What are we learning from the Covid-19 crisis?
In a matter of months, Covid-19 has changed our world dramatically. The lessons we are learning have as much to do with what our world looked like before the coronavirus as what it looks like now.
We are learning that:
Water and wastewater utilities and workers are essential. The Covid-19 crisis has made clear what and who is essential: those treating patients and keeping our hospitals running, our grocery stores open, and our utilities functioning. Water utilities and workers not only deliver a basic necessity for hydration but especially during Covid-19 deliver a necessity for hygiene when sheltering at home. In March, Governor Murphy stepped in to ensure that no New Jerseyan would be left without water during the Covid-19 crisis and called on water utilities to suspend water shut-offs. We are also learning how many households are on the brink of having water, a basic necessity, shut-off.
Our crumbling water infrastructure needs to be repaired before we have a crisis. Water main breaks in New Jersey have left communities without water needed for hygiene and hydration during a health crisis. Combined sewer systems that needed to be repaired before the crisis will need to be repaired after it. The need to upgrade our water infrastructure remains during COVID-19, only now CSO communities, many of which are economically distressed, are faced with budget gaps, in addition to the cost of upgrading their water infrastructure.
Our environment impacts health outcomes. Worldwide stay-at-home orders have given us a glimpse of how the environment can regenerate when polluting industries are put on hold. Here in New Jersey, we have seen a significant drop in pollution levels that cause much of the health problems associated with unhealthy air quality. At the same time, our history of poor air quality has been associated with higher levels of Covid-19 fatalities. Air pollution is not spread evenly, low-income residents and people of color are disproportionately exposed to health-threatening environments in their homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces. We are learning that the pandemic is not just a health crisis, it’s an environmental justice crisis.
The pause caused by Covid-19 has made room for reflections on what needs to be done when we hit the start button. This crisis has magnified the inequalities in our society. Now we need to amplify these lessons in the solutions that are implemented in the recovery.