Without Access to Clean Water, Millions Are in Fear of Contracting COVID-19

By HOM Editor
May 2020

As awareness of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic spread, one of the first directions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to protect yourself from the virus was to wash your hands well (and often) for at least 20 seconds, or while humming Happy Birthday twice. This one singular task seems to be manageable, but that’s not the case for the 780 million people across the globe who don’t have access to clean water. While the lengths some go to for clean water are troubling, during this time of uncertainty the lack of water is not only concerning for those struggling, but dangerous for everyone in their surrounding areas as well.

Not only do many people not have access to a reliable water source, but they also don’t have the space to practice social distancing. Without the means to wash their hands and remain at a safe distance, it is nearly impossible to curb the pandemic in these communities. With no current plan in place, the livelihood of these communities is at risk. Families in these areas typically have to reuse water at home due to the limited supply, although that is off the table now with the CDC’s recommendations. A doctor at Tuba City Regional Health Care Corporation in Arizona, Dr. Jarred McAteer, explains, “It’s really hard to follow [the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s] recommendations of washing your hands if access to water is a challenge and that water is supposed to be used for drinking, for cooking, for livestock.”

The Navajo Nation

The region facing the biggest challenges in the U.S. in regards to the lack of water during this pandemic is the Navajo Nation, where over 300,000 people reside. This territory stretches across Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. As COVID-19 cases have increased, it’s becoming more and more apparent how many households in the Navajo Nation don’t have access to running water. As Laurel Morales of NPR shares, “About 40% of Navajos must drive several miles to haul their water and many still use outhouses.” One particular resident, Shanna Yazzie, has to drive 50 miles to retrieve drinking water, food, and other necessities to bring back home. With the CDC’s instruction to continuously and carefully wash your hands to stay virus-free, Yazzie’s family is going through significantly more water, which results in more trips to town and potential risk.

Another resident of the Navajo Nation, Dr. Michelle Tom, always handles her family’s most vital errands every few days. The frequent trips are the only option as it is costly to fill a water tank — Michelle spends about $95 a week for her family. Now that the virus has erupted across tribal communities, and considering Michelle works at the Winslow Indian Health Care Center urgent care facility treating COVID-19 patients, she had to discontinue physical interactions with her family. Dr. Michelle Tom, along with the mass of other health workers, already has enough uncertainty to face during this global emergency. Running water shouldn’t be another. The community’s limited access to water was a crisis long before the virus reached the area, but it is now causing more than inconveniences; it is threatening lives. Due to the restrictions and inability to both social distance and retrieve water, those living on the Navajo Nation are testing positive for the virus at a rate more than 9 times higher than those in the entire state of Arizona.

The coronavirus has uncovered cracks in various systems in place within the world, and that includes the infrastructure of the Navajo Nation. Mining that began around 75 years ago damaged the infrastructure so badly it destroyed the irrigation and plumbing of the area, which means, in addition to the lack of running water, there are environmental diseases and illnesses that have made residents more susceptible to the virus than most communities. In turn, the underfunded health care system is also being acknowledged. With the current climate shining a light on these prominent issues, they can no longer be ignored.

“While many Americans were put into a state of emergency on March 13, these struggling communities without access to clean, safe, and reliable water are in a constant state of emergency.”

Michelle also mentions that local utilities, where the 175,000 residents have to lug their drinking water from, can sometimes be closed for three days at a time. That means not only do they have to go to extreme lengths for a basic need like water, but they can potentially be out of water for multiple days. Michelle elaborates on her work at the urgent care facility, “We cater to 17,000 Navajo, and people come from Apache, Hopi, as far as three hours away. Our resources are limited. Rural medicine is hard enough. We’ve always been short-staffed in general.”

Beyond The Navajo Nation

While the Navajo Nation is being impacted to a high degree, they’re not the only community facing these issues without access to clean, reliable water. Towns such as Denmark, in South Carolina, have citizens literally begging for help. Local activist and founder of Denmark Citizens for Clean Water, Deanna Miller Berry, receives dozens of emails a day requesting water. Just water. One resident wrote in, “Please help me, I’m stuck in my house and don’t want to drink the water.” While these requests are sadly nothing new for Berry, they have grown a tremendous amount since the coronavirus outbreak. With Berry’s activism role, she helps communities receive clean water, as opposed to the unusable water that has been dripping out of their faucets for as long as they can remember. Denmark’s drinking water has been laced with HaloSan, a pesticide meant to kill bacteria, long before the pandemic. Marc Edwards, a civil engineering professor at Virginia Tech, was uncovering the unsafe water in Flint, Michigan before heading to Denmark to test the town’s water source. His testing was cut short when the mayor rejected his request to test a well for bacterial contamination after he recognized a faulty sewage pipe, so that halted research in 2017 has left many unanswered questions in Denmark.

The mayor of Flint, who has been dealing with the lack of clean water since 2014, declared a state of emergency even before the president of the U.S. did, and also ordered water be reconnected that had been shut off by the former administration. Citizens in dozens of other areas such as Detroit, and even the heavily inhabited Newark, are also fighting for clean water.

Having chemical and lead-free water is absolutely crucial, and during the pandemic it is all the more paramount. This pre-existing critical issue amongst water-poor societies has only been heightened by the coronavirus. While at any given time the lack of clean water and poverty are mutually reinforcing, in today’s current climate it is certainly highlighted. As Marc Edwards says, “It’s just a Catch-22. If [these communities] don’t engage in rigorous hygiene, they’re endangering themselves to coronavirus, and if they do, they’re fearful of the water.” While the public hears of these issues, the severity isn’t expressed in the media. According to a 2018 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, almost 45 million Americans were using water that violated health standards in any given year between 1982 and 2015. While many Americans were put into a state of emergency on March 13, these struggling communities without access to clean, safe, and reliable water are in a constant state of emergency.


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