Editor’s Note: This column is part of our series, “Coronavirus and Poverty,” about how health inequities impact COVID-19. For information about this public health series contact Bankole Thompson, the editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute at info@thepulseinstitute.org

By Tina M. Patterson, Esq. 

The world has seemingly come to a standstill with the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), which the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared a pandemic.

In the past few weeks, the spread of the virus has hit the United States, including the first two confirmed cases in Michigan announced on Tuesday, March 10, just a few short hours after the state’s 2020 presidential primary election ended. Since that time, the virus has spread to 33 confirmed cases in various counties in Michigan alone, with other states experiencing similarly exponential spread of the virus.

While this pandemic has begun its course in the U.S., aside from the striking rapidity with which the virus is spreading, one other component has also been painfully clear: the lack of leadership, integrity, and compassion demonstrated by our elected leaders at the federal, state, and local levels.

A nationally coordinated effort to combat the virus has been nonexistent, and the abysmal lack of leadership from the federal government has once again placed priority on Wall Street rather than the everyday individuals it is tasked to serve. A case in point is the stock market freefall on Thursday, March 12, when Wall Street had its worst day since 1987, due to the rapid spread of the coronavirus nationwide, which forced nearly all major league sports from the NBA to MLB to postpone or cancel their seasons and events.

The dramatic market decline prompted the Federal Reserve to inject $1.5 trillion into the market to slow the staggering economic decline. This move was done seemingly unilaterally and immediately, but when it comes to economic salvation into poor communities or investment in basic quality of life issues, like water affordability and universal health care, money and resources are peculiarly and conspicuously scarce. Just last month, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) noted that despite the denial by Chairman Jerome Powell, the Fed does indeed have the authority to provide economic relief to struggling cities, such as Detroit. However, it would rather readily dole out trillions to save the market from the coronavirus hit than inject any economic vitalization into poor cities that face even more dire consequences from the effects of the virus.

President Donald Trump

Shifting to the White House, at this point into his presidency, it is still shocking, yet no surprise, that President Donald Trump has responded to the virus with a myriad of misinformation and a complete lack of accountability for any missteps taken by his administration. Trump allegedly knew about the impact of the virus and its commencement in the US as early as January 2020, yet White House action fell short as according to Politico, Trump made clear “the lower the numbers on coronavirus, the better for the president, the better for his potential reelection this fall.” Infamously, during his press conference finally declaring a state of emergency, Trump, flanked by numerous corporate CEO’s whom he praised for their work in the crisis blatantly answered, “I don’t take responsibility at all,” for any missteps in his administration’s response to the outbreak, and denied any knowledge of a pandemic control group within his own National Security Council that was disbanded under his watch.

Response from the United States Congress has barely been better. While Congress did pass legislation in response to the coronavirus that guaranteed paid sick leave, it shamefully excluded companies of over 500 employees from this requirement. This includes billion dollar corporations like Walmart, Amazon, and McDonald’s, whose workforces include thousands of low wage workers in need of public benefits to help make ends meet.

Washington D.C. is supposed to be the best of what this country has to offer, yet clearly, it misses the mark on leadership during this time of national crisis, let alone basic common sense and human decency.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan

Likewise, State and Local Leadership has not been spared in the uncoordinated efforts and lack of cohesion to this response. More importantly, the leadership of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan have noticeably failed to be proactive on this issue when presented with multiple opportunities to act long before the coronavirus was ever even known to the world, specifically on the issue of water shutoffs.

Back in 2014, during Mayor Duggan’s first term in office, the United Nations raised the alarm about the inhumanity of the City of Detroit water shutoffs. After hearing testimony from mostly poor and African American residents, UN experts urged that “The city of Detroit must restore access to water for its citizens who remain unable to pay their bills,” and added that “a failure to do so would be a violation of the most basic human rights of those residents.” Despite this warning from the world’s authority and guardian of human rights, Mayor Duggan, now in his second term in office, has failed to declare water a human right and repeatedly denied requests from activists to end the water shutoffs in Detroit.

Similarly, the plea for the termination of water shutoffs in Detroit also landed before Governor Whitmer multiple times before the coronavirus pandemic hit. First, in July 2019, the ACLU filed a petition asking the state Department of Health and Human Services to declare a health emergency and ban Detroit’s water service interruptions.

This was Governor Whitmer’s first opportunity to fulfill one of her ten most visible campaign promises to ensure access to clean water. During her campaign plan, when it came to clean water, Whitmer declared “No Michigander should suffer an interruption in their water service because of a delinquency in bill payments.” She also confirmed that she believed “water to meet basic needs is a fundamental right and essential to public health,” and that she would “work to ensure that everyone has access to a livable quantity of water at an affordable rate.”

In a complete departure from her prominent campaign promise, The State denied the ACLU’s request in September 2019, and water shutoffs continued without interruption in Detroit.

Governor Whitmer had another bite at the apple to reverse course on her now proven false campaign promise in late February 2020, just under three weeks before the coronavirus was officially confirmed in Michigan. However, Whitmer failed the leadership test yet again when the State declared there was “insufficient data” to support a state-level moratorium on water shutoffs for the poor in Detroit. According to Mark Totten, the chief legal counsel for the Governor, while the State agreed that residents with water shutoffs faced significant challenges, “‘they don’t rise to the level of an imminent danger’ under the public health code.” Further, with the onset of the coronavirus confirmed in the United States, the State unwisely determined that existing data did not “permit a finding that the city of Detroit is experiencing a public health emergency caused by water shutoffs.”

The coronavirus has now made its way into Detroit, including a staff member of the Detroit Public Schools, and the now reactionary restoration of services has been slow, with just 73 homes restored out of 2,800 according to Detroit Water and Sewage Director Gary Brown, an appointee of Mayor Duggan. In a callous response, Brown cited a lack of water meters and plumbers as the reason for the slow restoration, saying, “The process to turn on water service is not as simple as flipping a switch.” Had Duggan taken heed to the warnings of the United Nations six years ago, this would not even be a problem in the city of Detroit.

Had Whitmer or Duggan not only seized the opportunity for leadership, but simply displayed any compassion and humanity for the poor in Detroit, water services in this critical time would have been flowing without problems because everyone would already have access to it had these executive officials acted to end water shutoffs months and years before they finally felt the need to do it.

While these assorted government actions have been cowardly at best and shameful at worst, what these unbelievably varied and reactionary responses demonstrate is that there is immense power to implement immediate policies that can protect and enhance the quality of life of all individuals. Too often, we hear excuses about why something can’t be done, and the all too common questions about where the money will come from.

Yet in times like this, it is obvious that the money is always there, as is the political power to act. The power to implement true policies that would help the poor and protect basic needs for good quality of life is not a pipe dream. The Fed just proved that to you with its trillion dollar approval into the market. So too did Congress, with its sick leave legislation. And right here in Detroit, Mayor Duggan and Governor Whitmer proved to you that they could have ended water shutoffs long ago… if they wanted to.

Across the country, we are seeing fractured responses from federal, state, and local government officials about how to handle the rapidly evolving situation. However, a pandemic is not necessary to implement common sense policies to enhance and protect quality of life for all, especially the most economically vulnerable in our society. Each response has proven that these policies can be implemented at the drop of a dime and the stroke of a pen with the will in place to do it, which should not require such desperate, uncertain times and states of emergency like what we are experiencing now.

In fact, if progressive policies, such as mandated paid sick leave and guaranteed water accessibility, had already been in place, government would be in much better shape to deal with such a vital public health crisis because it would have already been prepared on some level. Had something as simple yet necessary as mandated paid sick leave already been in place, government officials would require less time and resources to get the message out about staying at home. 

Further, there would be more calm and less stress for not only government officials to come up with an appropriate response, but also for workers, who would not have to risk their health for wages, because wages would be guaranteed under mandatory paid sick leave. Had water already been declared a basic human right and water shutoffs ended in Detroit, Mayor Duggan and Governor Whitmer would not be scrambling to hold a press conference to make the announcement, and the availability for everyone to take the simplest preventive measure of washing their hands would have already been accessible to all.

And just from a pure public relations standpoint for politicians, embracing these types of policies proves that doing the right thing is always the right move. That credibility and reputation will only solidify in emergencies such as this because it would have already been established. The only potential to backfire is when the responses are not genuine and patently reactionary, such as what we witnessed with the water shutoff backtracking by Whitmer and Duggan.

While we must no doubt come together as a nation to build a cohesive and coordinated effort to combat this global pandemic, we must not do so as simple reactionary measures before going back to the business as usual of not caring for our most economically disadvantaged populations. Enacting permanent legislation now for such progressive yet necessary policies like mandatory sick pay eliminates the need to even contemplate enacting it at a later date. 

The same is true of universal health care and the declaration of water as a human right. Regardless of health status, people will seek medical attention for preventive measures and treatment alike. It’s a fact of life. Water is an essential element of life that no being can survive without. 

If we are truly a nation of values, we will finally enact policies that demonstrate and fulfill those values. Not because a national or global emergency forces us to do so, but because it is the right thing to do for a humane and prosperous nation.

Tina M. Patterson, a Detroit native and attorney is the president and director of research at The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s independent and anti-poverty think tank. She was previously a federal government attorney with the Social Security Administration. During her stint at the Social Security Administration, she wrote legally binding decisions for administrative law judges throughout the United States and Puerto Rico.

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