to source reliable Covid tests through a secure supply chain. While Afoh-Manin is in Los Angeles, DeCuir is based in Chicago and Moreau is in New York, creating an almost instant reach around the country. Their work has already been covered by NPR, Reuters and Forbes. And perhaps most importantly, neighborhoods have accepted them. “When we pop up, people see providers that look like them,” she says. “That makes a difference.”
Still, as a woman of color, Afoh-Manin is aware of challenges she might face to win greater support and funding. She’s heartened by the changes she’s seeing, particularly since the protests began over unjust treatment of Black Americans. While before she sometimes felt suffocated, “what’s different now is you don’t feel the muzzle anymore,” she says. “You can say when something doesn’t make sense, such as ‘we are not doing justice for Black and brown patients — this is not right.’ To have your colleagues agree with you and say ‘you’re damn right this is wrong,’ that is exciting.”
This article has been updated to provide more information on MyCovidMD’s model and corrected to describe founders’ occupations.