Posted March 13, 2020
What the global pandemic clearly shows is the need for public health that includes everyone — not just those who can afford to pay. The refusal of public officials to prioritize health, citing the cost, along with the shutdown of public research into infectious diseases, has left the United States population in a vulnerable situation.
The Trump administration insists that everything is under control, but the truth is that this country is unprepared to deal with the Covid-19 virus, which spreads easily and is difficult to detect. The pandemic shows the foolishness of Trump’s remark that his administration has cut the budgets of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health because, as a businessman, he doesn’t like to see medical personnel “hanging around.”
Putting Mike Pence in charge of the federal response, given his criminally negligent response to the HIV outbreak when he was governor of Indiana, has not been reassuring, particularly because scientists working in federal agencies are to clear their statements through his office. Transparency is absolutely necessary in developing a response.
The most essential components in a plan where the virus easily spreads is that people frequently wash their hands. Even before the warnings of a coming pandemic, the lack of reliable water in homes and among the growing homeless population is linked to a host of problems from dehydration, skin rashes, infections, sewerage issues.
In my city, Detroit, 40% of residents live in poverty and suffer from high rates of asthma, lead poisoning, diabetes, infant and maternal mortality deaths. Yet since the bankruptcy was forced upon Detroit, the water department-imposed shutoffs for homeowners two months behind on their payment. Currently the average monthly bill is $77.
Since 2014 there have been 141,000 shutoffs. Most manage to get reconnected — although it takes the average of a month to do so. At the beginning of 2020 as many as 9500 homeowners were without running water. There is no estimate for the number of homeless who have no regular access.
Michigan Health Director Robert Gordon, as quoted in the online Bridge magazine article, wrote that while a water shutoff results in a significant problem to residents that does not “rise to the level of an imminent danger” because data doesn’t indicate “a causal association between water shutoffs and water-borne disease.”
Until the Covid-19 virus spread to more than half the states, Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) denied the petition to end shutoffs because of an emergency. Meanwhile Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration (D) downplayed the problem. Only on March 9 did the governor declare a moratorium on shutoffs and announce that the state will pay the water department $25 to restore service to all households for 30 days. The mayor agreed to the proposal and stated that homeowners could then pay $25 a month on their debt to keep their service while the crisis continues. That is, this is a minimal fix.
Mary Ellen Howard, a retired nurse and Sister of Mercy, active with the People’s Water Board pointed out that long before the spread of Corvid-19, data from the Detroit Health Department showed that people who lived on blocks with water shutoffs had 150% greater chance of contracting various diseases. She noted that while the governor’s move was important for public health at this point in time, in fact “we still need low-income based water bills for vulnerable residents to ensure long term, public health care protection.”
Medical care for all, with scientists leading campaigns to walk us through this moment, are essential. High infant mortality and maternity rates, health problems because of lead, CO2 emissions and industrial agriculture and the declining rates of vaccination all point to building health care programs that exclude no one. Clearly if one of us is infectious, all of us are susceptible. This is true nationally; it is also true globally. At this stark moment we can see our vulnerability — let’s not leave anyone out in the cold, unable to pay for testing, medication or forced to go into work sick.
Here is an example of a labor coalition in Chicago making a range of demands about what needs to be done to help people through this pandemic: Citing coronavirus, labor coalition demands 15 days paid sick leave, triple the city mandate.
Coalitions and organizations in several cities are putting forth their specific demands around access to water and a moratorium on foreclosures.
Bernie Sanders recently convened a panel to discuss the issues with several scientists. The demands he stressed were the right of people who suspect they may have the virus to be tested without requiring payment, the right of all to receive the vaccination when it becomes available for free.