WASH in the Time of COVID-19

USAID Water Team
Jul 28 · 8 min read

To control further spread of a deadly disease, USAID and its partners are pivoting to improve access to safe water, sanitation, and hygiene, bolstering public health at a critical moment as the worst pandemic in 100 years sweeps the globe.

Image for post
Image for post
Regular handwashing with soap is a key behavior for reducing infection and transmission risk for COVID-19. Photo credit: Water and Development Alliance

Since it emerged in late 2019, COVID-19 has gained a foothold in more than 185 countries, claimed more than 645,000 lives, sickened more than 16 million people, and become the world’s worst public health crisis in a century.

Joining a fight that is at once global and local, USAID is marshaling its considerable expertise and resources in the field of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) to help stabilize public health at a time of great uncertainty. The Agency is working in close coordination with communities, governments, development partners, and the private sector to help contain the spread of the disease. This all-hands-on-deck approach is working to flatten the infection curve, buying crucial time for local and national health care systems to increase testing capacity, improve contact tracing, and develop surge capacity at hospitals to treat serious cases.

USAID’s Approach

In the absence of a treatment or vaccine for COVID-19, the strategic approach emphasizes that one of the greatest tools in the battle against COVID-19 is also one of the simplest — handwashing with soap — shown to be one the most effective behaviors for reducing the risk of infection and transmission.

In addition to promoting this vital hygiene behavior, USAID’s contribution to the global fight against COVID-19 includes facilitation of public education campaigns to improve personal hygiene habits, decrease transmission risk, and build communities’ resilience in the face of the ongoing pandemic.

Water service providers are also facing a perfect storm of declining revenues and sharply rising costs as a result of this pandemic. Sustaining water services is critical for public health and handwashing, and provides a foundation for safely reopening schools, businesses, and public spaces. USAID is leveraging its expertise in WASH to help service providers continue operations, secure critical supplies, and avoid financial collapse.

USAID missions around the world are putting the Agency’s new strategic approach into action every day in the fight to more quickly contain and control COVID-19. Read how in the stories below.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
USAID/Indonesia has supported the installation of more than 5,000 handwashing stations in recent months. Photo credit: IUWASH PLUS

INDONESIA

Working in 120 communities spread across 35 municipalities, USAID IUWASH PLUS and its partners supported the installation of 5,000 handwashing stations, more than 900 soap dispensers, and nearly 700 water taps. In March 2020, IUWASH PLUS began collaborating with puskesmas (community health clinics) to educate the public about handwashing with soap, using a variety of channels to reach residents including radio jingles and social media posts. These efforts are supplemented with strategic messaging emphasizing the importance of either remaining at home or physical distancing when in public.

Meanwhile, to ensure residents’ uninterrupted access to water, the government has mandated that local water utilities must provide customers with free water for the next three months. To support the 25 partner utilities affected by this new mandate and the resulting decrease in revenue, USAID IUWASH PLUS is assisting them to plan their capital needs and strategize how to meet those needs while providing more free water. This support is maintaining continuity of water supply and keeping faucets from running dry.

Improving access to hygiene-related infrastructure continues: IUWASH PLUS is setting up handwashing stations equipped with soap not only outside puskesmas, but also near other centers of community life, such as the local mosque.

“I hope the community understands the importance of clean and healthy behaviors,” says Wheny Susianti of Surakarta city in Central Java. “Hopefully, the handwashing-with-soap facilities will remind people to wash their hands with soap,” a key behavior for stopping the transmission of COVID-19.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
In South Sudan, strengthening handwashing habits is an emerging priority to help stem the spread of COVID-19. Photo credit: USAID OFDA

SOUTH SUDAN

Efforts to educate the public on best practices for avoiding COVID-19 infection target particularly high-risk communities, such as the densely populated sites hosting people displaced by the conflict that began in 2013. In these settlements, where donors provide safe water and sanitation, USAID support enabled UNICEF to recently reach nearly 30,000 residents in Juba with emergency WASH infrastructure and services.

USAID funding is also helping ramp up additional infection prevention and control measures such as routine cleaning and disinfection of sanitation facilities and water points. “USAID’s continuing support,” says Tina Yu, head of the USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team in South Sudan, “will allow frontline workers to continue combating COVID-19 in the places at greatest risk of infection.”

USAID support is empowering other development partners to make a substantial impact, such as Action Against Hunger International, which now provides handwashing demonstrations to community members visiting its health and nutrition centers. Meanwhile, USAID partner International Organization for Migration installed handwashing stations in high-traffic areas such as transportation hubs and marketplaces. This USAID implementer also focuses on building leadership capacity and holding training sessions with local community leaders so that they may educate their neighbors and spread the word about healthy hand hygiene.

Image for post
Image for post
Temperature checks have become a way of life in India, which now has the world’s third highest number of confirmed COVID-19 infections. Photo credit: Gwydion Williams

INDIA

To help reduce the risk of unchecked disease transmission, USAID/India and local partners are working to improve conditions in the country’s densely populated urban informal settlements. Through its Moving India Towards Sanitation for All (MISAAL) activity, USAID/India empowers sanitation committees to improve access to vital hygiene and sanitation services. In addition to promoting healthy sanitation and hygiene habits among residents of slum settlements, these committees serve as intermediaries between residents and local government bodies, facilitating the installation of in-home toilets and improving upon existing sewer infrastructure.

Beyond its push to strengthen WASH in urban settlements, USAID/India teamed up with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to facilitate a government public education campaign to help protect frontline health care staff and quarantined households from prejudice. Since March 2020, USAID has trained close to 40,000 health workers on COVID-19 prevention and response in the 12 states where it implements programs, directly benefiting 2.5 million people in India.

Image for post
Image for post
Oshodi, Lagos. Photo credit: Adedotun Ajibade

NIGERIA

“The importance of water, sanitation, and hygiene has been emphasized by the COVID-19 pandemic,” noted USAID/Nigeria Mission Director Stephen Haykin in May, as the outbreak spread.

Ever since the earliest known confirmed COVID-19 infections in Nigeria, USAID’s Effective Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Services (E-WASH) program, which partners with utilities in six Nigerian states to improve water access, intensified efforts to improve WASH services. For example, Nosa Okoh, general manager of the Delta State Urban Water Corporation, pledged to provide a “constant safe water supply” in his jurisdiction, to decrease transmission risk. E-WASH is also supporting the digitization of payment services; e-billing enables customers to reduce unnecessary visits to the utility to pay their bills to better promote social distancing.

The state water utilities that E-WASH partners with are shaping other aspects of Nigeria’s evolving response to the pandemic as well. USAID and the Taraba Water and Sewage Corporation recently helped convene Nigerian media professionals, who exchanged ideas on how to combat COVID-19 misinformation and shared best practices for responsibly informing the public about the nature of the disease. Apart from its support to water utilities, USAID/Nigeria also collaborated with telecommunications firms to deliver messaging about safe hygiene habits to millions of Nigerian cell phone users and provided direct technical support to the National WASH Response on COVID-19, including implementing risk communication interventions such as signs and pictorial guidance on the proper use of masks and information resources for hand hygiene.

The Path Forward

By Russell Sticklor

This article appears in Global Waters, Vol. 11, Issue 3; for past issues of the magazine, visit Global Waters’ homepage on Globalwaters.org.

Global Waters

Global Waters tells the story of USAID's water-related…

USAID Water Team

Written by

USAID and its partners improve access to clean water and safe sanitation to create a healthier and more #WaterSecureWorld. For more, visit Globalwaters.org.

Global Waters

Global Waters tells the story of USAID's water-related efforts around the globe, featuring in-depth articles exploring solutions to local as well as global water challenges, opinion pieces by development professionals, and first-hand accounts from stakeholders and beneficiaries.

USAID Water Team

Written by

USAID and its partners improve access to clean water and safe sanitation to create a healthier and more #WaterSecureWorld. For more, visit Globalwaters.org.

Global Waters

Global Waters tells the story of USAID's water-related efforts around the globe, featuring in-depth articles exploring solutions to local as well as global water challenges, opinion pieces by development professionals, and first-hand accounts from stakeholders and beneficiaries.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store