It has been six months since the first COVID-19 case was recorded in the U.S. According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. has recorded almost 4 million cases and over 140,000 deaths; making the U.S. the worst affected country in the world. Further exacerbating the crisis is the widespread lack of accessibility to the number one prevention method against COVID-19—water. 

The CDC guidelines suggest that because there is no vaccine at the moment, the best way to protect ourselves is to avoid being exposed to the virus. Therefore, washing hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is the most reliable safeguard in keeping ourselves and those around us safe and healthy. The critical role of water in prevention and hygiene maintenance is straightforward and essential. This calls into question whether underserved communities living without access to water can adequately protect themselves from the virus. In addition, people who have to travel to access or buy water, or who share a water supply, are less able to follow potentially lifesaving social distancing guidelines.

Before the pandemic, 2.2 million Americans did not have access to safe, affordable water. This number is likely to grow as a result of unemployment, evictions, and the many other negative impacts of the virus on Americans. The data shows that we are grappling with two pandemics at the same time: the COVID-19 virus and widespread water insecurity across the U.S. 

The UN Human Rights Council’s statement demonstrates the inextricable link between water access and COVID-19, saying that: “People living in informal settlements, homeless people, the rural population, migrants, refugees and other groups vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic need to have continuous access to adequate and affordable water”. Similarly, Dig Deep and U.S Water Alliance’s report draws attention to how indigenous households in America are 19 times more likely than white households to lack access to complete plumbing, while African-American and Latinx households are nearly twice as likely. 

It is worth noting that, over the last few months, some policies implemented at the state level are promising steps for achieving water security, at least for now. Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan has extended the moratorium on water shutoffs across the state, providing temporary relief for affected individuals. Although commendable, this is not a long-term solution for increasing water access, and unless further action is taken, it will inhibit people from making ends meet. Lisa Brooks is a Detroit resident, who has had her water shut off many times by the City of Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department due to her inability to pay the water bill. Despite the current moratorium, she is going to be dealing with a $2000 bill at the end of this year due to her accumulated debt. Within the framework of these incidents and the current health turmoil, governments at all levels should prioritize water security and the ways in which innovative technologies can be used to advance infrastructure by putting it on their agendas.

Given the correlation between washing hands and COVID-19 prevention, there is an urgent need to address the profound water accessibility challenges in underserved communities across the U.S. There are plenty of variables in this equation, and to what extent the outcome will be “the desired one” is undoubtedly dependent on many factors. However, water security for underserved communities is vital to prevent the ongoing spread of COVID-19 and ultimately, for saving lives.

Image: A Washington, D.C. Sunrise