Handwashing is best Covid-19 defence

Makini School pupils wash their hands during a past Global Handwashing Day celebrations.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Good hand hygiene is relatively cheap.
  • Prior to Covid-19, handwashing with soap after using the toilet was reported at just 19 per cent globally.

Global Handwashing Day on October 15 might seem a bit niche as international days go. But this year, it has taken on a new urgency for millions of vulnerable children.

The coronavirus pandemic has built a fresh appreciation for clean, running water and soap in those of us fortunate enough to have access to them. Washing our hands more regularly is now second nature.

But this most simple of acts remains beyond the reach of millions of families around the world. In 2019, three billion people lacked access to a handwashing facility with soap and water.

Staggeringly, if world leaders don't continue to invest in handwashing, we risk continuing to see more than a million children under five years old dying unnecessarily every year.

It is a stark warning. Thoroughly cleaning hands with soap or an alcohol-based hand rub helps prevent a range of diseases, including the biggest killers of under-fives globally: pneumonia and diarrhoea. These two diseases kill approximately 1,250,000 children each year.

Lengthy lockdowns

As more countries re-open after lengthy lockdowns, continued handwashing is crucial to help reduce the spread of Covid-19 – while at the same time helping to prevent other killer diseases.

Good hand hygiene is relatively cheap. Through the WHO/Unicef Hand Hygiene for All initiative, we are urging global leaders to do everything they can to ensure it is both possible and promoted in homes, schools, healthcare facilities, care homes, workplaces and in public areas.

Governments, community and faith leaders, the private sector, and others who can influence hygiene habits must take the lead in this. Otherwise we risk a deadly, continuous cycle of Covid-19, the genesis of further pandemics, and more needless deaths due to other infectious diseases.

We are at a critical juncture – what the world does or does not do to sustain handwashing now could save or kill millions of vulnerable children, slow or drive the spread of antimicrobial resistance and also determine the first line of defence for adolescents, adults and the elderly.

Prior to Covid-19, handwashing with soap after using the toilet was reported at just 19 per cent globally. Investments in handwashing have increased significantly over the past few months.

Many aid agencies and governments are focusing on temporary solutions, such as trucking in water or distributing buckets. But if these are targeted only at this current crisis, they will likely fail to bring about the lasting change needed to address other deadly diseases.

Access to clean water and hygiene facilities must be prioritised for every person.

As we face a second wave of Covid-19, good hand hygiene benefits us all. But we can’t afford to return to business as usual when the virus no longer poses a threat.

Bruce Gordan, Unit Head of Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Health (WASH) at the World Health Organisation, and Ray Norman, Global Sector Lead for WASH at World Vision International