Bankole: Water should be free throughout the pandemic

Bankole Thompson

If there is one thing the coronavirus outbreak has demonstrated so far, it is that government can halt any action that may be a burden on taxpayers during a pandemic.

The threat to public health has shown how government officials are willing to stretch the limits of government to contain the spread of the virus. 

Vice President Joe Biden and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan talk to the media after eating dinner at Cafe Roma in Detroit on Jan. 15, 2014.

For example, take Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree, who announced this week that there will be no more foreclosures for the rest of the year. Or take Detroit’s 36th District Court which has ended all evictions till further notice.

Even President Donald Trump, is no longer treating this outbreak as a hoax or downplaying its impact. The president is working with Congress on an economic rescue package to aid those who have lost their jobs due to shutdowns. 

But that sense of urgency to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, which experts say can be reduced through proper and frequent handwashing, seems to be lost at the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, which recently announced a 30-day moratorium on water shutoffs because of the pandemic.

Since the moratorium went into effect on the same day that former Vice President Joe Biden visited Detroit, officials have moved at a slow pace to turn water back on for poor residents. The DSWD blamed a number of factors for the delay.

Gary Brown, the executive director of DWSD, said: “Water restoration is not as simple as flipping a switch. Many of the homes DWSD crews encountered had no water meters, needed plumbing repairs before turn on, and/or had buried stop boxes where the turn-on valve is located in the front yard. If there is an active water meter, plumbing with no leaks and an exposed stop box, it will take the crew 20 minutes at each home to perform a turn-on. However, in many cases more than one hour is spent at each house due to the aforementioned issues.”

Brown said of the 3,836 calls his department received last Saturday that “19% had water off and were eligible to have it restored.

Of those 717 turn-on requests, 232 were completed as of Sunday, March 15.”

He added: “The delay is due to either no contact from the household to give DWSD access and as stated in response number one, there are extenuating circumstances before water can be restored.”

But Mayor Mike Duggan’s history of rejecting calls to end water shutoffs and to declare water a human right from activist groups like Hydrate Detroit undermines the administration’s new public relations posture in granting relief.

That the mayor chose the visit of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, whom he endorsed for president, on the eve of the primary to announce the moratorium also showed that the administration was treating the water crisis through lens of politics.

Biden’s rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, had already called the water crisis in Detroit a moral outrage, and Biden still hasn’t publicly discussed the issue. 

Even Gov. Gretchen Whitmer resisted calls weeks leading up to the coronavirus outbreak to intervene and end the water shutoffs in Detroit. But ironically, the state and the city jointly announced the moratorium to coincide with the visit from Biden, who also has been endorsed by Whitmer.

What is also striking is that poor Detroiters will be charged $25 monthly for their water when the moratorium ends. The right course of action in a state of emergency is to suspend all fees until this outbreak is fully mitigated. Anything less won’t help those who are most vulnerable during this crisis.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

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