For Barbara, a 71-year-old grandmother caring for seven young children inside her Detroit home, daily life has boiled down to a vital quest to seek out and conserve clean water amid the coronavirus pandemic after she says her water was shut off last month.
Barbara, who requested her last name be withheld to protect her financial privacy, told ABC News the Detroit Water and Sewage Department cut off her service after she failed to pay her utility bill for several months, and accrued a delinquent balance of roughly $2,000. The retiree is on a fixed income and said that sometimes it is tough to make ends meet.
She has tried to limit her family's use of bottled water, but with nine people in the household all home during this period of social distancing, that has become an incredible challenge. The family consumes about 15-20 cases of bottled water every two weeks.
“We try to use the least amount as possible,” the Wayne County native said. Her family tries to use only one case of 28 water bottles, 16-ounces each, per day. They use the bottled water to cook, clean, wash their clothes and bathe.
“We use some and whatever is left over, we boil it and reuse the water,” she said. To help ration the water use, bathing is limited to three times a week, per person.
When water is hard to come by
The Centers for Disease Control has recommended for months that Americans frequently wash their hands to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. However, for people like Barbara and her family and others without access to clean water, hand washing and daily hygiene remain a major struggle, now more than ever.
Approximately two million Americans do not have access to running water, according to a report from the U.S. Water Alliance published last year and the problem is especially acute in rural and urban communities. Experts say these challenges have been exacerbated during the pandemic and left vulnerable communities prone to contracting the disease.
“We know that the most important thing that people can do while social distancing is washing their hands and people who don't have running water in the home simply cannot do that...So not having access to water is one of the things that we feared most would perpetuate an infectious disease outbreak,” said Dr. Nadia Gaber, a medical anthropologist and physician-scientist trainee the University of California San Francisco and researcher at the We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective, a collaboration of community activists, academics, and researchers working to aggregate data on water, land, and education inequality in the Detroit.
“There are many ways in which people have become creative, out of necessity, in terms of how to maximize the water that they have available, but it's incredibly restricting,” she added.
Michigan has the fourth-highest number of coronavirus cases in the U.S., and Wayne County, home to downtown Detroit, has 6,176 cases alone, making the county one of the most deadly hot-spots, according to the Michigan Department of Health.
The state’s racial data on coronavirus cases reveals an even more grim and disproportionate vulnerability for African Americans. While blacks make up only 14% of Michigan’s population, they comprise 33% of overall coronavirus cases and 40% of coronavirus deaths in the state.
Nationally, black Americans make up 30% of overall coronavirus cases, though they make up 13% of the population.
So when water stocks run low, Barbara, who is African American and her long-time neighbors who also don’t have running water, take every precaution to practice social distancing while sharing water to meet their basic needs.
“I have a big old note on my door that says, ‘no visitors allowed.’ And what we do is, if the neighbors want something from us, we'll set it on the porch, and then they'll come to get it. And vice versa. I don’t come into contact with people. I'm really scared,” Barbara said.
Experts are concerned that a lack of clean water due to previous water and utility shutoffs, could be exacerbating the racial disparities in coronavirus virus cases and deaths.
The Henry Ford Global Health Initiative examined the impacts of residents with water shutoffs and concluded in a study released in April 2017 that residents who had their water shutoff were more socially vulnerable and more prone to contracting infectious diseases.
“The effect of living on a block that has been affected by shutoffs results in the increased likelihood that patients will be diagnosed with water-associated illnesses,” the study concluded.
“It makes sense given what we know about water-related diseases, the spread of infectious disease and safe water treatment, that these handwashing practices and home hygiene are essential to curbing the spread of infectious diseases, many of which we hadn't seen in decades. But did it begin to creep up as the water shutoffs began, and they all have their epicenter in Detroit… there's probable data that says yes, the communities that are being hit [hardest by Coronavirus] are those don't have access to water,” Gaber said.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced the Water Restart Plan, a program to temporarily restore water services during the COVID-19 pandemic and help mitigate the potential spread of the disease in a city where 36% of the population lives in poverty. The launch happened as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order to halt new water shutoffs across the state.
"The only residents of Detroit who should not have water on are those who don't reach out," Duggan said during the announcement of his plan on March 9.
Residents without water or those who have an imminent service interruption are asked to call to make an appointment with Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency. DWSD will begin the process of restoring service and after the first month, residents will be required to pay the $25 per month until the COVID-19 outbreak passes.
At least 30,000 people have called in DWSD customer service since the launch of the program on March 11, according to the Detroit Water and Sewage Department, though many of the calls were from customers looking to get a reduced bill. So far 1,130 have had their water turned on, and only 10 households are left without water, according to the department’s internal records.
“We've done a tremendous amount of outreach and media coverage to get this word out. Set up the call center to handle these calls and do the intake. We hired plumbers. We don't see that many people still without line service, said Bryan Peckinpaugh, deputy director of Public Affairs for Detroit Water and Sewage.
“We made sure to do things such as giving many community groups fliers and getting them translated to different languages so they could be passed out. We did a lot of social media advertising and web advertising we did. We 9000 door hangers and when we door-knocked, we informed people about the restart program,” he added.
Barbara told ABC News she plans to apply for the program; however, she says connecting with an agent has been difficult after calling several times and getting a busy signal.
A water crisis in the nation's shadows
As the U.S. hunkers down under stay-at-home orders, a lack of reliable, clean water has made daily life even harder for many residents in other parts of the country that have long faced issues with such as Flint, Michigan and rural stretches in the South and Southwest and water access.
Other areas in the U.S. with water disparities are emerging as deadly coronavirus hot spots, including areas with high Native American populations in New Mexico. Johnathan Nez, president of Navajo Nation issued a shelter-in-place order earlier this month after warning President Trump that the rampant spread of COVID-19 could “wipe out” tribals nation if left without intervention.
For years, dozens of people who live in the small town in Denmark about an hour south of Columbia, have been driving 20 miles to the to get drinking water from God’s Acre Healing Springs, a historic landmark in Blackville, after a non-EPA approved chemical was put into their local water supply.
“In Denmark, it's like a warzone. You have residents who walk around conducting business as usual and doing their day to day because the residents have become so used to crisis,” said Deanna Miller Berry, Founder of Citizens for Denmark, a local water advocacy group provides drinking water for residents.
She is one of the plaintiffs in one of several class-action lawsuits against the city wending through the court that mentions the use of HaloSan, a chemical normally used in pools, to treat the public wells. Though the State Department of Health and Environment Control initially approved the use of the non-EPA approved substance, Denmark was ordered to end the use of the chemical in 2018 after residents complained.
“We like many other cities and places across this country not only have this pandemic to worry about but a water crisis on top of that,” she continued.
Remella Duncan has lived in Denmark for most of her life, and like many of her neighbors in the town where, according to the U.S. Census, 20% of the population is disabled, she has developed severe health conditions including kidney disease, high blood pressure, diseases that leave her vulnerable to fatal contraction of COVID-19.
“Some mornings when you turn on the water, there's a smell... It can smell like sewage one day, and it can smell like the beach the next day, when I know that I'm nowhere near the beach,”
Duncan does not have her own car and would usually rely on carpooling with family, or neighbors, to the park and its fresh tap for better water, but since the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak and the enforcement of social distancing, carpooling has come to a halt.
“Right now we're almost at a standstill because this COVID has us and we don't have the resources here in Denmark that we need. Our local officials are not reaching out to different government organizations to let them know that we need help here.” Duncan said.
Denmark Mayor David E. Wright has maintained that the water is safe for consumption and that the city is in compliance with drinking water standards under the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act. Still, mistrust lingers among residents and late last year the South Carolina Rural Infrastructure Authority approved a $1.6 million grant to replace the water system after years of enduring subsequent health complications from people in town rumored to be related to the water issue.
With the help of local donors and a team of volunteers, Berry, the community water activist, is now safely providing water coolers to vulnerable families and elderly residents who have no access to transportation to retrieve safe water amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“We're not waiting for people. We're not waiting for our elected officials.
We're not waiting for agencies to help us with the pandemic that we're all dealing with globally and also with our water crisis locally,” Berry said.
“We are showing citizen power, taking care of one another during this time of distress,” she added.