COVID-19 underscores WASH poverty as a serious health crisis

As we celebrate Global Handwashing Day, we should also remember that the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases surpasses 39 million, with about 1 million fatalities. As two young (water) researchers, we are particularly concerned that poor WASH services in the time of COVID-19 will exacerbate existing health challenges further, especially so in developing countries. While we take note of the inadequacy, intermittency, and the mismanagement that characterize many public health systems in light of COVID-19, poor WASH facilities and services risk fuelling these challenges.

As the pandemic spread across countries, experts have recommended handwashing as a point of prevention in this regard. Yet, more than 785 million people still lack basic (WASH) services with about 144 million who drink untreated surface water. How many more have no clean water to wash their hands?

Without the availability of these services, handwashing – one of the most effective ways to prevent transmission of diseases – becomes impossible and people are at risk of falling fatally ill. Even in countries identified as having the highest risk of health and humanitarian crises due to the virus, 1 billion  people do not have a handwashing facility with water and soap at home. Also, about 25 percent of health care facilities across the globe lack basic water services whilst one in five and two in five lack sanitation and hand hygiene materials at points of care, respectively.

While COVID-19 deaths have not been directly attributed to the lack of basic WASH services, reports demonstrate that unsafe WASH (mainly sanitation) is one of the leading risk factors for infectious disease, disease burden and death. This presents a deeply troubling and problematic picture in light of COVID-19. For instance, drawing on data on COVID-19 fatality rates in Sub Saharan Africa with indicators of safe water and sanitation governance, our analysis found a significant correlation between a higher case fatality rate and poorer access to safe drinking water as well as safe sanitation. The correlation is stronger for access to safe sanitation compared to access to safe drinking water. We must be particularly concerned for low-income areas in developing countries as most of them are unable to protect themselves due to the lack of access to basic (WASH) services and the difficulty in observing measures such as social distancing.

COVID-19 is a global health crisis, whose impacts are most certainly exacerbated by the lack or poor WASH services. In this context, there are implications for action in order to achieve sustainable development. It also underscores the fact that access to adequate and safe WASH services leads to a better and healthier population as well as an improved health sector. Although many national governments are shifting activities and keeping WASH priorities through the lens of COVID-19, adopting other long term measures will be useful for all.

As we celebrate Global Handwashing Day, do not forget to WASH YOUR HANDS with soap and water if you are privileged enough to do so, because billions of people do not have the same privilege. Privilege is the thing you don’t know you have. COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to re-emphasize the important role WASH plays in our daily lives, a situation which should not be taken for granted. At WaterSciencePolicy, we hope to amplify this call through our contributions in the form of publishing insightful water-related case studies, stories and articles as well as partnering with water and WASH institutions. What are you doing to help amplify the voices in the WASH sector? We urge everyone, especially the youth, to contribute their part to make the WASH sector better because; “a WASH crisis is a health crisis”.

Godfred is a researcher with deep interest in digital innovations for Water and Sanitation services, particularly in global South countries. He is currently a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Manchester and holds an MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management from Oxford University.

Christian holds degrees in Economics, Biology and Water Science from the University of Munich and the University of Oxford. He is a young water professional and currently serves as Managing Director at Oxenu - a consultancy for development and the environment.

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