Friday, April 24, 2020


I will not get into the midst of a conflict over what exactly the resident of the White House said about bleach and COVID-19. I do not have the time or the energy or the desire to get into a senseless debate over what he said, what he meant to say, or some other debate by non-medical personnel over ways to prevent the spread of the virus or to help people recuperate from this deadly disease.

But I want to share when a few thoughts about a time I drank water with bleach.

Haciendita II, 2019
In 1992, I spent about seven months in El Salvador, mostly in the parish of Suchitoto where I helped the Salvadoran pastor and the five US women religious working there. I was assigned to one of the remotest areas of the parish, about a four hour walk from the town of Suchitoto. I spent most of my time there in the house of Esteban and Rosa Elbia and their children, usually spending four or more days sleeping there, while going out several days to other nearby communities. I slept in a hammock so that I wouldn’t take someone’s bed. I brought some food stuffs with me when I came and I ate tortillas and salty beans several times a day.

Esteban Clavel and Rosa Elbia
Every morning I heard Esteban calling his daughters to get up and go for water – about 30 to 45 minutes away. The sons also got up to begin to prepare for working in the fields or in other projects.

But every day water had to be brought in for basic needs.

I had a water bottle with a filter and so I avoided most intestinal parasites. I thought it was because of the filter but there was another factor.

The water always tasted a little funny. Only later did I realize that the family was putting a little bleach in the water to purify it. It seemed to work, though I would not recommend it now.

While I was there the community began working on a project to bring water in from the mountain. The men went up in groups to dig the trenches for the pipes. I joined them a few days for the hard work under the hot sun.  

Digging trneches for the water line, on Guazapa, 1992
Before I left the project was finished and there was a spigot with water in the middle of the community. I remember walking down the road and seeing a line of women with their water jugs lined up to get the precious water.

Last year I visited my friends. Esteban had died a few years before, a victim of chagas, a disease that comes from insects that burrow in dirt floors and dirt walls. But I saw Rosa Elbia and several of her children and grandchildren. It was a real joy to be with them. I had hoped to get back to see them this year, but we’ll see.

When I stopped in the house where I had stayed – now much nicer, one of the daughters offered me a glass of water. They have a new water project and the water is drinkable. No more bleach. They don’t even have to boil it, since they have a good source of water and a good chlorinating system for the village. No more 5 am calls to go out to fetch water. No more putting bleach in the water. Turn on the spigot and drink.

It should be clear that this is the way to deal with a real human need – long term solutions, communities working together to guarantee the community’s health, working with professionals in science and water supply.

It should be clear that I am not advocating using bleach, but when people are desperate and look for ways to survive, they look for simple solutions. Looking for short cuts can be dangerous. In addition, short cuts let us avoid asking the really important questions.

For the people of Haciendita II, the issue is community solidarity. What we all need these days.

We also need to remember that after this pandemic subsides, what we need to do is to build a world where people have decent water, decent health care, and decent education and where people begin to work together for the good of all, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized. That will mean that we begin to put the person, made in God’s image, at the center of our lives.


Laurie Anne said...

John, thank you for the stories you share that open my heart and my eyes to your work- your calling. May God bless you and keep you safe and provide you with all you need to continue. Our world has such diversity yet a common denominator. We are all Gods children. We all have value and are born with love and potential.
In my heart, you are making a difference to many.

Unknown said...

Blessings, dear John, for the incredible work you do and the stories you share. I needed to be reminded...thank you. Stay safe+
In Christ,
Colleen Kuhl

Bill Barrett said...

Oh, yes, I remember putting a tiny bit of bleach in our water when out in the campo near Mesa Grande, not so very far from you. It was highly recommended by the MSF doctors. (I got parasites anyway.)