OPINION: Let’s make handwashing part of our daily routine beyond Covid-19
By Lani Van Vuuren
By early October, more than 35 million people worldwide had been infected by the new coronavirus (Covid-19) while more than 1 million deaths were reported globally.
In South Africa, nearly 700 000 people had contracted the virus, with more than 17 000 deaths reported.
Mask-wearing (or in the case of US President Donald Trump, non-maskwearing) has decidedly received much attention in recent weeks as an effective measure to curb infection. Masks remain mandatory for all South Africans when in public spaces in addition to measures such as social distancing and limitations on the number of people at social gatherings.
A key intervention that requires more attention, particularly in the long-term, is the act of washing hands with water and soap.
While it is anticipated that social measures, such as the wearing of masks in public and social distancing, will eventually fade post the Covid-19 pandemic, handwashing should continue to be promoted as a key preventative measure against not only the spread of coronavirus but also against many other potentially deadly diseases.
South Africa, along with the rest of the world, celebrates Global Handwashing Day today (Thursday).
First introduced in 2008, the day is dedicated to increasing awareness and understanding the importance of handwashing with soap as an effective and affordable way to prevent diseases and save lives.
Handwashing has long been touted as an effective weapon in the arsenal against death and disease.
Illnesses such as intestinal infectious disease (including diarrhoea) and respiratory illnesses (including influenza and pneumonia), which are among the leading causes of death for children under the age of 5 in South Africa, are hand hygiene-related diseases that can be prevented through improved hygiene practices.
This includes handwashing. Evidence published by the Department of Health shows that handwashing can reduce the incidence of diarrhoea by as much as 50% and respiratory infections by almost 25%.
Information about handwashing practices in South Africa prior to Covid-19 is not readily available. However, globally, only about 20% of people regularly wash their hands.
Certainly, a lack of access to handwashing facilities, including soap and potable water, has played a role in the general absence of regular handwashing by South Africans.
A global study by the World Health Organization and the UN Children’s Fund, published in 2017, indicated that only 24% of households in eastern and southern Africa have a dedicated place for washing hands and soap and water on-premises.
In addition, only 20% of schools in this region had handwashing facilities with soap and water available to pupils.
The new coronavirus has led to a renewed effort in providing the necessary water resources to all South Africans in the form of a large-scale roll out of water tanks, and donation of public handwashing stations.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also brought a more intensive handwashing element to the table.
Under normal circumstances, people are advised to wash hands before eating, after using the toilet, after touching garbage or blowing their nose, for example. Now, people are additionally advised to wash their hands after they have been in a public place and touched a frequently touched item, such as door handles or shopping carts.
People also need to wash their hands before touching their eyes, nose or mouth.
Scientists have reported a significant improvement in handwashing practices in South Africa since the outbreak of Covid-19.
An online survey by market researcher Ipsos found that 91% of surveyed South Africans washed their hands more often, while a similar survey by the Human Sciences Research Council found that 95% of respondents washed their hands more frequently than usual.
Now is the time to cement this good behaviour in the psyche of South African communities. Authorities should build on the current momentum to encourage this good behaviour and ensure the necessary resources are available to all South Africans.
Handwashing is simple and should be part of everyone’s daily routine. Altering human behaviour towards regular handwashing beyond Covid will be a strong start to decreasing prevalence of bacterial and viral diseases.
Lani Van Vuuren is a knowledge dissemination manager at the Water Research Commission and writes in her personal capacity.