The Coronavirus Crisis Is Flint, Writ Large | Opinion

On April 25, 2014, in a cost-cutting move demanded by government, Flint, Michigan, changed the source of its water. Now, an estimated 80 percent of Flint children suffer from neurological problems due entirely to that switch. At least 12 people died of Legionnaires' disease, and possibly hundreds of others were sickened and permanently harmed. Flint was and is a tragedy. It is also a warning.

This year's sixth anniversary of the water crisis falls amid the catastrophic global pandemic. As we self-isolate, grieve the loss of untold lives and watch in dread as the data explode, we can't help but hear echoes of Flint. The pandemic is Flint, writ large.

Flint's crisis revealed broken infrastructure, government arrogance, environmental injustice and the hazards of austerity. Last summer, a similar set of ills struck Newark, New Jersey, revealing more tainted water and government disregard. Today, COVID-19 is surging through the body of the nation, exposing every neglected and diseased part—from a confused and erratic national leadership to gaping economic and racial inequalities. In Chicago, Detroit and New Orleans, the virus is sickening and killing African-Americans at alarmingly higher rates than those of whites. In New York City, it has hit black and Hispanic communities the hardest.

As in Flint, the coronavirus layers a new disease upon old ones. "Time and again, black Americans are overrepresented among the infected and dead," notes author and historian Ibram X. Kendi in The Atlantic. "America's newest infection seems to be mating with America's original infection, reproducing not life, but death." In the world's richest nation, the shockingly unequal death toll is the starkest indictment—and expression—of our nation's history of callousness toward our own.

Beyond the virus itself, the ravages of this pandemic, like the Flint water crisis, are man-made. And man-made crises usually hurt poor and non-white people the most. Self-isolating, like maintaining good health, is a privilege in America.

Flint is a cautionary tale about how a government produced calamity by putting economics above people, contempt above empathy and politics above science. And Flint illustrates how a handful of people in power scoffed at the concerns of citizens who turned out to be right all along. A state report later said officials used "scorn and derision," as well as "aggressive dismissal" and "belittlement" to respond to the concerns of people. Now children may spend a lifetime paying the price.

If Flint offers any lessons, it is to let our leaders exercise the fine art of listening: to the doctors and nurses treating patients in our hospitals, as well as to the mayors and governors and hospital executives scrambling for beds and equipment. Flint also teaches us to listen to whistleblowers, scientists and citizens alike, and to act quickly based on their concerns. If the government relies upon their expertise, then we, in turn, can rely on our government.

Trust, after all, is a fragile thing, and Flint instructs leaders in how to build or shatter it. Residents even today suffer from a profound distrust in government, after being lied to and ignored during more than a year of poisoning. That distrust is on display now, tragically: "Half the people I know simply don't believe any of the numbers and fairly consistently believe we're being lied to about everything," said one Flint resident of the pandemic. Flint teaches our leaders to tell the truth.

When Bay Area health directors decide that 7 million people should shelter in place, it disrupts life and hurts the economy, but it also engenders trust. Science is guiding policy, and leaders are acting quickly following evidence, not self-interest. When Governors Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newsom of California act quickly to shut down public life, it engenders trust.

And Flint demonstrates the imperative of democracy. In 2012, two years before Flint switched its water source from pristine Lake Huron to the Flint River, Michigan passed Public Act 436. The law wiped away the votes of the elected mayor and council and replaced them all with a single financial overseer—eliminating the checks and balances of government. Gone went the legislative and executive branches at the local level. Gone, with the swipe of a pen, went the supposed guardians of Flint water.

Flint residents soon began to experience a range of ills, from rashes to hair loss to aching bones. For 18 months, residents registered formal and informal complaints. By then, many thousands of children had suffered from lead poisoning and some people had died from Legionnaires' disease.

Michigan lawmakers had made a ghastly decision. They went on to protect their decision, not the people or their tap water. An investigation by the Michigan attorney general into the Flint water crisis is ongoing. The lesson? Checks, balances, oversight and transparency are as vital in crises as life and death.

Flint River
The Flint River is shown on February 7, 2016, in Flint, Michigan. The state switched Flint's water source back to the Great Lakes in late 2015. Sarah Rice/Getty

Perhaps the most hopeful lessons of Flint reside with the collective actions of its diverse range of citizens working together over many months. Flint offers a case study in American resilience. Flint is a majority-minority city, 53 percent African-American. But bad water affected everyone in Flint, and the response to the crisis drew from a cross-section of the city. Together, Flint residents engineered a work-around to compel change. They finally out-maneuvered the perilous mistakes of government, engaged needed expertise, conducted their own science and ultimately forced a return to safe water.

All is not yet well in Flint, as lead service line replacement comes to a halt in the midst of the pandemic, as special education needs overwhelm the school system, and as questions remain about who is at fault over the water crisis.

But Flint offers wisdom that Congress, the White House and all of us would do well to heed. Flint teaches us to put the health and safety of the citizenry first; it warns us to be guided by the very best expertise available, to listen to science. It demonstrates the life-and-death urgency of democracy itself, without the influence of corporate money or bottom-line thinking. It warns us to act quickly and urgently. And it urges us as citizens, from our self-isolating bubbles, from our disparate social and economic circumstances, to find ways to join together and speak loudly, forcefully, angrily—virtually for now, as well as in the voting booth—for the well-being of us all.

If Flint, as one resident said, has served as the canary in this country's coal mine, then we must hear its loud cry—before we all are poisoned.

Candy J. Cooper is the author, with Marc Aronson, of Poisoned Water: How the Citizens of Flint, Michigan, Fought for Their Lives and Warned the Nation and a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Aronson is an assistant professor of practice, library and information science at Rutgers University School of Communication and Information.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.