Op-ed: Northeastern must provide free COVID-19 testing resources to residents of its surrounding communities


Illustration by Edith Olmsted

Northeastern has a health and moral imperative to expand COVID-19 testing resources to local communities.

Edith Olmsted, contributor

Northeastern’s Cabot Testing Center is an amazing facility. Signing up for a test is easy, the process of getting tested runs smoothly and the results come back to students within 36 hours. Many Bostonians do not have access to this quality of testing. There are few testing facilities in the neighborhoods which surround Northeastern — Fenway, Back Bay, South End, Roxbury, Mission Hill and Jamaica Plain — and  are all places Northeastern students also inhabit. Testing is an important preventative measure that can stop the spread of COVID-19. As such, it is time for Northeastern to open up its resources to the residents of these areas.

Many Northeastern students live off-campus in the neighborhoods around Northeastern. They don’t just sleep there — they have communities and jobs, they are consumers and explorers. They have lives that are completely separate from the bubble Northeastern’s campus provides. These students are more likely to come into contact with people who do not have access to regular testing, meaning they are more likely to contract COVID-19. 

Northeastern students who live off-campus are just as likely to contract and spread the virus as any other member of their neighborhood. If anything, we are more likely to socialize and interact with more people than the average person as college students. Northeastern students are culpable for the spread of COVID-19 and harming the communities around them. The measures Northeastern has taken to prevent the spread of the virus are not airtight — students can still be out and about in the community, spreading COVID-19, until they get a positive test result and must self-quarantine. If Northeastern offers its testing resources to non-student residents of our surrounding communities, it will help to offset the harm caused by students who live in these areas by empowering these residents to take preventative safety measures of their own. 

Following this logic, it is also clear that expanding COVID-19 testing resources to our surrounding communities will keep students safe. Students will be less likely to come into contact with contagious residents if the latter has regular access to testing. 

Another reason to provide testing for members of the surrounding communities is that it can begin to repair Northeastern’s legacy of gentrification in Boston. As an urban university, students that attend Northeastern go into the surrounding neighborhoods and bring housing prices up with them. Our majority-white student body displaces and alters the lives of the people in these communities. Northeastern upholds structural racism and classism because it contributes to gentrification. Offering free COVID-19 testing would be a service to the communities that Northeastern harms. 

Northeastern also does not have a history of giving back to the city. For example, Northeastern does not pay the full amount of PILOT, which is Payment in Lieu of Taxes, requested by the city of Boston. PILOT goes toward public goods that all Boston residents, including Northeastern students, make use of. These are resources like roads and fire stations, but could also go to funding educational programs. By supplying COVID-19 testing resources to some members of the city, Northeastern could begin to chip away at the dues it owes to Boston. 

It would also help break down an insidious divide that exists between Northeastern and its surrounding communities. Northeastern students tend to think of themselves as part of the Northeastern “pack,” but not as a part of Boston. We must regard ourselves as residents of the neighborhoods we inhabit because that is what we are. If we fail to do so, we will never feel or act on an obligation to protect the lives of those around us.

That being said, there are many objections to this proposal. Students fear residents coming on campus and “breaking” the bubble. This is a fallacy. Students who live off-campus often return to get tested, and there is no precaution for them. Furthermore, the “closed” campus we have created is an illusion. An urban campus can never truly be closed when people can walk right through it. Students might like to think that “outsiders” are prevented from getting Popeyes and eating in Curry, but ultimately this is not our reality and would be impossible to implement. Viewing non-Northeastern residents of Boston as threats to our safety perpetuates the ‘us vs. them’ divide. This is a dangerous misunderstanding of our relationship with these communities and is a characterization underpinned by racism and classism. 

Another objection is that expanding COVID-19 testing is unfeasible because the infrastructure for doing so does not exist. This is untrue. For example, UC San Diego recently helped to open a vaccination super-station built off of their resources. 

Northeastern’s patient information system must be expanded to allow residents to make accounts containing their information, such as addresses and relevant medical backgrounds. They could then complete relevant requirements like a Daily Wellness Check before arriving on campus to take a COVID-19 test. Using the information Northeastern has on what days and times students and faculty are most likely to get tested on, Northeastern can better manage the capacity of residents who can get tested on any particular day. This might not allow for the fluid testing sign up we are currently accustomed to, but the public good the university would be providing outweighs any slight inconvenience to students.

It was over concerns like these that led Northeastern’s Student Government Association to reject this proposal, written by the Northeastern Chapter of the Roosevelt Network as one of its student referenda questions. This means that the student body will never get to vote on this issue, and it will probably never make it to the ears of the Northeastern administration. Simply put, it is not a priority for Northeastern nor its own students. Beneficence never seems to be. 

Northeastern has an incredible capacity to do good for this city, but we often come up short of our potential. Northeastern students have been unwilling to recognize the harms we commit against our fellow residents. When we “Protect the Pack,” we absolve ourselves of the responsibilities we have to this city and its inhabitants. Until Northeastern as an institution engages with these responsibilities, we continue to uphold the structures of racism and classism that allow us the illusion of being protected in a bubble. It’s time for the bubble to burst. 

Edith Olmsted is a fourth-year politics, philosophy and economics major. She can be reached at [email protected]