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We’re Urged to Wash Our Hands. But for Some It’s Not That Simple.

Over 2.5 million people live under conditions that make it difficult or even impossible to wash their hands.

Over 2.5 million people in the U.S. live under conditions that make it difficult or even impossible to wash their hands.

The World Health Organization has now confirmed that the coronavirus outbreak is a pandemic. The fast-spreading disease has been in the United States for weeks now, with more than 1,000 confirmed cases and at least 31 related deaths. The widening consensus is that aggressive measures will be required to lessen its impact.

“Wash your hands” is the universal recommendation, a way to reduce the risk of developing the virus and in turn reduce the risk of spreading it to others. This seems like the easiest, most actionable piece of advice. That is, until you consider the 550,000 homeless people in the United States and the over 2 million people in jails and prisons. Well over 2.5 million people live under conditions that make it difficult, even impossible, to wash their hands often and effectively. Social distancing, the other recommendation gaining ground, is also nearly impossible for people with little or no access to shelter and incarcerated people with no freedom of movement.

Yesterday, Thomas Fuller of the New York Times looked at how the more than half a million people nationwide who are unhoused are at great risk from the virus. “Medical researchers say the 550,000 people currently homeless across the United States have a double vulnerability to the coronavirus,” writes Fuller. “They are more susceptible to contracting the disease caused by the virus because of the cramped quarters in shelters, the sharing of utensils and the lack of hand-washing stations on the streets.” Bob McElroy, the head of a homeless shelter in San Diego, California, described his fears for the more than 300 people who sleep under the tent that constitutes the shelter, in bunk beds spaced just two feet apart. “We’re just saying our prayers,” McElroy said. “If it gets in here it would be a disaster.”

For people in prison and jails, the pandemic has drawn attention to a problem that rarely gets much attention — the fact that, as Beth Schwartzapfel and Keri Blakinger wrote for the Marshall Project, “behind bars, some of the most basic disease prevention measures are against the rules or simply impossible.” Homer Venters, former chief medical officer of Rikers Island in New York City outlined the obstacles to personal hygiene and disease control. “Jails and prisons are often dirty and have really very little in the way of infection control,” he told Schwartzapfel and Blakinger. “There are lots of people using a small number of bathrooms. Many of the sinks are broken or not in use. You may have access to water, but nothing to wipe your hands off with, or no access to soap.”

In New York this week, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his ambitious plan for a made-in-New York hand sanitizer, that would relieve shortages and would be provided for free to government agencies and schools. The catch? It would be made by incarcerated workers in New York prisons, typically paid pennies an hour for their labor. The Washington Post’s Antonia Noori Farzan reported on the response that Cuomo’s announcement provoked. Formerly incarcerated people, organizers, and advocates pointed out that although the governor announced a response to the coronavirus that relied on people in prison, the state has done little to limit exposure for incarcerated people. The very sanitizer they would be making would be contraband if an incarcerated person had it and could expose them to punishment, even solitary confinement. (It is worth considering whether this might also be the fate that could await those who develop the coronavirus in prison. Last month, Juan Moreno Haines, who is incarcerated at San Quentin prison in California, wrote in The Appeal about how medical isolation in prison too often looks like punishment because people are placed in conditions that are the equivalent of administrative segregation, without adequate access to medical care.)

The lack of easy access to running water extends even beyond the incarcerated and the unhoused. In Detroit, thousands of households have been without water because of mass disconnections dating back to 2014 as a response to the city’s bankruptcy. Citing high rates of nonpayment, the city instituted shutoffs. “More than 30,000 households experienced a water shutoff” in 2014, reports Tracy Samilton of Michigan Radio. There were some efforts made to offer alternate payment plans for those with the least ability to pay, but even these failed to reach everyone unable to afford water prices. In 2019, at least 29,000 households experienced a water shutoff.

On Monday, the mayor of Detroit announced that the city had reached an agreement with the state to waive the $25 reconnection fee and defer the payment of outstanding charges for households in need of water supply. This is estimated to be 3,000 homes. But the outstanding charges will not be forgiven, meaning families could again face shutoffs.

Mark Fancher, an attorney with the ACLU of Michigan, which has sued and taken other action over the water shutoffs, told Michigan Radio that he welcomed the news but pointed out that the lack of water access has left people vulnerable for a long time. “If there is concern about the spread of that virus, and there should be, there should be concern as well about the spread of the flu, which quantitatively claims more lives than the coronavirus has claimed,” he said. He also pointed out the importance, in the long term, of making water affordable in the first place.

In Mic, Ray Levy-Uyeda looked at how the announcement in Detroit was necessary but far from a long-term solution. Levy-Uyeda wrote:

“Detroit’s water restoration initiative, while a win in some respects, thus calls into question the efficacy of shutting off access to a needed resource as a way to punish someone for their inability to pay for it. It also highlights what many feel to be a consequential difference in the language we use around things like water and housing; after all, the United Nations declares access to safe and clean water a human right, not merely a good to be purchased.”

The Appeal is a non-profit media organization that produces original journalism about criminal justice that is focused on the most significant drivers of mass incarceration, which occur at the state and local level.

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