Opinion: Water shutoffs in Detroit linked to increase in COVID-19 cases

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Recent data from We the People of Detroit show that communities with higher rates of water shutoffs have seen higher numbers of COVID-19 cases per capita this year, says the organization’s CEO and president. (Shutterstock image)

Monica Lewis-Patrick

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last month signed an Executive Order extending Michigan’s moratorium on water shutoffs through December. As Whitmer and more than 30 other state leaders across the United States have come to understand, lack of water access is dangerous to public health. This problem will not go away when the pandemic does, thus they must do more. We urge state and local leaders to implement policy changes that go beyond 2020 to permanently protect water affordability and ensure water access for all. 

At We the People of Detroit, we have been tracking the impact of water shutoffs on Detroit communities since 2014. Our most recent data show that Detroit communities with higher rates of water shutoffs have seen higher numbers of COVID-19 cases per capita this year. The relationship between COVID-19 and water shutoffs becomes clear when we look at cases occurring outside of nursing homes in the most impacted communities, especially on the west side of Detroit where most of the residents are older than 65.

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A study from Michigan State University shows that the number of Americans who will be unable to afford their water bills could reach 35.6 percent by 2022, triple what it was just three years ago. It’s striking to contemplate that more than a third of the U.S. population will be unable to pay their water bills in just two years. This should change how we think about water poverty all around the world, and certainly here at home. It is, and will increasingly be, a major driver of the housing crisis we’re seeing in cities across the country that has grown even worse as a result of the pandemic.  

The COVID-19 pandemic is shining a light on complex and uncomfortable issues affecting our country. Just as COVID-19 is impacting communities of color at much higher rates in the United States, we know that water shutoffs occur more often in our Black communities, including here in Detroit. The practice of water shutoffs represents a long history of systemic racism and structural neglect impacting our communities of color.  

New research from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) shows the disparate impact of water shutoffs on communities of color. According to the data collected locally over the past 10 years, Detroit areas with populations less than 75 percent Black, had on average 60 percent fewer water shutoffs. This disparity increased from 2019-20, during the COVID-19 pandemic. From Jan. 1, 2019 to Jan. 1, 2020 93 percent of water shutoffs in Detroit impacted communities with 75 percent Black residents.

COVID-19 has highlighted two important public health issues in the United States. The first is that access to water in our homes is essential to public health and as such, a human right. Our previous research in collaboration with the Henry Ford Health System shows a correlation between water shutoffs and water-related illness. We have also shown that unaffordable water negatively affects mental health. 

The second is that communities of color are disproportionately affected by public health crises like COVID-19. This pandemic makes it impossible to deny that water shutoffs are a public health hazard and that when you look at who is being denied water and where they live, the shutoffs affect communities of color disproportionately with catastrophic results. As awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality and the killing of unarmed Black people increases, we cannot forget structural and systemic racism which has been the culprit in the deaths of Black people for centuries.

Water access is essential for public health. Although Gov. Whitmer has made a valiant effort to end water shutoffs impacting our most vulnerable residents during this pandemic, we have to do more. Moving forward, we must continue to improve water affordability for all residents and to push for transparency from utilities on service rates and practices so we can better understand and plan for the future.        

We cannot forget the lessons learned from the pandemic and we must continue to change how we think about and support those impacted by water poverty.

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