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'Wash your hands' is tough advice for Americans without soap or water | Mustafa Santiago Ali | Opinion


Well-meaning pundits on television are talking about our most vulnerable – usually from a position of privilege. The current conversation and set of actions are focused on our elders, which is critical. But most have no idea about who are truly the most vulnerable.

I have been blessed to work in over 500 communities both domestically and internationally, so I have a pretty good gauge on who is most likely to be harmed.

Now is the time focus on those who are truly on the frontlines of the coronavirus or Covid-19 pandemic. Our homeless brothers and sisters are the ones who often are unseen and unheard when it comes to implementing emergency policies and prioritizing which lives matter. Too often, they are the ones who are forgotten.

Public health experts say that one of the main ways to protect yourself from Covid-19 is to wash your hands, but the homeless have no way to practice good hygiene simply – and unfortunately – because they don’t have access to clean water.

Our indigenous families have shared with us for a millennium that, “Water Is Life.” These important words take on an even greater meaning during this pandemic. If we want to mitigate the impacts of this highly contagious and deadly virus, it is imperative that we ensure that vulnerable communities have access to clean water and address this long-standing environmental injustice.

The painful truth is that over 500,000 people experience homelessness in our country; approximately 65 percent are in homeless shelters, and the other 35 percent — just under 200,000 — are unsheltered on our streets, in places not intended for human habitation, such as sidewalks, parks, cars, or abandoned buildings. Not thinking critically and implementing a holistic strategy that protects all of our people shows a lack of our own humanity.

Many homeless people deal with increased air pollution due to their close proximity to polluting sources. They find themselves being pushed by new local ordinances into areas near roadways and underpasses and below bridges.

The rate of asthma in homeless children in the US has been reported at six times the national average for children – and it appears that asthma increases the risk for severe disease with Covid-19. Some 7,000,000 kids currently have asthma in the US, with the highest rates among African-American and Latino children. We must take these challenges into our public health emergency planning or we will create more sacrifice zones, where those who have the least are left to fend for themselves.

We know that an underlying medical condition places you at greater risk for death from the coronavirus and that our homeless populations suffer disproportionately from chronic diseases. People who are homeless often face an increased risk of infectious diseases such as hepatitis A, B, and C; tuberculosis; and HIV/AIDS along with hypertension, diabetes and chronic pulmonary disease.

Recently, the White House promised that more drive-through and walk-up test sites will be opening up across the country. Drive-through testing will help some people, but the majority of the homeless don’t drive, and for our disabled homeless, walk-up sites will be inaccessible.

Another solution is to engage mobile testing healthcare units that will go to encampment sites and other locations where our homeless brothers and sisters gather. With homeless shelters closing at record numbers and those providing services stretched thin, how will they reach everyone who needs to be tested? And since many shelters often are overcrowded, this will make social distancing extremely difficult and place many lives in jeopardy.

There are psychological stressors placed on everyone during a pandemic like this one, but the homeless community will be disproportionately impacted. About six percent of the general population suffers from severe mental illness, but that percentage rises to 20-25 % among the nation’s homeless – at least one in five — according to government studies.

So, as we take steps around social distancing and self-quarantine actions, let’s remember that many may not understand what is happening around them. We must put in place the people and tools necessary to help those with mental health challenges

How we treat and prioritize our most vulnerable communities during the coronavirus epidemic and beyond will send a clear message about the true character of our country.

As Mahatma Gandhi once shared: “You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty. Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.”

  • Mustafa Santiago Ali is the Senior Vice President for Environmental Justice at the National Wildlife Federation and a member of the Environmental Protection Network (EPN). Ali served as Senior Advisor for Environmental Justice and Community Revitalization, and Assistant Associate Administrator for Environmental Justice at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for more than two decades

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