Running water will be temporarily restored to thousands of poor Detroit residents disconnected due to unpaid bills, amid an outcry about the public health threat posed by the coronavirus outbreak.

At least 141,000 Detroit households have been disconnected since 2014 as part of a widely condemned debt-collection programme, according to records obtained by Bridge, a news magazine. Just last year, taps were turned off in more than 23,000 homes, three-fifths of which were still without water by mid-January 2020.

There is no vaccine or treatment for coronavirus, also known as Covid-19. According to the World Health Organization, good hygiene, specifically frequent handwashing with soap, is crucial to prevent the virus spreading.

Amid growing pressure to act, Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, and Detroit city officials this week announced plans to stop shutoffs and temporarily reconnect water services for all residents, as part of a plan to prevent spread of the coronavirus.

“The state is stepping up to cover the cost of water restoration for the first 30 days, because it’s the right thing to do to keep families safe and protect public health,” Whitmer said.

The governor later declared a state of emergency, after confirmation of the first two Covid-19 cases in the state. Both patients, an unrelated middle-aged man and woman from Detroit, were hospitalised. At least 12 states across the US have declared emergencies as cases have risen past 1,000, with 31 deaths confirmed.

Church leaders and poverty campaigners had urged Whitmer to suspend water shutoffs.

“The unconscionable act of depriving anyone of water because the cost is more than they can afford has resulted in a health crisis,” said the Detroit People’s Water Board, a coalition of social justice organizations, in February, adding that the coronavirus outbreak “has the serious potential to be magnified and spread due to thousands not having access to water”.

Nicole Hill, 47, was disconnected in 2015, after falling behind with monthly bills which had quadrupled over five years.

“Having your water shut off is horrendous,” she said. “I ended up in hospital with bacterial pneumonia when my water was shut off. Now with coronavirus, I’m really frightened for people.”

Water affordability is a growing problem across the US, as low-income households struggle to pay increasingly expensive bills. Numerous public water utilities have increased shut-offs, ostensibly to encourage people to pay up on time.

But many low-income households struggle to keep up with rent, gas and other bills too and in 2016, according to research by Food and Water Watch (FWW), an estimated 15 million Americans were disconnected from running water after failing to pay.

“The United States has been facing a water affordability crisis for years,” said Mary Grant, director of an FWW campaign which calls for federal action to stop shutoffs and introduce affordability programmes nationwide.

“Now, threats of the coronavirus are finally making it clear to our elected officials: water shutoffs are not only inhumane but also a public health nightmare.

“Detroit’s plan to halt water shutoffs is long overdue. It should not have taken the coronavirus epidemic.”

Almost four in 10 Detroit residents live in poverty, the highest rate among the 20 largest US cities. Water rates have increased by as much as 400% in the last 20 years.

In 2014, shortly after filing the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history, the city launched a massive shut-off programme. In its first year, 31,000 households had their water shut off.

The UN described the shut-offs as “contrary to human rights” and condemned the disproportionate impact on African Americans, who account for 80% of the city.

Under this week’s temporary plan, the state will cover water bills for the first month, after which customers can pay a reduced rate of $25 a month to stay connected until the crisis abates.

But it is unclear how many households will be reconnected, and how quickly.

Alice Jennings, a Detroit lawyer and member of the People’s Water Board, told the Guardian the board welcomed “the acknowledgement by the governor and mayor to stop the water shutoffs and restore water services [but] this is crisis intervention and not a solution to a permanent problem”.

In Washington, Frank Pallone, chair of the House energy and commerce committee, and Peter DeFazio, chair of the transportation and infrastructure panel, urged water utility companies across the country to follow Detroit’s lead.

“Access to clean water is a basic human right at all times,” they said, “but any action that restricts families’ access to water during the current coronavirus outbreak would be reckless in the extreme.”

In Seattle, the worst hit US city so far, water and electricity shutoffs have been suspended.

For those still without water, Covid-19 poses a terrifying threat.

In Detroit, Aitta McCarthy and her children have lived without running water for almost five years. It was disconnected in summer 2015 after McCarthy, 46 and reliant on welfare benefits, was unable to keep up with bill payments. She owed about $1,000.

“It’s a nightmare,” she said. “I’ve tried to get help but the city’s [affordability] plan doesn’t work. I can’t afford it.”

She has relied on bottled water, sanitary wipes and the kindness of neighbours, who refill bottles and let her and the children take occasional showers. The family are forced to use a hospital commode, which is emptied into the trash.

“This virus is killing people all over the world and we can’t flush the toilet or wash our hands regularly,” McCarthy said. “It’s messing with my mind, I don’t know what to do.

“I’m so worried about myself and my children.”

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