November 19, 2020

Water, Sanitation and Hygiene | Insights from Charcha 2020

WASH in the times of Covid-19

While the Covid-19 pandemic has brought the entire world to a standstill and led to a situation of helplessness, it has also given us several important lessons for public and environmental health. The need for equitable and inclusive water, sanitation and hygiene services is one of them.Hygiene has become the frontline defence strategy for fighting the situation.Water and sanitation have regained strength as important ingredients of health strategies. WASH has been given primary importance in the priorities of healthcare facilities. Society at large has been forced to accept the significance of sanitation workers and their contributions – though previously the health, safety and dignity of these workers used to be the sole concern of select WASH sector organisations and human rights groups. Hygiene communication has touched newer horizons with several innovative channels and strategies being deployed, thereby overcoming the limitations of lockdowns and preventive protocols.


Sustaining lessons from Covid-19, for a better future in WASH

Evidence based and consistent applied forms of WASHand waste management practices in healthcare and facilities will certainly help to prevent the human to human transmission of viruses. It becomes very important for the healing hands of health workers to remain  the healing hands and not the carriers of fatal diseases. Improving access to wash and health care facilities designed with gender consideration and equality can contribute to sustainable improvement of quality of health care services and support core aspects of universal health care services.

Even among the poor there are “hidden communities”who are struggling to make ends meet and that WASH services should be tailored to their needs as well. If WASH is not harnessed, the fight against COVID becomes harder. 


Rural India and its WASH priorities

Access to safe water in rural India is an unfulfilled wish. Rs.3.6 lakh crores was envisaged for Jaljeevan Mission but in the pandemic situation, its application is doubtful. The need of the hour is to trust the ability of the local Panchayat leaders to plan for themselves and to create space and opportunity for devolution of funds, functions and functionaries.

Smartphone ownership is low in rural India and we need to think about how to bridge the digital divide for hygiene messaging whereas Community radio networks can be effectively leveraged. During the pandemic there is information overload and much of it has to be vetted as people use it to make decisions. We have to rely on experts who understand hygiene, sanitation and pandemics. It is far easier for a digital newsroom to publish stories than conventional medium as they have more room for unconventional.


Children going back to schools and colleges will be the last step of normalization post the pandemic era. We need to now focus on clean habitations as one overall health ecosystem; and ensure the guidelines are developed and capacity of teachers is built as well


WASH in the urban context

The development in urban areas is highly centralized and that we must rework our model of urban development to support the areas that are not developed properly. After lockdown, the cost of water increased for inhabitants and so did water related work for women, who could not access water easily. This also has linkages to physical abuse on women. Besides food allowances, we need to make provisions for water allowances for the urban poor where water is provided at subsidized rates to the marginalized households.Community toilet services should be free for all and that local governments should look to maintain them. 

Cities need to take accountability for quality of life for the urban poor. The focus should be on establishing a decentralized City Facilitation Center. Urban government bodies are the government agency that is closest to the community.


Challenges and the way forward

The needs for adequate investments, systems, policies, partnerships and processes for the WASH sector emerged as priorities and were highlighted with prominence, although all these are still facing significant shortcomings and challenges. Now, the need is to learn from these experiences and to ensure that these will not just be some temporary and stop-gap arrangements to face the pandemic.

The need for survival is the biggest motivator for better hygiene behavior. Till such time a vaccine is invented, our behaviour is our best defence against this pandemic.

Pressure points

  • Managing the increased demand for water and sanitation in pandemic control
  • Aggressively solving for affordable access for the poorest sections of society
  • Preventing human-to-human transmission as schools and workplaces reopen, through thoughtful WASH practices
  • Ensuring consistent and accurate dissemination of information

Download the full Insight report on Charcha 2020, covering 16 events and 150+ hours of discussion.

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