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Published on: 05/03/2020

It’s a clarion call that rings even louder within the WASH community. After all, its work to help everyone obtain clean water, sanitation and hygiene, doesn’t begin and end with washing your hands.

The WASH community has long known the challenges to prevent the spread of disease are inter-connected; good personal hygiene, food hygiene, even phone hygiene, all stem from safe sanitation and the availability of clean water. Put bluntly, without safe sanitation and good hygiene shit gets everywhere - whether you’re washing, cooking, or greeting each other. And disease is its dance partner.

Right now, it’s shocking to realise that there are 42 countries where more than half of the population live in homes which lack basic handwashing facilities with soap and water (Joint Monitoring Programme). Worse still, the World Health Organization and UNICEF estimate that 43% of global clinics and healthcare facilities have nowhere to wash your hands. 896 million people who visit them will find no clean water. And 1.5 billion will find no safe sanitation (UNICEF & WHO, 2019). You could be forgiven for asking how healthy these facilities really are?

It's all the more terrifying when you consider the impact of COVID-19. While the virus outbreaks don’t appear to have reached much of the world, that doesn’t mean COVID-19 isn’t present. The data may not be but COVID-19 most likely is. Having spread like wildfire where handwashing and healthcare aren’t a luxury, it will spread even faster in countries that lack both.

If that makes you jump, the WASH community is jumping higher - as this recent podcast explains. And, since we, as IRC an international think-and-do-tank delivering resilient WASH systems, are challenging everyone (including ourselves!), to use the momentum around COVID-19 to renew our energy and focus to bring resilient WASH systems to health centres and homes across the developing world. So, as is proposed in this recent blog, let’s break out of our silos for WASH and Health, co-ordinate, integrate and mitigate the threat of COVID-19.

How? By focussing on a three-point strategy. 

Firstly, the WASH community must support health authorities in tackling the outbreak by;

  • Amplifying the emphasis on hygiene and handwashing by any means;
  • Make available its expertise, from technical solutions to campaigning and improving water security;
  • Prioritise its work with healthcare facilities to prevent them becoming sources of viral transmission.

Secondly, media needs to shift its attention to include developing countries where WASH is a rarity. COVID-19 doesn’t recognise national borders, so wherever it has a foothold it will continue to grow and spread.

And finally, let’s rally political support for WASH as a fundamental provision for public health and shift global attitudes and practices towards hygiene.

It is after all, a basic human right.

However challenging and traumatic the fight against COVID-19 may become in the months ahead, we must encourage greater commitment to delivering WASH systems, because as the news keeps telling us, hygiene is our best form of defence.


At IRC we have strong opinions and we value honest and frank discussion, so you won't be surprised to hear that not all the opinions on this site represent our official policy.

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