The water in Flint, Michigan has been clean now for almost two years after the state of Michigan spent $1 billion and several years to find a clean water source, replacing pipes to homes, and compensating residents. And nobody in town will drink the water, because local and state government have lied to the people of Flint for so long that they simply refuse to trust that the water is clean now. After almost a half-dozen years of hell, there's zero reason why they should, either. The lessons of Flint absolutely apply to the COVID-19 vaccine as well.
In a city synonymous for half a decade with disaster, something remarkable happened in February 2019. A team of researchers reported that Flint’s homes—even the ones at the highest risk for undrinkable, lead-poisoned tap water—finally had clean water running through their pipes.
After years of painstaking cleanup and rebuilding, the study’s results were a sparkling capstone. Earlier tests already hinted at good news, and this one confirmed it: In the vast majority of such homes, lead levels were 5 parts per billion or better—far below even the strictest regulations in the country. Local news outlet MLive trumpeted the news, and Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality tacked it to their ongoing list of promising signs that indicated the city’s potable present and future.
But a few weeks later, another, equally remarkable thing happened. As part of a United Nations-sponsored “World Water Day” celebration, the City of Flint parked 12 semitrailers stacked with pallets of bottled water on the city’s street corners, offering them to any city resident who could show an ID. People flocked to the pickup locations. They lined up their cars and popped their trunks to collect cases of water to use in their homes—water in bottles, from somewhere else, that they actually trusted.
The wariness wasn’t out of ignorance. Equally wary was Jim Ananich, a lifelong Flint resident and outgoing leader of the Democratic minority in the Michigan State Senate. Ananich wasn’t in line that day, but he understands why people were.
“I can’t tell somebody they should trust [claims that the water is safe], because I don’t trust them—and I have more information than most people,” said Ananich. “Science and logic would tell me that it should be OK, but people have lied to me.”
For Americans who stopped following the Flint water crisis after its first few gritty chapters, it might come as a surprise how far the city has come: Today, after nearly $400 million in state and federal spending, Flint has secured a clean water source, distributed filters to all residents who want them, and laid modern, safe copper pipes to nearly every home in the city that needed them. Its water is as good as any city’s in Michigan. And to compensate its just under 95,000 people for the damage they’ve suffered—economically, medically and psychologically—the city and state reached a settlement in August that will pay nearly $650 million to Flint residents.
From an outside perspective, it sounds like a happy ending. For people who live in Flint, the story looks very different. After six years of lies, deliberate or not, a revolving door in a disempowered City Hall, and the dysfunction wrought by a high-profile, high-stakes recovery process, they find themselves still unable to trust either their water or the people telling them to drink it.
“The anger, the lack of trust, it’s all justified,” Ananich says.
The breakdown in trust is rooted not only in the water crisis itself, but its domino effect on state and local politics over the following years: a halting pipe-replacement program marked by accusations of graft; a criminal investigation into those responsible for the crisis that mysteriously “rebooted” and dropped charges against state officials; a city government still decimated by post-Great Recession, state-imposed austerity measures; a basic inability to believe what should be neutral facts.
Providing water and appropriating settlement funds are simple compared with the task the city now faces: convincing its residents not only that they have a future, but that they can trust their government to provide for their most basic of needs.
“We just want to live normally, and actually be able to drink the water that comes out of our tap safely, with no concerns,” said Melissa Mays, a vocal Flint water activist. “Like normal people.”
The issue is much larger than just Flint, too. In the age of Trump, why should any American trust any local, state, or federal government agency? Not only do we have an entire political party dedicated to breaking government and making it work only for the rich and powerful, the American people keep deliberately voting for this party in the vain hope that they will be included in the lucky few that government is actually allowed to function for, as well as to deliberately punish the people who voted against them.
Keep in mind too how Flint was the prime example of environmental racism in America, a symbol of how government is always, always seen as hostile to Black American because it is almost always hostile to Black America.
Government is a weapon now, and even with the heartfelt apologies of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, and the incoming Biden administration, it's going to take a long time before anyone trusts government in America again, for even basic competence.