‘Handwashing’ has never felt so important!

by Dinesh Suna last modified 14 October 2020 05:17 PM
‘Handwashing’ has never felt so important!

Photo: Paul Jeffrey/WCC, 2009.

14 October 2020

Since 2008, 15 October is observed around the world as Global Handwashing Day”. Coming from India, handwashing came to me naturally for two specific reasons. One, most of us eat with our hands, without using a knife and fork; second, we seldom use toilet papers after attending “natures call.” So we better wash our hands often. However, I myself and most of themiddle classpopulation of India were simply lucky to have access to handwashing facilities. Until a few years ago, with about half of Indias population practising open defecation, handwashing wasnt feasible.

Consider this: early in the mornings and evenings groups of people would go out into the bushes or to the railway tracks on the outskirts of the village with a jug of water (approximately 1-litre max). After doing their “business,” they have to clean themselves with that one jug of water (without a toilet paper obviously) and then there is not much water left to wash their hands. At best they would rub their hands on the soil and wash with few drops of water. They have to walk back about a kilometre or two to their homes. In the process, they might forget to wash their hands altogether with soap and water, or simply there is no water at home.  No wonder,  about 9% of all deaths in children below five years of age in India are caused due to diarrhoea.

The basic handwashing facility which is taken for granted in the developed countries of the world is a distant dream for many. More than 70% of the worlds least developed countries lack basic handwashing facilities, while the statistics stand at 40% for the global population. The Joint Monitoring Program (JMP) run by UNICEF and WHO define a “basic handwashing facility” as the “availability of a handwashing facility on the premises with soap and water.” This includes “fixed” handwashing facilities such as sinks with taps or buckets with taps, or “mobile” facilities, such as jugs or basins designated for handwashing. Besides the poor, vulnerable groups such as people with disabilities, older people, displaced populations and indigenous populations also typically have reduced hygiene access and may have increased hygiene needs.

More than ever, handwashing is strongly recommended by the World Health Organization and enforced by the governments to counter the COVID-19 pandemic. The WHO released new guidelines stipulating that hygiene facilities should be established at the entrance to all public and private commercial buildings (for use on entry and exit), at all major transport hubs (such as bus and train stations, airports, and seaports) and at markets, shops, places of worship, health care facilities and schools. In developed countries, this directive is strictly implemented. However, for those 70% population in the least developed countries, this still not a reality. When there is not enough water to drink, how can people wash their hands with soap for 20 seconds under running water? For them, it is simply a luxury.  Even though there have been different models of handwashing facilities, which require very little water, unless there is a political will from the governments and financial support for the lasting infrastructure, hand-hygiene for all is not going to be a reality for millions. One study found that regular handwashing with soap can reduce the likelihood of COVID-19 infection by 36%. That means the poor and vulnerable communities are at much higher risk of contracting COVID-19 than the rich.

According to UN-Water Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-water, financial planning remains poor with only 9% of countries having national hygiene plans that are sufficiently funded and only 10% of countries having sufficient human resources to implement these plans. Hand hygiene is often overlooked within national policies and planning documents in comparison to water and sanitation. Hygiene has also been historically underfunded. Currently, hygiene comprises just 6% of national budgets for water, sanitation and hygiene.

While it is essential to ensure access to handwashing facilities, soap and water are the first step but this needs to be complemented with actions to change handwashing behaviour at individual and societal levels.  This will help handwashing become a long-term habit and a norm,  therefore, hand-hygiene should be everybodys business, including the religious and faith-based organisations.

This years Global Handwashing Day with the theme Hand Hygiene for All”  calls on countries to celebrate hand hygiene as a central part of their COVID-19 response and at the same time to be prepared for a future. Once the immediate crisis is over, rebuilding better than before means that countries will need to strengthen their hygiene systems. This will help them to control COVID19, prevent other new emerging diseases, and fight against long term challenges like diarrheal diseases.


The impressions, hopes and ideas expressed in this blog are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.

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