Public Health, Water, and the Pandemic: We Are All as Vulnerable as the Most Vulnerable

During #WorldWaterWeek (August 23-28) FLOW asked Abdul El-Sayed, former executive director of the Detroit Health Department and public health professor at Columbia University, how the global pandemic has changed his connection to water.

Watch Abdul’s remarks and read a transcript below.

“If you remember back to the first days of this pandemic, which I know feels like eons ago, one of the first things public health officials were saying was that you’ve got to wash your hands with warm, soapy water for 20 seconds. That remains really good advice, on top of making sure you’re remaining physically distanced, making sure you’re wearing a mask. These are important layered recommendations. Think about that basic recommendation. Warm soapy water for 20 seconds. Not everyone gets to take that for granted. It accentuates the fact that water is life. Public health started in the moment when we realized how to keep people from drinking polluted water and to make sure that the water they drank was clean and pure.”

“As I reflect on this pandemic on the advice that we gave on the nature of public health, itself, it reminds me that the resources that we have become that much more important when they become part of the set of barriers between us and an extremely deadly, extremely contagious disease. It has been that way from the very beginning. So recognizing that we in the Great Lakes region are blessed with 21 percent of the world’s fresh surface water, we have a responsibility to that water. That water is critical to our lives and livelihoods. I think it forces us to step back and appreciate the responsibility that we have, and the fact that in so many cases we’re not meeting that responsibility.”

“One thing that this pandemic ought to be teaching us, too, is that we are all as vulnerable as the most vulnerable, we are all as susceptible as the most susceptible. Unless and until we’re willing to invest in the wellbeing of people who are the most vulnerable and the most susceptible, then we will have failed our public responsibilities. Leadership like that of the late Governor Milliken is about centering those truths about collective action and the public good, and trying to bring us back to an ideal that says, ‘We all do this work of politics, we all do this work of government with the goal and the responsibility of protecting what is ours together.’ The key word there is TOGETHER. If we can’t find a together in this, then it’s going to be really, really hard to protect those resources, and we’re seeing that now.”

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