NEW White Paper: Detroit Water Shutoffs and the COVID-19 Pandemic

The RISE Lab is happy to release a White Paper detailing how institutional authorities in the State of Michigan and City of Detroit addressed water affordability and the mass water shutoffs related to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the first cases of COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus, were identified in the United States, community activists appealed to authorities to reverse this shutoff policy. Although the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) urged people to wash their hands regularly for at least 20 seconds to prevent community spread of COVID-19 , activists pointed out that this was impossible for many Detroit residents who lacked running water in their homes. Their pleas were initially dismissed, however, and it was not until March 10, 2020, by when Detroit had emerged as a national epicenter of COVID-19, that Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued executive order EO2020-28 halting water shutoffs and restoring water to disconnected homes. In December 2020, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced that the City would cover outstanding payments through 2022 and permanently end shutoffs, but questions remain about whether these promises will be upheld, if they have not fundamentally changed their language and assumptions of the root problems related to water affordability.

As we note in the White Paper,

Analyzing state and city institutional authorities’ public communication is crucial because it will demonstrate how they perceived the risks of water affordability and the mass shutoffs in the run-up to and during the COVID-19 peak infection in Detroit. How authorities communicate with the public is crucial to building long-term trust, which is in turn essential for the public’s buy-in on difficult administrative decisions, such as quarantine and economic shutdown measures, to beat COVID-19 and similar pandemics.

Our team, comprised of myself, and Sandra Rodriguez-Bontemps and Sarah Chapman, graduate students from the WSU Humanities Clinic, researched this public communication between January and July 2020. This period roughly aligns with “the first wave” of the COVID-19 pandemic in Michigan, which overwhelmed our healthcare system, claimed hundreds of lives, drastically sickened thousands more, and affected untold numbers in a myriad of ways — socially, economically and politically.

The White Paper presents our findings in three chapters: 1) how authorities framed water affordability and the shutoffs during this time, 2) the discursive logics that seemed to guide authorities’ decision-making to restore water connections in response to the pandemic, and 3) a summary of the communication tone, content and terminology used by authorities during this time. We close the White Paper with five recommendations for State and City authorities that we believe are key to ensuring long-term sustainability and protection from future public health disasters that may be exacerbated by lack of access to clean and affordable water.

You can read and download the full White Paper HERE.

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