Wash hands to fight COVID-19 outbreak. But is it safe?

Around 1.9 billion people in the world use non-potable or faecally-contaminated water

By Sushmita Sengupta
Published: Friday 20 March 2020

India is being praised for its fight against the novel coronavirus disease outbreak (COVID-19). A large-scale campaign for washing hands, with celebrities being roped in to increase awareness on washing hands, was widely talked about.

Concerns were raised, however, if countries in the Global South — low and middle-income countries in, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia, including India — have access to clean water.

Approximately 1.8 billion people across the world — mostly from low and middle-income countries — consume water with faecal contamination, according to a study published by journal Tropical Medicine and International Health in 2014.

People in these countries are prone to microbial contamination of water, while faecal contamination is the most prevalent in the Global South.

Around 1.9 billion people in the world use non-potable or faecally-contaminated water for drinking, cleaning and other related activities, mostly sourced from groundwater, said another report by the World Health Organization (WHO).

India was successful in building 16.4 million toilets in households across 650,000 villages. The technology for treating excreta on site is not safe for all the toilets, according to research conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment.

A similar scenario can be found in African countries, including Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya, all of which lack safe sanitation facilities.

Open defecation and unsafe toilet technologies lead to disposal of untreated and partially-treated excreta to open water sources.

This contaminates groundwater and soil as well.

Rural and peri-urban areas of Global South that depend majorly on groundwater or open-water sources lack access to clean water.

Diarrhoea remained the leading killer among all water-borne diseases, causing about 60 per cent of all deaths, according to a reply to the Lok Sabha by JP Nadda, the former minister for health and family welfare, on April 6, 2018.

The other waterborne diseases that affect mostly rural population are cholera, typhoid and viral hepatitis.

The dominant reason for deaths due to water-borne diseases is diarrhoea. The number of deaths because of the disease climbed to 1,450 in 2018 from 1,362 in 2017, according to 2019’s National Health Profile, an annual publication released by the Central Bureau of Health Intelligence.

Washing hands in India’s rural and peri-urban areas means using contaminated water, according to Dipankar Saha, a former additional director at Central Pollution Control Board.

This is because organic load entering groundwater is a major concern today in India, according to him.

Using soap to clean oneself is essential if this water is used because only soap can remove bacteria.

Providing access to clean water, thus, gains more significance to fight diseases like the COVID-19 outbreak.

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