UNICEF announced on Monday, World Water Day, that it has supported 150 community-based organizations in an initiative to clean and disinfect public toilets across Mumbai to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
The organization and its partners stepped in quickly to respond to the virus in India, where the COVID-19 death rate has increased faster than any other South Asian country. India had nearly 100,000 new cases daily in September 2020 and, despite a recent decline in the spread of the virus, reached a total of 11.6 million cases on Monday.
UNICEF has already seen an impact in Mumbai’s densely populated Cheeta Camp area, where many people don’t have toilets in their homes.
Fiza, an 11-year-old who lives in Cheeta Camp, described having to carry a bucket filled with water to the community bathroom before UNICEF’s intervention.
“There was no soap, and the bathroom smelled really bad,” Fiza said in a UNICEF video.
Fiza’s community bathroom is now fully equipped with running water, sinks, and soap. The organization and its partners also taught the community how to use the new bathroom properly. Experts have warned that solutions for lack of access to water and sanitation require education that promotes behavior change in addition to providing facilities.
People living in poverty who don’t have access to a private bathroom are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends frequent handwashing with soap and water for 20 seconds to protect against the virus. The group also recommends social distancing, avoiding touching the face, and practicing respiratory hygiene. Research conducted at Yangzhou University in China in June 2020 found that when a toilet is flushed, aerosol droplets can potentially travel into the air and spread COVID-19.
As in many of the world’s most vulnerable communities, infection rates have been especially high. This is true in Mumbai and in India’s other crowded areas where social distancing is not possible and that lack access to water and sanitation facilities.
Access to handwashing tends to be unavailable in countries that also have weak health systems. The consequences can be a life-threatening risk for various diseases and respiratory infections. It is estimated that 910 million people in India lack access to improved sanitation and 26% of the population practices open defecation.
Poor access to water and sanitation keeps people in cycles of poverty.
UNICEF has provided 3.6 million people across India with water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) supplies. And it has helped educate 660 million families on how to protect themselves against COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. The organization is also working to equip communities with WASH facilities that accommodate different genders and adhere to COVID-19 guidelines.