Facebook Instagram Twitter YouTube

In the Midst of a Pandemic, Some in the U.S. Can’t Even Wash Their Hands

While many cities have called for an end to water shut-offs and rapid reconnections, guidelines remain inconsistent, leading many across the U.S. to lack water access.

Otto Fors

March 26, 2020
Facebook Twitter Share

There is no cure or vaccine for the coronavirus currently sweeping the globe, but the World Health Organization has emphasized that, “[t]he provision of safe water, sanitation and hygienic conditions is essential to protecting human health.” Despite this clear directive, many across the U.S. lack access to water due to shut-offs caused by non-payment. Poor communities and communities of color are disproportionately affected. 

While many cities and states have declared a moratorium on utility shut-offs, it has not been applied consistently, and neither the CDC nor federal government has issued guidance on doing so. In Washington state, cities such as Seattle have suspended water shut-offs, but other areas in the state have continued shutting off utilities. This week water access was cut at a mobile home park in Texas, despite a moratorium in Dallas and other cities. Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey has merely requested that companies suspend shut-offs, leading shut-offs to continue in some parts of the state. Last week, dozens of residents in a city in Missouri experienced water shut-offs, and the mayor had no plans to re-evaluate the policy until April 6th when the U.S. will be even deeper into this pandemic. 

Even in places where local authorities have recently permitted water and electricity to be reconnected, barriers remain. In Detroit, up to 10,000 households may have had their water shut off, a staggering number which impedes rapid restoration during this crisis. In Buffalo, New York, officials are placing the burden on residents to call to make an appointment to restore water, even though the city already knows where utilities were disconnected, and poorer residents lack computer and phone access. 

Some worry that officials’ demands to restore water are too little, too late: in Michigan, directives were issued nearly three weeks after the first reported coronavirus case in the country. While the exact number of people without running water is unknown, in 2016 one in 20 households in the U.S. had their water disconnected, indicating that full and timely water restoration across the country is nearly impossible. 

In some places, shut-offs have been prevented only because of actions by independent water utilities, rather than directives from local governments. Even in the cities and states where shut-offs have explicitly been suspended, only one in five water departments have agreed to reconnect water access, rendering these directives effectively meaningless. Many individuals are effectively at the mercy of private water and energy companies in an economic system which is happy to sacrifice lives for profit

Shutting off basic utilities brings into sharp focus the cruelty of capitalism, where the poor are not even granted the dignity of access to running water. During a crisis like coronavirus, absurdity compounds this cruelty. As Karen Miller, executive director of the Texas Legal Services Center notes, “all of the advice tells us that the best prevention is basic handwashing, which you are not able to do without water, and everyone is being encouraged to stay home, which is hard without electricity.” Failing to provide individuals with basic necessities during a pandemic is dangerous and illogical. Those who do manage to keep the lights on and water running may not be able to obey recent shelter-in-place orders, as costs force them to continue to go to work, risking becoming infected and, in turn, infecting others. Capitalism puts us all at risk. 

It is not enough to postpone shut-offs, or allow residents to temporarily gain access to essential utilities – the current crisis is unlikely to be resolved quickly, and will require prolonged social distancing and hygiene measures. Moreover, millions may face unemployment by the summer, which will only exacerbate their inability to pay. Water is a human right, and should not be a luxury provided for those with the means to pay for it. It must be nationalized and provided freely. 

Capitalism has shown itself incapable of tackling this situation. It is not just an incubator for pandemics – it is an obstacle to overcoming them. A solution for the crisis of shut-offs can instead rest with the working class. Utility workers could show solidarity with poor communities and refuse to shut off water and electricity, while restoring service to those across the U.S. who have already been cut off. Worker actions in France in December and January provide a recent illustrative example. During historic protests and strikes in response to President Macron’s pension reforms, electrical workers restored power to poor households, while cutting the power of government buildings, businesses, and police stations. During the current public health crisis, these kinds of worker-led actions are critical. We must ensure that all individuals are protected – not just the wealthy – and that basic utilities are universally provided.  

Facebook Twitter Share

Otto Fors

Otto is a college professor in the New York area.

United States

“Lesser Evil” Biden Wants More Border Patrol Than MAGA Republicans

Over the weekend, Biden bragged about his support for even more resources than “MAGA Republicans.” to “secure the border” on Twitter. This is “lesser evilism” in action.

Molly Rosenzweig

March 28, 2023
Customers clear shelves of water Sunday at Fresh Grocer in West Philadelphia.

A Chemical Plant Just Poisoned Philadelphia’s Water: A First-Hand Account of the Crisis

A company dumped thousands of gallons of poisonous chemicals into Philadelphia’s drinking water. This is an on-the-ground account by a Philadelphia worker and socialist.

Jason Koslowski

March 27, 2023

Joe Biden Is Deporting Russians Who Escaped Putin’s Draft — Let Them All In!

The United States is deporting Russians who sought asylum following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This is a heinous attack against war resisters and shows that the proxy war in Ukraine is about capitalist rivalry first and foremost.

Sam Carliner

March 26, 2023

20 Years Since the U.S. Invasion of Iraq: A Reflection from a Socialist in the Heart of Imperialism

A Left Voice member and anti-war activist reflects on the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and how he learned to hate U.S. imperialism.

Sam Carliner

March 20, 2023


A group of protesters, in the front of whom are a line of protesters wearing red vests. In the front right corner, a white sign reds "vive la retraite," with a skeleton wearing a red hat in the middle of the sign on a black background with a text bubble on its left that reads, "oiv a bosse, c'est pas pour en crever!"

“French March”: The Right to Revolutionary Optimism

Evoking memories of '68, the students enter the fight against Macron. In our chaotic world, the future can only be built in the streets.

Eduardo Castilla

March 26, 2023

On Monday, Germany Will Experience a “Mega-Strike”

On March 27, German railway workers and public sector employees will shut down the whole country. All trains are being canceled. Airports, freeways, hospitals, and daycare centers will all be affected.

Nathaniel Flakin

March 25, 2023

France: On the Frontlines of the War Against Austerity

The French masses have raised the banner of class struggle in what is becoming the first major battle against austerity after the pandemic. Working people across the world should pay attention.

James Dennis Hoff

March 25, 2023

Despite Threats of Arrest, Refinery Workers in France Refuse to Break Strike

As energy strikes continue, France is faced with a kerosene shortage that’s creating an urgent situation at the country’s airports. With capitalist profits on the line, the government has attempted to force Normandy refinery workers back to work through an anti-strike legal weapon called requisitions. In their first victory, refinery workers forced the police to withdraw in an incredible demonstration of solidarity.

Nathan Erderof

March 24, 2023