Handwashing ‘impossible’ for one in three amid COVID-19

Laos Kids washing hands
Children at a primary school in the Laos province of Oudomxay washing their hands. A global report has found that three in ten people are unable to do this in their homes. Copyright: Bart Verweij / World Bank, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). This image has been cropped.

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  • One in three unable to properly wash hands at home during COVID-19 – WHO-UNICEF
  • Progress on water, sanitation and hygiene ‘must quadruple’ to meet 2030 target
  • Investment and prioritisation needed ‘at the highest levels’

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Health experts cited frequent handwashing as a key way to prevent the spread of infection as COVID-19 took hold. But a global report has found that three in ten people were unable to do this in their homes.

The joint World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF report also found that nearly half the world’s population in 2020 lacked safely managed sanitation and one in four lacked safe drinking water.

Current rates of progress would need to increase four-fold globally — and ten times in the least developed countries — to meet the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of universal access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene by 2030, warned the report.

“At the beginning of the pandemic WHO was calling for very good hygienic practises […] but for 2.3 billion people who do not have a place to wash their hands, it was impossible.”

Maria Neira, director, WHO department of environment, climate change and health

Sub-Saharan Africa was found to have the slowest rate of progress in the world, with only 54 per cent of people using safe drinking water. The picture is even more bleak in contexts that are considered ‘fragile’ — states facing political, economic and environmental crises and where national systems for monitoring water, sanitation and hygiene services are often weak.

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the gaps in provision, with people confined to their homes during lockdowns worldwide.

Maria Neira, director of the WHO department of environment, climate change and health, said: “At the beginning of the pandemic WHO was calling for very good hygienic practices — washing your hands regularly, with soap and water — but for 2.3 billion people who do not have a place to wash their hands, it was impossible.”

WASH July 2021 graphic

Tom Slaymaker, a statistics specialist for UNICEF, said it was too early to assess the medium- and long-term impacts of COVID-19 on progress towards the SDG targets for water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH).

“During the pandemic many countries have suspended routine data collection, and this means it’s very difficult to calculate any impact, positive or negative, on the overall levels of WASH services,” he said.

But it is “pretty clear that the world is not on track to achieve the SDG targets” for these basic needs, he added.

The report found that some progress had been made in all areas between 2016 and 2020, including a seven per cent rise in safely managed sanitation services.


However, if progress is not accelerated, the report estimates that 1.6 billion people will not have access to safe drinking water at home by 2030, 2.8 billion people will not have safe sanitation services and 1.9 billion people will be living without basic handwashing facilities.

Rachael McDonnell, deputy director general for the International Water Management Institute, says data collection is crucial to furthering progress. “Credible and timely data are essential to the realisation of the SDGs, as they help decision-makers to identify countries, people and sectors that are left behind, and set priorities for increased efforts and investments,” she said.

“Environmental flow assessments are one concrete example. They can give a quick, accessible assessment of the quantity, quality and timing of water flows across entire river basins helping to ensure that all user needs, including those of the environment, can be taken into account.”

The report — Progress on household drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene, 2000-2020 — says accelerating progress will require prioritisation at the highest levels of decision-making by international agencies, governments, civil society and the private sector.

Students washing hands

Students wash their hands in the Somali region of Ethiopia. Research by WaterAid found that an average investment of US$229 billion a year up to 2030 is required to get safe water, sanitation and hygiene to unserved populations. Copyright: UNICEF Ethiopia / NahomTesfaye. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Research by WaterAid found an average investment of US$229 billion a year up to 2030 is required to get safe water, sanitation and hygiene to unserved populations in lower-income and lower-middle income countries.

“This investment needs to be allocated in an accountable manner, targeted to marginalised populations, and contribute to strengthening systems,” said Alana Potter, senior policy analyst for the UK-based non-profit organisation.

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Oliver Cumming, director of the environmental health group at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says the joint WHO-UNICEF report should be a “wake-up call for leaders”.

“The science and the ambition of the SDG target point in the same direction: universal access to safely managed services is necessary and attainable,” he said, adding: “We need leaders to seize the opportunity of investment in these services which underpin public health but also support economic, social and environmental justice in all countries.”

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