When Ebola struck Liberia in 2014, the virus exposed glaring flaws in the country’s public health system that greatly accelerated the spread of the disease, and ultimately contributed to the deaths of roughly 3,000 people during the outbreak.
Chief among the flaws was an almost complete absence of accessible water and sanitation.
Four years later, the country is well on its way to making sure its population has access to clean water, according to Pacific Standard. In addition to safeguarding the country against future public health crises, it’s a mission that also mitigates poverty, expands educational opportunities, increases gender equality, and provides people with an essential service.
While taken for granted in many wealthy countries, access to water and sanitation is a major cause of poverty and inequality all around the world. More than 2.1 billion people lack access to readily accessible clean water, and 4.5 billion people lack access to quality sanitation systems, according to the World Health Organization.
In Liberia, water and sanitation infrastructure was thoroughly destroyed during a 14-year civil war that ended in 2003. Since then, a severe lack of resources and government mismanagement prevented the problem from being addressed, the Pacific Standard reports.
As a result, people throughout the country often had to purchase bottled water, get water trucked to their homes, or draw potentially contaminated water from remote wells.
Because of the meager availability of affordable water, hand washing was often seen as a wasteful use of water, according to report by UNICEF.
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"People said that washing hands was good practice, but I couldn't make water appear like magic," Cecilia Tubman, a nurse who responded to the Ebola outbreak, told Pacific Standard. "As a country, we never used to wash our hands. All day long we would touch things. Then we would go home and eat together. But the fingers move everywhere.”
Although it wasn’t really an option, the fact that a majority of people weren’t regularly washing their hands meant that diseases were more likely to spread.
In fact, the prevalence of pneumonia and diarrhea, two of the leading causes of death for children under the age of five around the world, can be more than cut in half through effective hand washing habits.
When Ebola arrived in 2014, the lack of handwashing facilities and the inability of health workers to sanitize equipment, among other factors, enabled the disease’s rapid spread.
The ravaging nature of Ebola served as a stark wake-up call for the country.
Shortly afterward, signs and billboards began propounding the benefits of hand washing, and soap and chlorine began appearing through cities.
Then the government got down to the difficult work of installing water pipes to make sure people could practice hygiene on a daily basis.
Progress isn’t happening overnight, but more and more communities are receiving clean tap water as the months go by.
It’s a change that’s doing more than just giving people peace of mind against Ebola.
It’s also saving people money, expanding businesses, letting people stay healthy by hydrating themselves throughout the day, and improving gender equality.
Girls in communities with piped-in water are more likely to attend school while menstruating, Pacific Standard notes. In countries without adequate access to water and sanitation, girls are often forced to stay home to avoid stigma and health risks.
For Cecilia Tubman, the Ebola-hardened nurse, the new access to water is transformative.
“People say that Ebola stripped our culture, but I think good hygiene practices have added more value to our culture,” she said.