Covid-19 News Water & Sanitation

Washing hands is a luxury, not a priority

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Written by Lilita Gcwabe

Washing your hands with soap is a simple but critical step in fighting infectious diseases, like Covid-19. But access to clean water and soap remains a luxury for over two billion people around the world, including millions of South Africans.

At the Organic Market settlement in Johannesburg, over one thousand residents jostle for access to the fifteen available taps that provide water to the occupants of five hundred shacks.

“Most of these taps are placed on our side which means that more than two hundred people have to come from the other side to get water”, said 28 year old Mpho Mmasechaba, who’s lived in Organic Market with her family for 5 years.

She’s accustomed to the sight of women and children carrying five to six buckets at a time to avoid having to repeatedly walk the long distance to the tap.

Here, the use of water is rationed carefully, and washing their hands is a low priority. “We use water to cook, to clean, to bathe ourselves, and to drink. The thought of washing hands comes second to all of that,” explained Mmasechaba. “Just washing hands for the sake of having clean hands. No. I wouldn’t just wash my hands when I know how far the tap is. That would be a luxury!”

Global Handwashing Day

Global Handwashing Day is an annual advocacy day that encourages hand washing with soap as an easy, effective, and affordable way to prevent diseases and save lives. Studies show that washing hands reduces cases of diarrhoea by 30 percent.

In South Africa, diarrhoea is a killer disease, resulting in a staggering 20% of all deaths in children under five years of age.

According to the U.S Centre for Disease Control (CDC) hand washing can reduce respiratory illness, like colds, by at least 16 percent. But soap is not always readily available either, making a rinse with water the only option.

Another resident of Organic Market, *Gerald Khuzwayo, 30, fixes cars for a living and does other casual handyman jobs. He washes his hands only when they seem dirty.

“Mostly I just use water to wash my hands unless I am at my place and I am going to eat, then I use soap. Otherwise, mostly, I use water because I wash my hands at the tap on the way to somewhere or the ones that are near the toilets,” he explained.

Children’s Health

Mmasechaba is concerned about the children though, as they ‘play in the street with dirty things that they pick up from anywhere.’ With no easy access to piped water, ‘few of them wash their hands’, she said.

The CDC also found that hand washing could cut absenteeism due to gastrointestinal illnesses in school children by between 29 to 57 percent.

Why wash?

According to the CDC, germs from unwashed hands can be transferred to food and drink when people eat or handle food, and under certain conditions, they multiply and cause illness.

Salmonella and norovirus, which cause diarrhoea and other respiratory infections, live in human and animal faeces and can transfer to hands after people use the bathroom, change a diaper, or handle raw meats. – Health-e News

About the author

Lilita Gcwabe