human right

Reversing Water Shut-Offs Helps Vulnerable Families During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Aleia Maria Dela Cuadra

June 11, 2020 • 5 min read

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Table of Contents

Reversing water shut-offs can promote handwashing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Water shut-offs in Detroit show unequal access to water and environmental racism.
This trend extends beyond Detroit, Michigan.
Now more than ever, access to clean water is essential for adequate public health and growth as a community.

While news outlets continue to cover updates on the COVID-19 pandemic, there is still inadequate discussion of possible and scientifically-backed solutions to stop the spread of the virus. This proves to be problematic because while medical experts are working night and day in healing patients and searching for a vaccine, everyone else is held accountable in doing their part to prevent the spread. But what if they can’t? What happens to victims of sanitation injustice? Many marginalized (mostly low-income) communities before the pandemic were deprived access to clean running water. Now, they are suffering through staggering numbers of cases because they don’t have adequate sanitation to wash their hands. According to experts, regular handwashing is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of the virus.


Reversing water shut-offs can promote handwashing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

A proposed solution to this is reversing water shut-offs. This means that families who couldn’t previously afford their water bills could access alternate payment plans. An example of this is in Detroit, Michigan. In 2019, over 20,000 predominantly African-American and low-income families had already been experiencing water shut-offs for years and gradually learned to cope without running water. Reports show that the number of families affected had been increasing over the years and that water companies continued to charge households despite shutting off water services. Thus, residents also suffered the consequences of being deprived of clean running water, such as disease and infections. One woman said that she had contracted bacterial pneumonia following the water shut-offs. According to the ACLU, people were falling ill as they resorted to drinking rainwater.

When COVID-19 broke out, handwashing was recognized as one of the most effective ways for people to prevent the spread and protect themselves. As more cases showed up in Detroit and the state governor declared a state of emergency, community members pressured officials to suspend water shut-offs. Eventually, the state agreed to help fund water services at discounted prices.


Water shut-offs in Detroit show unequal access to water and environmental racism.

This situation is also an example of environmental racism. It is no coincidence that the community that is most affected is African-American. There is clearly a history of neglect that hindered the economic and social growth of the community. Additionally, we already see the consequences of the issue as more African-Americans are dying due to the virus. Research shows that these communities also have more exposure to the virus through the essential jobs that they occupy. Access to clean water should not only be seen as a means to wash clothes or wash hands. It is essential for the growth and well-being of the community. By providing the tools to maintain proper health and hygiene, people are granted dignity and recognized as important members of society. By excluding low-income communities and continuing to perpetuate marginalization, politicians play an active role in committing environmental injustice and racism. Thus, it is essential that we continuously advocate to repair the social issues that permeate water policies.


This trend extends beyond Detroit, Michigan.

Furthermore, we see this trend in other cities across the U.S. In Buffalo, New York, legal representatives and organizations are standing up for city residents living without water during the pandemic. One man, in particular, was subject to being exposed to the virus as he was immunocompromised because of numerous illnesses. When his water was shut off, he had to make weekly trips to the store to buy water. City officials are currently making an effort to reach out to citizens who need running water. However, there are still communicative obstacles that are in the way, especially for people without phones and computers. Proper plumbing systems were also required in order to get water turned on again. For people who are most vulnerable and financially constricted, there is little accommodation to helping them in this pandemic.


Now more than ever, access to clean water is essential for adequate public health and growth as a community.

Access to clean water is a human right; it is essential for the common good. However, access to clean water was only provided and discussed when the pandemic occurred. Who knows when Detroit citizens would’ve been able to get running water if the pandemic hadn’t happened? In addition, the sheer numbers of families who couldn’t afford their water bills shows a clear financial need but options weren’t explored before. In fact, they were forced to pay the highest rates in the Great Lakes region. This new plan also shows that it was within the water companies’ capacity to offer these more affordable options but refused. Had it not been for the action of community members who advocated reversing the water shut-offs, water might not have been restored.

Solutions and preventive measures require meticulous planning. Policies and planning are important in shaping a more equal future. In forming these policies, the people most affected should have democratic power in the creation and maintenance of them. By using a social justice and human rights lens to analyze these issues, we can utilize our ever-changing circumstances and creativity to develop solutions that could help everyone. Instead of this pandemic becoming an opportunity to divide people and let social inequality continue, we should use this time to set up a better future. This is the only way to overcome this pandemic together.


About the Author


Aleia Maria Dela Cuadra

Aleia is a junior and University of California Santa Cruz with a Sociology major and Anthropology minor. She is interested in studying race relations and political activism in the Philippines. In high school, she received her IGETC certification from Southwestern College. In the upcoming Winter quarter, she will be leading a class on Pilipinx history. Currently, she resides in San Diego and loves to bake, sew, and eat new foods.




Goodman, Brenda, and MA. “Hand-Washing to Prevent Coronavirus Spread.” WebMD, -14 May 2020,

Lakhani, Nina. “Detroit Suspends Water Shutoffs over Covid-19 Fears.” The Guardian, 12 Mar. 2020,

Smith, Heather. “Is This Why Detroiters Are Dying From the Coronavirus?” Sierra Club, 24 Apr. 2020, Accessed 6 May 2020.

Williams, Deidre. “Critics Want Water Shut-Offs Reversed, but City Says Residents Must Call First.” The Buffalo News, 23 Mar. 2020, Accessed 6 May 2020.

Zamudio, Maria. “A Water Crisis Is Growing In A Place You’d Least Expect It.” NPR.Org, 8 Feb. 2019, Accessed 6 May 2020.



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