Covid-19 pandemic shows the need for public health that includes everyone

Dianne Feeley

Posted March 13, 2020

Demonstration against Detroit water shutoffs, 2014 (Photo: Jim West)

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.


2 responses to “Covid-19 pandemic shows the need for public health that includes everyone”

  1. Dianne Avatar

    Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued an emergency order on March 10 because of the pandemic and guaranteed that the state would pay Detroit $25 to turn on the water of those whose water had been disconnected, paying $25 a month for as long as the emergency lasted. By the second week of April water has been restored to 1,005 homes with 125 more to be reconnected as soon as the city repairs their pipes. Given that the average home has 2.6 residents, this means 2600 now have the water they need.

    The water department estimates that of the 9,000 that have been shut off, 68% are vacant homes. However that means there are still 1750 homes without water, or about 4500 residents.

    The shutoff policy is one reason why Detroit is in the eye of the pandemic!

  2. Dianne Avatar

    Here is a demand to stop all evictions, delivered on March 16 to City of Detroit and signed by more than two dozen organizations:

    We are calling on the City of Detroit and the 36th District Court of Michigan to immediately order an emergency moratorium on all evictions until 30 days after the end of the state of emergency recently declared by the State of Michigan as a result of the ongoing public health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, or until 30 days after Detroit’s public schools are opened for regular operation, whichever is later.

    Tenants who have fallen behind in rent during the state of emergency should be given until 45 days after the end of the state of emergency to pay any outstanding rent before facing eviction.

    The 36th District Court has already suspended most civil matters through April 6, 2020, but we do not believe that this goes far enough and believe further measures are needed for reasons stated below.

    Detroit residents are already losing income due to illness and the closure of workplaces. The closure of public schools means that families across the city will now struggle to find ways to feed and care for their children during the day. The closure of work sites means these same families will also face an immediate loss of crucial income.

    It is an entirely foreseeable and understandable consequence that as a result of this crisis, many Detroiters will struggle to make their next rent payment. They should not then face eviction in the midst or in the immediate aftermath of a pandemic.

    Additionally, resuming evictions would exacerbate an already-growing public health crisis. Residents should not have to decide between exposing themselves to crowded courtrooms or having a default judgment entered against them in an eviction case.

    Detroiters should not be forced to change residences at a time when experts are advising all to stay home as much as possible.

    Courts across the state and the country are already suspending or limiting their dockets in response to COVID-19. Governor Gretchen Whitmer has declared a state of emergency across Michigan. The City of Detroit and the 36th District Court of Michigan absolutely have the power to place a moratorium on evictions during this crisis and its aftermath, and the unprecedented circumstances now faced by Detroit’s residents demand it.

    The 36th District Court of Michigan’s decision to suspend most landlord-tenant proceedings through April 6 is not enough. Due to the severe effects that COVID-19 already has had on the health and economic security of our communities, we believe that it would be manifestly unjust to resume evictions during or in the wake of this crisis.

    Detroit Justice Center
    ACLU of Michigan
    United Community Housing Coalition
    Michigan Legal Services
    Detroit Bar Association Access to Justice Committee
    We The People of Detroit
    Detroit People’s Platform
    Detroit Action
    Michigan Welfare Rights Organization
    Center for Civil Justice
    Sugar Law Center
    Detroit Eviction Defense
    Moratorium Now!
    Sunrise Movement Detroit
    Eastern Michigan Environmental Action Council (EMEAC)
    Charlevoix Village Association
    Bridging Communities
    Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD)
    Central Detroit Christian Community Development
    Detroit Jews for Justice
    Dream of Detroit
    Good Jobs Now
    Loveland Technologies
    MACC Development
    Street Democracy
    Neighbors Building Brightmoor