In South Asia, washing hands with soap and water still receives too low a priority at home and in schools: almost two out of five people in South Asia do not have a designated handwashing facility with soap and water on premises. This is despite the widespread availability of basic water supplies in homes in the region. Moreover, the Joint Monitoring Programme reports that about 52 % of schools report having access to handwashing facilities with water and soap (defined as a basic service). Data for health care facilities is limited. Handwashing facilities with soap and water are more prevalent in urban than in rural areas of South Asia.
The COVID-19 pandemic gives more impetus to hand hygiene in all public places. According to Our World in Data, as of December 5, there have been around 39 million confirmed COVID-19 cases with over 560,000 deaths reported in the South Asia region. The recent advent of the Omicron variant has taught us that without protecting everyone, everywhere we all remain vulnerable.
Global vision for hand hygiene
The pandemic response promoted the need to acquire hand hygiene habits, making washing our hands a social norm and installing handwashing facilities in public places, beyond the toilet and kitchen.
If it becomes unacceptable or frowned upon not to wash your hands at key moments – like not defecating in the open – then demand will motivate the supply of hand hygiene facilities and products. Shops and buildings would install handwashing facilities at their entrances (like they have done for COVID-19), schools include soap purchases in their budgets, health care facilities install hand sanitizer or handwashing facilities in all relevant places and we will see handwashing facilities in offices, factories and on temporary work locations. Moreover, governments will ensure the enabling environment necessary for the achievement of the hygiene targets for SDG 6. And the private sector will make affordable products and services available, especially in disadvantaged areas.
To achieve such a vision, UNICEF and WHO launched the Global Hand Hygiene for All initiative in 2020. The aim of the initiative is to support the most vulnerable communities with the means to wash their hands – in all settings. It brings together international partners, national governments, public and private sectors, and civil society to, and to enable a culture of hygiene.
Our response in the region
As part of this global Initiative, countries in the South Asia region and elsewhere are producing national roadmaps setting out how government and partners plan to achieve Hand Hygiene for All. We are proud to say that Pakistan is the first country to produce and start implementing such a roadmap. You can see their roadmap here.
A Hand Hygiene for Asia partnership has also been established between UNICEF, SWA, WHO, FANSA, WaterAid, Plan International and others across Asia and the Pacific regions. The pillars of the Hand Hygiene for Asia partnership are aligned with those of the global Hand Hygiene For All initiative: behaviour change, supplies and services and the enabling environment.
To celebrate Global Handwashing Day 2021, UNICEF and Hand Hygiene for Asia partners organised two public Hand Hygiene for Asia virtual events on the themes of behaviour change and supplies and services.
To document the current hand hygiene environment in each country, the UNICEF Regional Office jointly with country offices developed Hand Hygiene Snapshots for each country to be used in support of the development of HH4A roadmaps and national advocacy. The snapshots highlight JMP data, enabling environment pillars, behaviour change approaches, innovation and supplies as well as COVID-19 responses.
Please download the Hand Hygiene Country Snapshots from the links below:
So, what is the future of hand hygiene in the region?
In the South Asia region UNICEF is working with partners to expand opportunities for hand hygiene for all. We will have achieved hand hygiene for all when everyone who finds themselves in a situation that merits hand washing, knows they should and is able to do so. This includes the moments most of us have long been aware of, (the 5 moments traditionally promoted), as well as those associated with COVID-19 such as using public transportation, on entering buildings etc.
Our focus is on rolling out national roadmaps and addressing some context specific challenges including innovation in hand hygiene and sustaining behaviour change for hand hygiene post COVID-19. We are also supporting businesses to learn and take action to improve hand hygiene in workplaces, business operations and supply chains, and surrounding communities.