How Do You Wash Your Hands To Fend Off Coronavirus If Water Is Scarce?

Mar 30, 2020
Originally published on April 4, 2020 4:55 pm

It's something we've heard again and again from health authorities in the coronavirus pandemic. Wash your hands. Frequently. With soap and water. For at least 20 seconds. That's an effective way to eliminate viral particles on your hands.

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. In these places, water is scarce for a number of reasons. It could be due to drought or climate change. Or local water supplies could be contaminated. Or the nearest source of water may be far away from home.

Aid groups and public health officials are doing all they can to help people in these communities overcome the obstacles and wash up. Washing your hands, they say, is a small action that can make a huge difference in the coronavirus pandemic.

"Hand-washing is one important tool to check and control spread," says Amanda Glassman, executive vice president at the think tank Center for Global Development — along with other known interventions such as testing, isolating the sick and social distancing.

Water that is safe enough to drink is the best option for hand-washing. The ideal is to use clean, running water to wash away germs because it is less likely to contain harmful pathogens like e-coli, which can make you sick.

So how do you get water to those in need? Aid groups can truck in vast amounts of water, for example, but many say that's expensive and unsustainable.

In less than ideal circumstances, other types of water can be used to wash hands. Non-potable water (for example, water that's been used to clean dishes or do laundry) — along with soap — can be effective, according to a 2019 study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Small-scale solutions work, too – like setting up a network of public hand-washing stations – something done in West Africa during the Ebola outbreak of 2014. "When Ebola hit, one of the big concerns was the lack of running water and sanitation for hand-washing and proper waste disposal," says Joia Mukherjee, chief medical officer of Partners In Health and associate professor of global health at Harvard Medical School. "It almost seemed like an unsolvable problem. And yet relatively rapidly, solutions were put together."

The simplest kind of hand-washing station needs just two buckets. One bucket contained a mix of chlorine and water for the washing, with a spigot so people could tap into the supply, she explains. A second bucket, underneath the spigot, caught the wastewater.

These hand-washing stations were put in public buildings, schools and markets in Ebola-affected areas — and public health officials stressed why it was important to wash hands. Soon "people adopted this hand-washing technique everywhere," says Mukherjee.

Mukherjee was heartened to see these stations again in February on trips to Liberia and Sierra Leone — set up by the countries' health authorities to combat the spread of coronavirus. "I was very pleasantly surprised that they had already re-initiated this type of hand-washing at airports and outside of public buildings like the Ministry of Health. The lessons learned from Ebola were immediately being used."

This kind of innovation is exactly what the developing world needs right now to ward off coronavirus, says Glassman, who is the author of Millions Saved: New Cases of Proven Success in Global Health. "We should deploy and test everything we've got," she says, citing the hand-washing stations. "Affordability and fast availability is what matters now."

The lower the technology, the better, says Glassman. If people can use objects and materials available in their own communities, like buckets, it makes the solution more likely to work.

One such device — which has been praised by global water researchers — is the SE200 Community Chlorine Maker. Developed by the global organization PATH, it can make chlorine from just water, salt and a car battery. Chlorine is commonly used to disinfect water because it kills many bacteria and viruses but isn't always easy to obtain. The clean water can then be used to safely wash hands.

In preparation for the surge in coronavirus cases, 13 countries from sub-Saharan Africa as well as from Myanmar and Vietnam have put in requests to PATH for the devices. The group is finalizing logistics to get them up and running.

Then there's the question of how to keep hand-washing stations safe from being a hot spot for disease transmission. Myriam Sidibe, a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, is working with the aid group WaterAid in Kenya to figure that out. They are trying to find ways to make 10,000 water stations across the country safe for people to congregate around.

The plan is introduce "social distancing nudges on the ground, similar to what we are seeing in supermarkets in some countries," says Sidibe, who is based in Nairobi. "These can be red dots painted on concrete or if the surface is more uneven you can get stones or pieces of wood and sort of partially bury it in the dirt and then paint the visible bit red."

As for soap, it's not as much of a problem as water.

Soap is available to purchase almost everywhere in the world, says Sidibe. Most people, including those living in poverty in rural and urban areas, have some kind of basic soap, even if just for laundry, she says.

But in this time of crisis, soap supplies may run short — or people who lose their income because of the pandemic may find soap is not affordable.

In New Delhi, Sudhanshu S. Singh, CEO of the nonprofit Humanitarian Aid International, has been collecting donations of soap and hand sanitizer — increasingly in short supply as the city is in lockdown — for the 1,000 refugee families he serves in Delhi.

The families fled Pakistan from persecution and are living in camp settlements in a slum. Because they are stateless, they don't have the same rights to water as Indians living in the slum, says Singh, and have even less access to water. "They're living in absolute abysmal conditions. They're vulnerable to different kinds of diseases and health issues. Eventually the virus is going to affect them."

So far, he's distributed a 15-day ration of hygiene materials and taught them proper hand-washing. To ensure the families have enough water to wash their hands, he and other groups petitioned the government to bring more water to the part of the slum where the refugees live. Last week, the authorities brought in a tanker of water to provide additional supply for drinking and hand-washing and will do so regularly.

But offering soap and water is no guarantee that people are going to wash their hands. In every country, from high income to low income, there are a lot of folks for whom a thorough scrub is not a regular habit.

"Just instructing people to wash their hands is not going to get them to do it," says Sidibe, who previously worked at a project at Unilever focused on changing hand-washing behaviors in 55 countries. "People don't practice hand-washing. It's inconvenient and they have other priorities. To change behavior, you need to create an enabling environment. You need to establish a positive social norm. And you need to make it a desirable thing to do."

In Nigeria, where there are only 111 reported coronavirus cases so far, aid groups like UNICEF have been emphasizing the importance of hand-washing in the low-income areas they serve. "We are trying to spread the message through celebrities, community and religious leaders, and reaching out to media and radio stations," says Zaid Jurji, head of UNICEF's water, sanitation and hygiene program, based in Abuja.

They're collaborating with artists to sing about hand-washing, too.

On Sunday, UNICEF posted "We go win (Corona)" to their YouTube channel. It's an original song from the popular Nigerian musician Cobhams Asuquo.

The lyrics go, "Corona no big pass us ... as long as we remember to always do the right thing: wash your hands, love each other, we go win."

The idea that a song could change behavior may seem naive, but it did work during the Ebola outbreak.

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Africa is home to some of the most densely crowded cities in the world, making it a challenge to prevent the spread of coronavirus. But public health officials across the continent say don't underestimate the power of hand-washing. NPR's Malaka Gharib has this report.

MALAKA GHARIB, BYLINE: When the Ebola epidemic emerged in West Africa in 2014, one of the big concerns was - how are people going to get access to clean running water so they can wash their hands and prevent spreading the virus?

JOIA MUKHERJEE: It almost seemed like an insolvable problem.

GHARIB: Joia Mukherjee is chief medical officer with Partners in Health. The NGO delivered medical aid to countries in West Africa during the Ebola crisis. She says in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, aid groups were trucking in loads of water. But that was expensive and unsustainable.

MUKHERJEE: And yet relatively rapidly, the solutions were put together.

GHARIB: Simple solutions, like a hand-washing station made with two ordinary buckets.

MUKHERJEE: They were largely just ordinary buckets with a spigot put in them to mix a particular solution of chlorine and then a bucket underneath the spigot for the wastewater.

GHARIB: These stations were put in buildings, schools and markets. Mukherjee says it made a huge difference in helping to control the Ebola outbreak. Now fast forward six years...

MUKHERJEE: And I was really surprised with the COVID epidemic and happy that in Liberia and Sierra Leone, two countries that I was just in a month ago - they had already reinitiated this type of hand-washing. So lessons learned from Ebola were immediately being used in these countries that still would be extremely vulnerable to COVID.

GHARIB: At the moment, the number of known coronavirus cases are relatively low in countries across Africa, but those numbers are growing. In Kenya, an organization called WaterAid is setting up 10,000 public hand-washing stations. Myriam Sidibe, who works with the group, she's a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and is based in Nairobi. She says hand-washing stations can be tricky, especially in densely populated neighborhoods where people tend to gather around communal wells and faucets.

MYRIAM SIDIBE: Fifteen minutes from where I live, where you'll have people in slums - they're very crowded. They all live in the same house. It's going to be really difficult to experience and practice what we call social distancing in those areas.

GHARIB: Sidibe and her team have some ideas for dealing with this issue, like painting red markers on the ground where people should stand, just like some supermarkets here in the United States, six feet apart. And in Nigeria, public health officials are struggling with a universal issue - a lack of hand-washing knowledge. According to a recent survey, the majority of Nigerians don't know they need to use both soap and running water in order to wash their hands. Zaid Jurji is head of UNICEF Nigeria's water sanitation and hygiene program. He says they are trying to get the word out.

ZAID JURJI: To communal leaders through religious leaders, using media, radio stations to spread the message about the importance of washing hands with soap and running water.

GHARIB: But just telling people isn't enough. Myriam Sidibe spent years working to change hand-washing behaviors in 55 countries.

SIDIBE: I would say keep making the hand-washing messages surprising, make sure that they're dynamic.


COBHAMS ASUQUO: My brother, my sister, papa, mama and pikin...

GHARIB: These days, UNICEF is collaborating with musicians to sing about hand-washing and other ways people can protect against the coronavirus. Just last Sunday, UNICEF released a song from Cobhams Asuquo, a popular Nigerian artist. The song is called "We Go Win (Corona)."


MUKHERJEE: (Singing) But if we beat am, if we stop am, if we maintain good hygiene and practice social distancing, we go win.

GHARIB: Malaka Gharib, NPR News, Washington.


ASUQUO: (Singing) No shaking hands with your neighbor. Blow them a kiss from afar. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.