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Washing your hands may be an important part of preventing the spread of COVID-19, but that is difficult for many who lack adequate water service.

Hand-washing is the first line of defense against the coronavirus

Hand-washing is the first line of defense against the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Maggie Montgomery of the World Health Organization’s Office of Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH), “Fundamentally, hand hygiene is the number one means of prevention.” The WHO recommends “frequent and proper” hand-washing, but that poses difficulties when so many people worldwide lack running water. In some parts of the world, hand-washing facilities are not common. In the developing world:

  • 75% of households have no access to a facility to wash hands with soap and water
  • Half of health care facilities lack running water and fewer than 40% have hand-washing soap on hand.

In the absence of hand-washing facilities, WHO officials warn that aid workers not only are at risk of contracting diseases, but may become vectors themselves.

Water and Sanitation as Economic Issues

Limited resources are often blamed for lack of sanitation and running water in many areas, but investment may have been slow because the problem has been framed largely as a social or even environmental problem rather than an economic one. But the COVID-19 pandemic has been unmasking them as primarily an economic concern. This includes access to hand-washing facilities. The world is learning the hard lesson that the economic costs of a pandemic are high for entire economies, for stock markets, and at the level of individual families.

Richard Connor, editor of a new United Nations World Water Development report, is hopeful. “Realising the economic importance of water and sanitation should provide an additional catalyst for greater investment,” he said. When macroeconomic advantages are considered in the equation, evidence suggests that worldwide, there may be a mean benefit–cost ratio of 5.5 for investment in improved sanitation and 2.0 for investment in improved drinking water.

Not Just a Developing-World Problem

Although metropolitan water utilities in the United States are widely declaring moratoria on water service cut-offs for nonpayment during the pandemic, more than 2.2 million U.S. citizens in underserved communities in all states have no clean running water connection or indoor plumbing, leaving them to fight the COVID-19 pandemic without an important first line of defense. The data reveal a racial chasm: African-American and Latino households are twice as likely to not have full plumbing access. Indigenous households are 19 times more likely.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, George McGraw, founder of the DigDeep water access nonprofit, recounted the heartbreaking story of installing indoor plumbing for an Arizona woman and her son, a disabled veteran. Work was forced to a stop due to the pandemic before it was complete, and both mother and son soon contracted and died of the disease. McGraw was left to wonder if their lives could have been saved if they had been able to wash their hands in running water.

The heartbreaking experience emphasized for McGraw the human cost of the water and sanitation access problem, but he frames the solution in terms of economic benefits:

Investing in our water system is one of the smartest ways to help jump-start the economic recovery, creating jobs and generating economic activity. Most important, it will make us more resilient to future outbreaks of the coronavirus or another viral threat and provide those without water the health and dignity we all deserve.