Since about 2001, international organizations working in water supply and sanitation advocacy use the term WASH as an umbrella term for water, sanitation and hygiene in the context of international development. While WASH work has been ongoing for many years, the message is now louder and clearer than ever before: frequent handwashing with soap prevents disease. In India, the message has been everywhere: people have heard it from national and state governments, on social media, from Bollywood stars and from cricket champions, reports an article in National Geographic. Even from policemen who danced while demonstrating proper handwashing in the state of Kerala.
Handwashing is the first line of defence against coronavirus infection, but also against many other infections. In 2018, 127,000 children under the age of five died from pneumonia in India, while diarrhoea caused by rotavirus killed more than 100,000 children. According to UNICEF, handwashing with soap can lower the risk of diarrhoea by 40%, and it is also essential to prevent cholera, dysentery, hepatitis A, and typhoid.
Yusuf Kabir, who works for the WASH office of UNICEF in Mumbai, thinks people are more open to the message, and soap is one of the most-sold items in shops, after rice and wheat flour. Him and other WASH activists hope the pandemic will lead to increased handwashing, and thus a lasting decrease in disease burden in the developing world. CEO of WaterAid India VK Madhavan says the change in awareness is remarkable, as a positive outcome of the pandemic.
But in India, as well as in many places in the world, there is a formidable obstacle: there’s not enough clean water. If you follow UNICEF’s handwashing recommendations, you could end up washing your hands up to ten times a day and using 2 litres of water each time; that’s 20 litres per person per day, a luxury for families in many regions of the world, where water scarcity is part of daily life. People face tough choices. They can either wash their hands or keep social distance, something difficult as people gather around community wells and taps. They can either wash their hands or save the water for cooking.
Kelly Ann Naylor, global WASH chief at UNICEF, said “awareness about sanitation and handwashing will be at its peak now”. Access to water is, without doubt, a priority worldwide. Now is the time to take it forward.