Experts have been consistent in telling the public that one of the best means to stop the spread of the coronavirus is the practice of good hygiene. But how can you abide by these instructions when you do not have access to clean water? This is the challenge facing millions of low-income people throughout the world.
As COVID-19 continues to spread — overwhelming even advanced capitalist countries with robust health care systems — governments, social movements and citizens in Latin America are being forced to confront the global pandemic in societies that are still largely defined by extreme inequality, one that makes typical expert recommendations nearly impossible to follow.
“The global struggle against the pandemic has little chance to succeed if personal hygiene, the main measure to prevent contagion, is unavailable to the 2.2 billion persons who have no access to safe water services,” said a team of independent experts affiliated with the United Nations Human Rights Council, as quoted by the Associated Press.
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There are well-substantiated fears that the lack of sufficient water services in some communities will also worsen the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Organizations such as the Council of Canadians, which champions water as a human right, have signaled that vulnerable populations such as people living in Indigenous reserves in Canada with boil-water advisories face an increased risk of infection due to their lack of access to clean water. The risk faced by vulnerable populations, which also includes those experiencing homelessness and imprisoned people, is compounded by the fact that these same populations frequently also lack access to adequate health care, making preventative measures, such as hand washing, even more important. Last decade’s cholera outbreak in Haiti, where over 10,000 people died of a preventable illness, served to show how deadly a disease can be when it impacts a population that lacks access to clean water and adequate health care.
Mexico City, and the surrounding area, is a metropolis that even in the best of times has difficulty meeting the demand for water from its over 21 million residents, despite being located on a former lakebed and seeing more rainfall than famously rainy London. Water management practices that prioritize flood prevention and an overdrawing of the region’s aquifer mean that some areas go weeks or months without water.
Recently, residents of a condominium complex in the neighborhood of San Simón Tolnáhuac deemed it necessary to stage a demonstration outside their building after enduring yet another week of cuts in their water supply, demanding that authorities take action before it is too late.
“The majority of residents are staying inside their apartments and the consumption of water is vital under these circumstances,” Lucia Elizabeth Arellano Hernandez, the administrator for the complex and one of the protest organizers, told Truthout.
Mexico has yet to face the worst impacts of the pandemic and the government has explicitly ruled out a mandatory curfew for the time being. Nonetheless, the governor of Mexico City has called on residents to stay home, ordered bars, malls and restaurants to close, and banned large gatherings as part of the city’s efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Arellano said there is a very real fear among residents of the condo complex of a viral outbreak in their building and if it does come to pass, that there will not be enough water for residents to abide by the recommendations made by health professionals to wash their hands regularly, further exacerbating the problem.
Although the problem of insufficient supply of water at this complex predates the present crisis, Arellano says the problem has grown worse in the past two weeks with more residents staying home and thus consuming more water. She said authorities from the municipality and the water authority claim that as a result of rationing efforts, they are not able to provide water on a round-the-clock basis.
“Authorities have the obligation to meet their constitutional obligation, that is: the right to water,” said Arellano.
Water as a Human Right
A 2012 reform to the Mexican Constitution guaranteed water as a human right but this right has not been respected in practice. According to Elena Burns, a member of the Agua Para Tod@s, Agua Para la Vida campaign, which struggles for democratic control over water resources and fights against privatization efforts, the federal water authority and successive neoliberal governments have instead facilitated the acquisition of water rights by private interests and transnational companies.
“It’s been 28 years of absolute and total irresponsibility on the part of the government,” Burns told Truthout.
Burns says the campaign estimates that 36 million people in Mexico do not have regular access to water, instead relying on water trucks or sporadic delivery through municipal services.
Agua Para Tod@s, Agua Para la Vida is fighting to enact a new water law, written by civil society, to replace the previous law that was approved in the 1990s as part of efforts to remake Mexico’s economy and make it compatible and compliant with the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Burns claims that there is not a region or state in the country that is not dealing with some sort of challenge regarding water, and that lawmakers in Mexican Congress are aware of the water crisis in Mexico. Agua Para Tod@s, Agua Para la Vida have been able to make some inroads with lawmakers and are close to having a new citizen-drafted water law approved after the 2018 election saw the leftist Morena party swept into power, securing majorities in both houses.
However, Agua Para Tod@s, Agua Para la Vida has nonetheless come up against resistance within the executive and agencies such as CONAGUA, which is responsible for water management at the federal level, and which Burns says has promoted private management of water instead of the needs of the population.
Those who defend water as a human right, however, recently secured a victory after voters in the state of Baja California opted to cancel a mega brewery being built by Constellation Brands to make and export beer, which threatened to consume more water than all the other industrial users in city of Mexicali combined.
The Mexican government has said it will respect the will of the voters and will revoke the plant’s water permits, prompting a harsh rebuke from the country’s business establishment.
Activists had been demanding a vote on the future of the brewery for years but were surprised when the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced it with barely two weeks’ notice. Nonetheless, Burns stated they were grateful the president kept his campaign promise and said the message delivered by voters in Baja California was clear.
“If you want to come here to make money, violating the human right to water, you are not welcome,” said Burns.
It is a message that could ultimately have far-reaching implications, particularly in this moment of crisis when the public is demanding officials act in the public interest.
In Baja California, groups such as Agua Para Tod@s, Agua Para la Vida and Mexicali Resiste have been fighting for years to defend water as a human right, but the coronavirus crisis is forcing many people to suddenly confront how our societies and economies are organized and how vital resources, like water, are managed.
Lucia Elizabeth Arellano Hernandez argues that in the case of her community, the root of the problem lies in the unfettered construction happening throughout Mexico City and the fact that housing projects are allowed to proceed despite that sufficient water provision for these projects is not guaranteed.
Residents in other parts of the city have also taken to demonstrating, organizing against huge construction projects such as the “Torre Mitikah” in the city’s south that locals fear will leave the community without water due to the high demand the condo project will bring.
“It surprises us that they continue to allow the construction of such large condominiums without being able to provide them the security that they will have water,” said Arellano. “If, with the current amount of residents in the city, they are not able to meet the demand for water and other basic services, then they will have to stop the growth.”
However, in the context of the coronavirus crisis, communities that will suddenly be faced the challenge of access to vital resources such as water may not be able to get organized quickly enough. This is a proposition that Burns said “terrifies” her, who noted that she has a daughter studying in northern Italy and thus was able to hear directly from those who witnessed how quickly the situation can change.
Confronting Coronavirus and Inequality
Nevertheless, there are very serious challenges facing people who are already in crisis and lack the resources to abide by the recommendations by experts and the orders from government.
In Guatemala, a grassroots digital campaign called #NoEsUnCrimen has sprung up, calling on the country’s authorities to implement measures that take into consideration the poverty that millions experience and prevent them from doing things like staying home.
“Although isolation is necessary to avoid contagion, the government has so far taken actions that are more favorable to the business community, but none that really contemplates the safety of the entire population, especially the least-protected sectors,” Adrian Wolff, a member of the #NoEsUnCrimen campaign, told Truthout.
The campaign has been disseminating materials online that challenge many of the assumptions behind the calls to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus crisis. One of the images reads: “We cannot wash our hands if we do not have water. We cannot be in quarantine if we do not have housing. We cannot eat if we do not sell our goods.”
The campaign is calling on the Guatemalan government to ensure that those living in poverty have access to a basket of basic foodstuffs, that charges for utilities be suspended, that housing be provided to those who are experiencing homelessness, and that critical information about the coronavirus threat be made available in local Indigenous languages. There are 25 languages spoken in Guatemala and an estimated 65 percent of the population are Indigenous or of Mayan decent. Systemic discrimination, exclusion and inequality mean 75 percent of Indigenous people in Guatemala live in poverty, compared to 36 percent for the non-Indigenous population. With reduced access to information and social supports, this systemic oppression puts Indigenous people further at risk during the epidemic.
The measures implemented by governments to limit the spread of the virus have made it so that the traditional methods used by social movements to draw attention to their cause, such as mobilization in the streets, have been closed to them, thus the campaign has tried to get creative in its efforts to mobilize people through social media and digital outlets. The hope is they will be able to influence public opinion and put pressure on the government.
Elsewhere in the region, the government of Argentina has been forced to confront the coronavirus crisis after only months after taking office and inheriting a country in the midst of an economic crisis after the previous government’s policies that pushed millions more into poverty. In contrast to Mexico, the government of Alberto Fernández opted to take more severe social distancing measures, ordering a lockdown in the country, a situation that left people who live day to day without the income they rely on to survive.
In the capital of Buenos Aires, various levels of government together with social movements are working to re-conceptualize the concept of isolation. Due to close-quarter housing in low-income neighborhoods, where several families live in a very small area, the idea of confining oneself to a private home is unworkable and instead they are working on isolation at the neighborhood level, limiting movement to the area and promoting employment locally, such as local infrastructure projects, so people are not forced to try to earn a living in a matter that forces them to commute and potentially spread the virus.
Mexican President López Obrador has faced heavy criticism for not implementing similar measures as those in other countries such as Argentina. However, the Mexican government has said that it is letting policy be dictated by the experts in the government and has deliberately avoided more drastic measures in order to try to lessen the impact on low-income families, especially given the high levels of poverty and informal employment found in Mexico, who would be left without income if a mandatory curfew was ordered and would eventually be forced to flout a quarantine in order to feed their families.
López Obrador has nonetheless promised to pay the universal pension offered to seniors four months in advance, has offered no- or low-interest loans to small businesses, and has stated that the country has sufficient reserves of basic foodstuffs for 100 days. López Obrador has also explicitly ruled out a bailout for big business and banks and has said that the priority of the government will be to attend to the needs of the country’s poor in this crisis.
“If we have to rescue someone, who do we have to rescue? The poor,” the president stated in a press conference earlier this week.
The coronavirus crisis is unprecedented, and as the debate about how to respond rages on throughout the world, one overwhelming demand, no matter the country, is that the cost of the crisis is not placed on the shoulders of working class and low-income people, as so many other crises have been in the past.
In many ways, the coronavirus outbreak is a watershed moment.
“The world is going to change,” concluded Burns.