washing hands

COVID-19: Challenges Us to Address Societal Inequalities


Beyond Medicine: COVID-19 Challenges Us to Address Societal Inequalities by Martha F. Davis, Affiliated Professor

Crises have a way of laying bare our society’s deep economic inequalities, as well as the underlying human rights violations that we regularly live with and tacitly accept.  Sometimes, crises force us to make progress in addressing those inequalities. 

For example, in the United States, school systems around the country closed classrooms beginning in mid-March. In many places, online instruction began shortly thereafter.  But for children without access to home computers or reliable internet connections, remote instruction was not as easy as pushing a button.   

Educators in urban school districts like Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Boston, scrambled to arrange equipment loans enabling students to work at home.  At the same time, school districts negotiated arrangements with major internet providers to extend home wireless service to students during the crisis. 

The Digital Divide  

Why was this never done before? The digital divide is hardly new and certainly not invisible.  In fact, New York estimates that 300,000 of its school students lack access to devices, and the Federal Communications  estimates that 21 million Americans have no broadband access.   

But before social distancing kicked in, students without technology were expected to complete their work on shared computers in libraries, schools, and other community spaces, while their more privileged peers were free to work at home on their own schedules.  When physical common spaces were closed off, these inequalities could no longer be ignored, and school districts by and large stepped up in an effort to address these human rights gaps. 

It remains to be seen whether COVID-19 will make a permanent dent in the digital divide, but the signs are hopeful. Certainly, schools districts going forward will want to be more fully prepared to provide equitable access to instruction in the event of future pandemics. Having provided on-line access more equitably to all, it will be difficult if not impossible to retreat. 

Access to water 

Household water access is another example of COVID-19 making visible a human rights travesty that was previously invisible to most of society. For years, even as water prices have crept up, many U.S. cities have shut off household water to those who fall behind in paying their water bills. In Detroit, an estimated 12,000 homes have no water as a result of shut-offs – a policy that also affects household sanitation. 

In a pandemic, however, the first line of defense is handwashing. Recognizing that household water shutoffs make handwashing practically impossible – with potential implications for everyone in the community — a number of U.S. water authorities, including Detroit, have reinstated water to homes where it was previously shut off.  In addition, some municipalities have declared a temporary moratorium on water shutoffs. 

Why was this not been done before? U.S. activists have long argued that affordable water is a human right, and that water shutoffs can have serious health consequences for families.  To its credit, in 2017, Philadelphia adopted a new program of keying water bills to household income in order to reduce delinquent payments and the potential for shut-offs.  But in most urban areas, it took COVID-19 to makvividly clear that water shutoffs have ripple effect beyond individual households that affects us all. 

Will we remember this lesson, and increase protections for the human right to water after COVID-19 is under control?   

Again, I think this is an area where there may be human rights gains on the other side of the crisis.  With water, as with access to education, the tragedies of the pandemic are making clear how interconnected we are, and how deeply societal inequality hurts us all. 

Martha F. Davis, Affiliated Professor

This is a series of updates regarding the Coronavirus from Human Rights Experts