- 3 min read
The coronavirus pandemic has put personal hygiene in the spotlight: people became conscious of how life-saving can handwashing be, and yet, for three billion people this seemingly simple solution is out of reach. Lack of water, soap or hand washing facilities puts the most vulnerable populations at the greatest risk, and will shape the course of the pandemic in the developing world. There is an immense gap between the available scientific discourse and the availability of water and the access to handwashing stations.
A study conducted by researchers at the Northwestern University found that in some impoverished regions of the world, people had not washed their hands in the previous month. A WHO report noted that 40% of households do not have hand washing facilities on-premises. Even in developed countries, water insecurity is an issue. In 2016, 15 million Americans (equivalent in size to the entire population of New England which consists of six states: Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut) experienced “a water shut-off due to failure to pay” (Kristof). This constitutes a significant barrier for the most vulnerable.
While children from developed countries are transitioning to online schooling, for many pupils the pandemic constitutes a break from their classes if not the end of their educational career. As WHO reports, 2 in 5 schools worldwide lack access to basic handwashing facilities. This renders many schools unsafe for reopening amidst the pandemic. Globally, “818 million children lack basic facilities at their schools, which puts them at increased risk of COVID-19 and other transmittable diseases” (WHO). While guidelines for reopening of schools have been issued, the lack of handwashing facilities and water will most likely persist leaving millions of children without education. Furthermore, it must be noted that most children from underprivileged backgrounds rely only on their schools for nutrition, health and safety.
In places that seem to be safe haven for the infected, the reality looks just as bleak: “an estimated one in four medical personnel serving on the front lines of the Coronavirus crisis does not have access to basic water service”. This, of course, renders all medical procedures to be unsafe with a high probability of transmission of the virus. Most importantly, it puts medics at an extreme risk, professionals who seem to be just as ‘undersupplied’ as water in current times.
There is an urgent need for affordable hand washing facilities. For clinics – facilities that guarantee the highest degree of hygiene, specifically, ones that can be used without touching the potentially infected tap. From our colleagues, working in the humanitarian sector, we have learned that big, rigid and heavy hand washing facilities are difficult to transport – only a few reach the affected destination and hence, they are unable to adequately serve the local population. The best solution would be a small device that could be transported via an airplane to quickly treat the affected community and to provide a multitude of devices for personal use, which would subsequently limit the spread of germs and allow everyone to take care of their personal hygiene as often as they need to.
- “Children Washing Hands at School Handwashing Station in Pahuit, Guatemala” by Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Photos is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
- Kristof, Nicholas. “Here’s How You Can Change Lives in the Pandemic.” The New York Times, 25 Apr. 2020,
- Miller, Josh and Young, Sera L., “Household Water Insecurity Experiences (HWISE) Scale.” Household Water Insecurity Experiences HWISE Scale, 31 May 2017
- Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene 2000-2017. Special focus on inequalities. New York: United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and World Health Organization, 2019.