Last week, as the COVID-19 death toll continued to climb, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extended a moratorium on water shutoffs across Michigan through the end of this year. It was a decision based on sound science, and it will help the state stop the spread of the coronavirus in our state. People need to be able to wash their hands and clothes and dishes to help keep the deadly virus at bay.
But what will happen once COVID-19 is no longer a threat? There are numerous other health hazards created by the absence of water, and if shutoffs resume, Detroit in particular will retain a public health emergency of a different kind, one that is grounded in chronic poverty and related health problems that affect far too many in the city.
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Detroit did not go from being the home of one of the nation’s largest Black middle-class communities to one of the poorest simply by happenstance. White flight, redlining, urban renewal, state take-overs, municipal bankruptcy, emergency managers, improper mass tax foreclosures, mass water shutoffs and a general population purge to lay the groundwork for wholesale gentrification of the city have all been deliberate attacks on a very tough, resilient Black population.
But the physical health of the community tracks with its economic health, and Detroit has been left reeling. As the community became poorer, it also became sicker, with many, many people dealing unsuccessfully with diabetes, hypertension and assorted autoimmune diseases. A virus set free in such a community was certain to wreak havoc, especially when large segments are too poor to afford the water that they need to practice good hygiene and fend off contagion. When COVID-19 arrived in Detroit, it was comparable to what happens when you toss a match on a carefully constructed pile of dry grass, newspaper, dry twigs and several kegs of gunpowder.
As far back as 2005, Detroit’s poor and their advocates have been trying to get a water affordability plan enacted to prevent shutoffs. Those efforts have intensified since 2013, when the city began drastically ramping up shutoffs as part of the bankruptcy process. In the years since then, service has been cut to more than 140,000 homes. Each of those shutoffs represents a small-scale crisis. People cannot live without water, families can’t function without it, and communities cannot be safe from a host of afflictions if the people living there don’t have water. It is not a revolutionary concept.
“We’ve known that at least since the cholera outbreaks in London in 1854,” said Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician who helped expose the lead contamination of Flint’s water. “We need water to keep our hands and bodies clean, to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.”
While the toll taken by COVID-19 brings a centuries-old scientific fact to the forefront of our thinking, the same science applied before the current outbreak. And it will certainly apply once this pandemic is finally behind us. That is why the ACLU of Michigan, working with a coalition of civil rights organizations, filed a class action lawsuit in federal court last week to make water affordable for all Detroiters, and to permanently end water shutoffs in the city.
It is time to throw the city’s current water pricing and shutoff policies on the dust heap of deeply disturbing practices that contribute to the structural racism our nation is finally attempting to dismantle.
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Doing so won’t be easy. Racism, deeply embedded and permeating all aspects of American life, is at the heart of the water issue. That is quite evident, when stereotypes are trotted out to explain the delinquent accounts of shutoffs victims. They are blamed for making bad financial choices, i.e., buying luxury items instead of paying water bills. Or they are accused of wanting “free” water. People lose access to water …