Why regular handwashing is essential beyond COVID-19

Lambert Karangwa, Senior WASH Expert at Water Aid-Rwanda and the Mayor of Nyamagabe during the Global handwashing day. Courtesy.

On Thursday, Rwanda joined the rest of the world to celebrate this year’s Global Handwashing Day (GHWD), under the theme “Hand Hygiene for all”, a call for all of society to achieve universal hand hygiene.

Sharon Kantengwa spoke to Lambert Karangwa, the senior water expert, at WaterAid Rwanda that represented WASH stakeholders in the celebration. 


Karangwa spoke about the importance of handwashing beyond a pandemic as well trends in hygiene and sanitation in Rwanda.


When people hear of global hand washing day they assume it’s purely about washing hands. Is that the case?


It’s a day set aside to upscale hygiene and sanitation globally after realizing the risks associated with poor hygiene, especially in developing countries and was established by the Global Handwashing Partnership in 2008. The day reemphasizes understanding the importance of handwashing with clean water and soap for all and reminding everyone to improve their hygiene and sanitation practices.

Good hygiene behaviours including hand washing should be an essential part of everyone’s lives

 Good hygiene behaviours including hand washing should be an essential part of everyone’s lives: be at home, accessing education, accessing health care, other parts of our daily lives -public transportation and market places.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also provided a stark reminder that one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of a disease is also one of the simplest: hand hygiene, especially through handwashing with soap. To beat COVID-19 today and ensure better health outcomes beyond the pandemic, hand hygiene must be a priority now and in the future.

Even with the current pandemic that requires regular handwashing, less than 5% of households in Rwanda are equipped in the practice of handwashing with soap. What does this say about the hygiene trends in Rwanda?

According to the Ministry of Health, only 4.4% of households in Rwanda are equipped with facilities that have soap and water to enable the practice of handwashing with soap at critical moments. This situation shows the dire need to improve on Handwashing facilities to help communities stay healthy.

This is why we are joining the district leaders, youth and other stakeholders in WASH sector to mobilise communities for hand hygiene, a way of strengthening the ongoing national campaign #SHISHOZA aimed at fighting the COVID-19.

Handwashing facilities are however not enough alone. Emphasis on regular use of soap, and running water is key. Good Hygiene means Facility-Water-soap is used regularly in combination.

Besides preventing the contraction of the coronavirus, what are some of the ailments one becomes prone to when they don’t practice regular handwashing?

Keeping hands clean can prevent one in three diarrheal illnesses and one in five respiratory infections, such as a cold or the flu. Handwashing with soap and water is not only simple and inexpensive, but is also proven to dramatically reduce the number of children who get sick.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face in teaching about hygiene?

The poor access to water, soap and infrastructure discourages behavioral change. Without clean water, good hygiene and sanitation, the very places like homes and public places which are supposed to make you better and keep you well, are at high risk of becoming breeding grounds, not only for Covid-19 but other ailments.

This is why we contributed in establishing permanent handwashing facilities built at four points namely Nyamagabe Taxi and Bus Park, Gasaka, Gasarenda and Kaduha markets.

What can be done to ensure that handwashing goes from just being a 'one off' campaign to becoming an effective hygiene behaviour?

Handwashing with soap is included in SDG 6 of clean water and sanitation, and in target 6.2 for sanitation and hygiene. Achievement of targets on hygiene and handwashing is important for attaining other targets such as those on child survival, nutrition, education, equity, and gender.

As such we need to increase participation of government, development partners, and private investment in WASH services. We also need to invest in behavioral change programmes and ensure improvement and sustainability of WASH facilities.


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