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Explained: Why hand washing is a luxury for many Indians

For residents of many slum colonies situated across Mumbai it is not possible to put into practice any of the protective measures against COVID-19 prescribed by the WHO, including social distancing.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | March 21, 2020 9:29:06 pm
Close up of woman washing hands in the bathroom.

On Thursday, The Indian Express reported that while there has been no evidence of community transmission in Maharashtra, the state has reported over 45 cases of coronavirus along with one death.

Amid this outbreak, one piece of advice that has repeatedly been announced is the one urging people to wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. This combination is considered to be one of the most effective ways of ridding one’s hands of the coronavirus, thereby reducing the risk of getting infected. “Regularly and thoroughly clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or wash them with soap and water,” the WHO has said.

Significantly, the report states that for residents of many slum colonies situated across Mumbai it is not possible to put into practice any of the protective measures against COVID-19 prescribed by the WHO, including social distancing.

The residents of Mandala colony, for instance, do not have household water connections nor do they have community water standposts. Further, in this area over 6,000 people use a single toilet block and hundreds of men and children defecate in small open spaces, making social distancing, hand washing and maintaining respiratory hygiene a next to impossible task for them, which in turn makes these dwellers especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

How does India fare in giving its citizens access to clean water?

According to water.org, over 99 million Indians lack access to safe water. Further, according to WHO, four percent of all deaths and 5.7 per cent of all disability or ill health in the world is due to poor drinking water access, unimproved sanitation and poor hygiene practices. A 2017 WHO report titled, “Forgetting to wash your hands can cost lives” states that in India and many low- and middle-income countries practicing good hand hygiene is not easy because many don’t have access to water, a toilet or soap.

Further, according to the Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene 2019, over 37 million people in India have no access to handwashing facilities at home.

The figure is worse for some of the African nations such as Guinea, where more than 50 per cent of the population does not have access to handwashing facilities, followed by Senegal, Somalia, Sudan and Zambia. With more than 97 per cent of the population with no access to handwashing facilities at home, Liberia comes last. Recently, WHO’s first African head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has told Africa to “wake up” to the threat of the coronavirus outbreak and be prepared. There have been over 600 positive cases of COVID-19 across the continent.

In fact, the combination of water and soap is not only essential for protecting against COVID-19, but also for other diseases such as diarrhea, which is one of the leading causes of death among children under the age of five globally. As per an NCBI report, diarrhea is the third leading cause of childhood mortality in India and is responsible for about 13 per cent of all deaths per year among children under the age of five. Some of the ways of preventing this disease include handwashing with soap, access to safe drinking water and the use of improved sanitation.

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