For Many Americans, Poor Water Access Heightens the COVID Threat
The edict is unmistakably clear: To stop the spread of the highly contagious, potentially deadly coronavirus – an infection that is killing hundreds of Americans each day – frequent handwashing is critical.
But for Minerva Clemon of Schlater, Mississippi, that simple act of hygiene, almost an afterthought for most people, has been a chore.
For generations, she says, Clemon and her kin – great-grandmothers and great-great grandfathers, aunts and uncles, distant cousins enslaved and emancipated – occupied or owned a nondescript patch of land on the eastern edge of the Mississippi Delta.
Like her better-off neighbors living in brick houses across town, Clemon and her community don’t ask for more than their share of services from the Leflore County powers that be. But her tiny African American enclave on County Road – family members living in a handful of patched-up mobile homes – settled for barely drinkable water sucked from a shallow well her relatives had dug decades ago.
They also had to listen to officials tell them why the good water other people got in Schlater – clean and reliable – couldn’t flow to her part of town.
Then last July, the well pump broke, again. The repairman told her it would cost several thousand dollars to fix, more than Clemon, a retiree, could afford.
A practical, plainspoken woman who’d been a cabbie in Boston, a waitress in Tennessee and a home health aide when she came back home to Mississippi, Clemon, 70, didn’t bother to wait for a solution that wasn’t coming. Her family needed water, so she had to go get it.
That meant driving down to Greenwood, 20 minutes one-way, to buy drinking water in jugs and bottles from the Walmart or Dollar General. For bathing and washing dishes, she’d go to the Quick Stop convenience store not far from her home and fill up buckets from an outdoor tap – until store managers found out what she was up to and shut it off.
The inconvenience didn’t end there.
After toting the containers home, “you gotta put it on the stove and boil it just to get hot water” for handwashing and personal hygiene, Clemon says. “It’s very stressful but you have to do what you have to do. I’m not enjoying it, but I don’t have a choice.”
Clemon’s plight placed her among the more than 2 million Americans who have lacked access to running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater services in recent years – utilities most people take for granted, yet so critical that the United Nations has declared access to clean water a human right.
Though water poverty has been a problem in the U.S. for generations, the COVID-19 pandemic is shining a spotlight on inequality – and a lack of government investment – in the nation’s water and sewage systems. Clemon’s problem, for instance, is more than a hardship: Epidemiologists say that when faucets and taps in communities run dry, it puts entire populations at risk for infectious diseases like COVID-19.
“You can’t only partially put out a wildfire,” says Karen Levy, an epidemiologist in Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. “If there are embers still burning, there is the potential for the fire to continue to flare up. If some people do not have access to water to wash their hands, that puts us all at risk, because they can spread the virus to others.”
Pamela Gary, CEO of Central Mississippi, Inc., an anti-poverty nonprofit, calls Clemon’s situation “mind-blowing” and dangerous in the middle of a health crisis. She says the parallels between water poverty and high coronavirus infection rates among African Americans shouldn’t be ignored.
“It tells me that the African American communities don’t have what they need,” she says. “We don’t have running water. They are supposed to wash their hands with running water for 20 seconds. They don’t have that luxury.”
U.S. authorities have long known water is crucial to stopping diseases and preventable deaths, according to “Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States,” a report produced by the US Water Alliance and DigDeep – two nonprofit organizations that focus on water access issues.
A century ago, “water-borne illnesses such as cholera were a leading cause of death in the United States,” according to the report. Then, the report states, government officials “invested in modern systems that extended safe and reliable drinking and wastewater services to nearly every American,” and water- and sanitation-related diseases plunged.
Over time, however, federal funding for water projects slowed to a relative trickle, according to the report. That meant many Americans – typically in low-income and rural communities with minority or immigrant residents – were left behind.
The US Water Alliance/DigDeep report states that African Americans and Latino households are almost twice as likely as whites to lack complete plumbing, meaning basics such as hot and cold running water and a flush toilet. Native Americans, meanwhile, are up to 19 times more likely to go without proper household plumbing facilities, according to the report.
Meanwhile, the same demographic groups struggling with water poverty – attributable in part to racist decisions on where to lay water lines, the report indicates – also have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
A recent study by Amfar, an AIDS research group, found that U.S. counties with disproportionately black populations accounted for roughly half of the nation’s coronavirus disease cases and nearly 60% of COVID-19 deaths. In New York City, Latinos have seen higher rates of hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 than whites. And in the Southwest, the sprawling Navajo Nation has had a coronavirus infection rate comparable to densely populated hot spots on the East Coast.
Zoë Roller, a senior program manager at the US Water Alliance, says the fact that water poverty exists in the world’s richest, most powerful country is “shocking,” but that the presence of a dangerous contagion raises the stakes, and the urgency.
“This has been a public health issue for a long time … (but) the virus has made people more vulnerable,” she says. “People are in an even more precarious state than usual.”
That’s particularly true in the Mississippi Delta, an ancient alluvial plain whose geography was formed by the state’s namesake river. In a region where racial injustice helped spark the civil rights movement, the intersection of water poverty and a potentially deadly pandemic in places like Schlater is a major concern.
Not only is the Magnolia State the poorest in the U.S., it has the nation’s highest concentration of African American residents. Even before race and income emerged as coronavirus risk factors, Mississippi – whose Republican leaders have rejected expansion of Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act – saw the closure of several rural hospitals in recent years. Much of the state is considered medically underserved, with a lack of adequate primary care, and it ranks among those with the highest rates of issues such as diabetes, obesity and deaths tied to heart disease, kidney disease and cancer.
Data also tells part of the pandemic story: Mississippi ranked 15th overall among U.S. states and the District of Columbia for deaths per 100,000 people from COVID-19 as of Wednesday afternoon, according to a Washington Post tracker. Its rate of 19 per 100,000 placed it second among states in the Deep South, behind only Louisiana, which is a national hot spot.
No one knows exactly how many Mississippi residents lack water and sanitation access: The U.S. Water Alliance/DigDeep report, compiled in part using U.S. Census Bureau data and statistical modeling, notes that “datasets in the United States are incomplete, and official data collection efforts undercount vulnerable populations like communities of color and lower-income people.”
Brandon Presley, a commissioner representing the Northern District for the Mississippi Public Service Commission, acknowledges “there are far too many Mississippians who lack access to utility-grade water.” Nevertheless, he does not know the scope of the water poverty problem in his district, which includes Leflore County. The state doesn’t keep track, he says.
The COVID-19 pandemic has “increased the sense of urgency that we get our arms around this problem,” Presley says. “It has highlighted what access to water means – to wash your hands and have proper personal hygiene” to prevent spread of the virus.
Clemon, the Schlater resident whose well pump broke, knows that as an African American septuagenarian, she’s at high risk from the virus, particularly if she can’t wash her hands properly or often. But she’s more worried about her family, for whom she’s a caretaker.
“I am very worried because I have two relatives living together. They don’t have running water, either,” she says. “And one of my brothers has hepatitis, and it’s a really, really, really major concern.”
Fed up with hauling water to her home, Clemon reached out to Anjuan Brown, a Leflore County supervisor. Several days and phone calls later, Brown had secured a 1,000-gallon water tank for the County Road community and convened an ad hoc committee, including Presley, the public service commissioner, and Gary, of Central Mississippi Inc.
Presley says it’s unlikely Clemon will get connected to a county water line. At upwards of $100,000, he says the cost is prohibitively expensive for an area where the median household income hovers around the federal poverty line. But he and Gary say they’re working on securing utility grants and other funding to dig Clemon a new well and buy her a new, reliable pump. That price tag, Presley says, is probably north of $10,000.
Both Gary and Presley say there are probably thousands of households in Mississippi that lack access to clean water and proper sewage. Gary also personally relates to the urgency to fix Clemon’s problem: She grew up in rural Mississippi, and her family depended on well water for their home.
Eventually, “we ended up going to a (municipal) water system,” Gary says. Otherwise, she says, “we would probably be in the same situation.”
Clemon says she’s grateful for the help, but a permanent solution has to come soon. Even though the fire department regularly fills up the water tank, she says, she still has to tote water, in buckets and jugs, from it to her home and boil it before it’s ready to use.
“I don’t know how much longer we can deal with this without making this a (coronavirus-) infected area because we couldn’t wash hands and keep clean the way we need to,” she says wearily. “You know, this being America, I’m figuring everyone has or should have access to clean running water. To me there’s really no excuse, but what can I do? I just pray and ask the good Lord for protection, and just take it one day at a time.”
Joseph Williams joined U.S. News & World Report in 2014 as an editor and writer in the News section, covering national news, politics, and the U.S. Supreme Court.
Co-published with U.S. News & World Report.