Hand washing a must for COVID-19, but do we have enough water

Though hand washing during the present COVID-19 pandemic is essential, we have to be careful while using water for this purpose

By Manas Ranjan Senapati
Published: Wednesday 16 December 2020
Hand washing during COVID-19 could lead to water scarcity. Photo: https://www.wallpaperflare.com/

A valuable drop of soap diluted in water is sufficient to extinguish many types of bacteria and viruses, including the new novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) virus that is currently running riot across the globe.

The secret to soap’s impressive might is its hybrid structure. Soap is made of pin-shaped molecules, each of which has a hydrophilic head — it readily bonds with water — and a hydrophobic tail that shuns water and prefers to link up with oils and fats.

These molecules, when suspended in water, alternately float about as solitary units, interact with other molecules in the solution and assemble themselves into little bubbles called micelles, with heads pointing outward and tails tucked inside.

While washing your hands with soap and water, you surround any microorganisms on your skin with soap molecules. The hydrophobic tails of the free-floating soap molecules attempt to evade water. In the process, they wedge themselves into the lipid envelopes of certain microbes and viruses, prying them apart.

A proper hand wash involves lathering soap and scrubbing hands on both sides for at least 20 seconds, according to World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. October 15 every year is Global Hand Washing Day, a global advocacy day dedicated to increase awareness and understanding about the importance of hand washing, with soap as an effective and affordable way to prevent diseases and save lives during the pandemic of this century.

The COVID-19 pandemic provides a stark reminder that one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of a virus is also one of the simplest: hand hygiene, especially through hand washing with soap.

Hands touch too many surfaces and can quickly pick up viruses. Once contaminated, hands can transfer the virus to your face, from where the virus can move inside your body, making you feel unwell. Hand washing with soap must be a priority now and in the future in order to beat the virus today and ensure better health outcomes beyond the pandemic period.

This year’s theme on October 15 was ‘Hand Hygiene for All’. It called for all of society to achieve universal hand hygiene. Hand hygiene is key to keeping ourselves and others protected from COVID-19.

Even people who are relatively young and healthy should regularly wash their hands, particularly during a pandemic, because they can spread the disease to those who are more vulnerable. Washing with soap and water is one of the key public health practices that can significantly slow the rate of a pandemic and limit the number of infections, preventing a disastrous overburdening of hospitals and clinics.

Water footprint

In the present scenario of COVID-19 happening globally, it is advised to wash our hands frequently with soap and water and also for at least 20 seconds which has drastically increased our water footprint.

A running tap uses six litres of water per minute. A 30-40 second hand wash would use up around four litres of water if the tap is on, or two litres with the tap closed, while scrubbing with soap. 

A family of five members would thus need 100 to 200 litres of water per day only to wash hands 10 times a day rather than 4-5 times as usual. But for the 2.2 billion people in the world who lack safe drinking water — mostly in low- and middle-income countries — that advice will be difficult to heed. 

This is a major challenge and the question arises about their safety against the virus. One gallon contains roughly 3,785 millilitres, so that's 15,140 drips per gallon, which means our one-second-dripping faucet wastes over five gallons of water per day and just less than 2,083 gallons per year.

Frequently washing hands may also cause wastage of water. Though hand washing during the present COVID-19 pandemic is essential, we have to be careful while using water for this purpose. If we aren’t cautious, this may lead to huge water scarcity in future.

In this context, the use of sensor taps may reduce the wastage of water but everyone cannot afford to have sensor taps. Different measures are to be taken like setting up a network of public hand-washing stations — something done in West Africa during the Ebola outbreak of 2014.           

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth                              

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.