As coronavirus cases are surging in several U.S. communities and President Joe Biden faces pressure to prevent utility companies from cutting off customers for lack of payment, new research from Cornell University and Food & Water Watch suggests a national moratorium on water service shutoffs could have prevented almost half a million Covid-19 infections and thousands of deaths.
"We hope what we learned from the pandemic can contribute to universal access to water in the future."
—Xue Zhang, Cornell
"This research clearly shows us that the pain and suffering caused by [the] Covid pandemic was exacerbated by political leaders who failed to take action to keep the water flowing for struggling families," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, an advocacy group that has been tracking state and local water shutoff moratoria throughout the pandemic.
The Cornell researchers behind the work are Mildred Warner, a professor of city and regional planning and global development, and Xue Zhang, a post-doctoral associate in those departments who said that "we hope what we learned from the pandemic can contribute to universal access to water in the future."
"Our model uses more than 12,000 data points to capture the relationship between days when a state had a moratorium in place and the level of Covid-19 infection and deaths," explained Zhang. "Using modeling typical of other public health studies, we find states with moratoria had lower infection and death growth rates."
NEW: A report from @foodandwater & @Cornell found that a nationwide water shutoff moratorium might have prevented nearly 500K #COVID19 infections & 9K deaths. @POTUS needs to issue a national shutoff moratorium NOW. #NoShutoffs
— Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (@RepRashida) March 26, 2021
Focusing on moratoria from mid-April to the end of 2020, the researchers found (pdf):
A moratorium on water shutoffs was associated with a reduced daily infection growth rate by 0.235%, and daily death growth rate by 0.135%. These small reductions in the daily growth rates were significant and had a sizeable impact on the cumulative case and death numbers.
Comprehensive water shutoff moratoria that apply to all water systems in a given state are associated with even lower infection and death growth rates.
A nationwide water shutoff moratorium might have reduced Covid cases by 3.97% and Covid-related deaths by 5.51% in the 41 states without full coverage of a moratorium over this period.
Extrapolating from model results, we estimated a nationwide water shutoff moratorium during the study period might have protected 480,715 people from Covid-19 infection and 9,052 people from death.
"These findings should move us to fight even harder for water justice everywhere: A full moratorium on shutoffs and a massive federal investment in our public water infrastructure," declared Hauter. "Congress must pass the WATER Act to invest in communities, promote climate resilience, and ensure public water for all."
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The Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity, and Reliability (WATER) Act was reintroduced last month by Reps. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) and Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), with companion legislation spearheaded by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). The bill is backed by a diverse coalition of over 500 organizations.
While the WATER Act aims to deal with problems that preceded the pandemic, the public health crisis has elevated attention on the nation's water injustices, given stay-at-home measures and the importance of mitigation strategies such as hand-washing.
"Access to water is absolutely critical during the pandemic," said Warner. "This study shows the importance of a national standard for access to water, especially for low-income households. The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed so many structural inequities in our society, and access to drinking water is one that demands our attention."
Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Debbie Dingell, who both represent Michigan, in January led 71 members of Congress in reintroducing the Emergency Water is a Human Right Act, which would prohibit water shutoffs and provide water affordability protections for low-income households during the pandemic. In March, the pair led a letter urging Biden to include the bill in his developing infrastructure package.
.@RepDebDingell and I have been leading the charge for water affordability and infrastructure to be addressed since the onset of the pandemic. Most recently, we led this letter urging @POTUS to address these issues in his upcoming infrastructure package. Lives depend on it. pic.twitter.com/4D2BZMA9dT
— Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (@RepRashida) March 26, 2021
The Washington Post reported Friday that "none of the roughly $1 billion in new stimulus funds allocated for water assistance has reached Americans in need, nearly three months after Congress authorized the first tranche of money," and noted that the Biden administration has so far resisted calls to instate a national moratorium on water and electricity shutoffs.
Tlaib and Dingell told the Post that they requested meetings with the White House and Department of Health and Human Services about the water assistance that hasn't been released.
"Dingell and I are requesting a meeting as soon as possible so we can understand the barrier and challenge in getting this out. It's been three months," said Tlaib, whose district includes parts of Detroit and surrounding suburbs. "On March 31, my families are going to be cut off from water—so we want them to move quickly."
Although Michigan's statewide moratorium on water shutoffs is set to expire at the end of the month, an extension is possible—and some communities will have local protections for longer. Detroit, for example, first took action to stop shutoffs last March and has since extended the city's moratorium until next year.
"I hope the White House works with us to make sure the water is not turned off in any state in America," Dingell told the Post. "We need to make sure nobody loses water."