Efforts are underway in states across the country to combat the novel coronavirus, which has seen hot spots in New Orleans, Chicago, New York, and Seattle. The city of Detroit is the latest to become a hotbed for the virus, where 35 people have died of COVID-19 in less than two weeks. Across the state, at least 197 residents have died, making Michigan the fourth state in the nation with the highest death rate, The New York Times reported.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has been taking extensive actions to combat the quick outbreak across the city and state. Last week, the governor sent a sweeping list of demands to the White House to address the social weight of the outbreak. The governor asked for disaster unemployment, crisis counseling, an expansion of SNAP, rental assistance, and much more. This week, Gov. Whitmer signed an executive order extending the state of emergency and declaring a state of disaster, which may provide more resources to address the socioeconomic burdens people are facing at this time.
Due to a lack of personal protective equipment — a national emergency right now for people on the frontlines of the pandemic — first responders in Detroit are also falling ill to the virus. One fifth of the police force is in quarantine, following the recent deaths of the city's homicide chief and jailhouse commander.
Detroit's level of deindustrialization might also make the city a unique case when it comes to the pandemic. The problem with the coronavirus outbreak across Michigan, and especially in cities like Detroit, is not just how it’s spread, but why, according to the governor. And one big reason for that is poverty.
“We know poverty is a pre-existing condition,” Gov. Whitmer said during an appearance on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah Wednesday night. For people who can’t meet their basic human needs, this crisis becomes even more urgent, as access to health care is out of reach for many, but so are basic needs like food and housing. “All of our focus has to be on meeting the needs of our people right now. People are dying,” said Whitmer.
Detroit’s poverty rate is 35 percent, according to the Detroit Partnership on Economic Mobility at the University of Michigan. That’s almost three times the national average, which means many residents can’t afford to take time off if they’re already living paycheck to paycheck.
People living in Detroit also experience high rates of chronic health conditions, including asthma, which make residents more vulnerable to the coronavirus. The prevalence of asthma among adults living in Detroit was 29 percent higher than in the state as a whole, with Black residents facing higher rates of asthma hospitalizations, according to a 2016 report from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
"There is a direct correlation between poverty and the increased number of Coronavirus cases in the City of Detroit," says Portia Roberson, CEO of Focus: HOPE in Detroit. "While water shut-offs are the most obvious because we know that the best way to prevent the spread of the virus is through hand washing, there are other reasons as well, including lack of access to health care — which prevents many from knowing about underlying health issues — and poor diets, which often result in weakened immune systems."
These "pre-existing" socioeconomic conditions, as Whitmer might call them, are both exacerbated by and risk aggravating the growing public health crisis, as residents face utility shutoffs, rent burdens, and inaccessible health care, putting communities at greater risk.
At a time when hand washing has been deemed an essential way to prevent the spread of the virus, especially to those at higher risk, people across the city are experiencing water shutoffs for not paying utilities. City officials have since promised to restore water service in hundreds of homes, as activists continue to call on public officials to quickly address the problem.
Some residents say this also makes it harder to convince people to stay home. “If we’re hungry, or trying to find rent, [coronavirus is] going on the back burner” said Dale Rich, a photographer and Detroit resident The New York Times.
Whitmer acknowledged this, calling it a “sacrifice” for people to do their part and stay home. This is why, she told Noah, “it’s so important that we make it easier for people to stay home if they’re worried about paying their bills, or worried about putting food on the table.” The governor is asking volunteers to come to Michigan and help meet the needs of the hardest hit communities in the state. "It’s gotta be all hands on deck and we are a hot spot right now."