“We must continue to promote good hygiene practices beyond COVID-19”

Date: 17th April 2020

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Interview WASH specialist and WSSCC member on the fight against COVID-19 in Benin

By Alain Tossounon

COTONOU, Benin – Like many countries in the world, Benin has been undergoing the coronavirus pandemic for weeks. In response to the crisis, several measures have been taken by the government, including handwashing with soap and water. However, Edmond Attakin, Sanitation and Hygiene Specialist and member of WSSCC, says that 73% of the population in Benin has no access to hygiene services, advising the government and partners to continue their action beyond the COVID-19 crisis.

WSSCC: What is the value of handwashing with soap and water as a first measure to fight against COVID-19 in Benin?

Mr Edmond Attakin, WASH Specialist: In Benin, this simple action – of washing your hands with soap and water – has always been the backbone of the Intergovernmental Water and Sanitation Agency for Africa (EAA), which I have had the honor of leading.

It is a good thing that the Government of Benin is now promoting it as these measures demonstrate the value of handwashing in the prevention of diseases. A number of infectious diseases are spread by hands through contact with contaminated objects. This is why washing your hands regularly should be an obligation.

Washing hands with soap and water has often been viewed as a way to fight dirty hand disease, but this concept needs to evolve. COVID-19 has shown that you shouldn’t wait for critical moments before washing your hands with soap and water. It must be done regularly.

WSSCC: Why do you think handwashing is an effective measure?

Mr Attakin: Washing hands with soap and water rids the hands of germs, bacteria, viruses and other pathogens. Beyond its effectiveness, water and soap are within reach of all budgets, unlike the gel which is for those I can qualify as privileged.

With 150 West African CFA francs (US$ 26 cents), you can have an ordinary soap that you can use for several weeks if you have to use it alone. This is not the case with a gel, which is more expensive, costing more than 2,000 West African CFA francs (US$ 3.50).

WSSCC: The government has decided to generalize the use of handwashing facilities in schools. Is this a good measure?

Mr Attakin: When the state and NGOs build latrines in schools, they are equipped with handwashing facilities. However, it must be noted that these facilities are not durable and are often vandalized. And even where they exist, they are often not used as they should be.

I think the generalization measure is a very good thing. In today’s environment, there is a need to educate the entire population about the importance of handwashing with soap and water. We must create a movement and engage all children in it – as children can also transfer this practice to households and inform parents of the need to wash their hands with soap and water. However, it will not be enough to provide all schools with washing facilities alone. They must be kept running by providing them with a source of drinking water and especially soap, at all times.

This measure will help curb the spread of the virus within the population but it isn’t enough just on its own, all prevention measures need to be adopted.

WSSCC: Should we continue to work on the appropriation of handwashing with soap and water beyond the crisis?

Mr Attakin: I think we should not wait for crises like this or their imminence before the intervention of the government gets underway. Handwashing with soap and water is a practice that should be promoted in all schools and communities. Awareness should be raised before, during and after crises.

The recent decision by the Interior Ministry requires all services to have handwashing equipment. If it stopped after the crisis, we would have done nothing. Two to three months after the crisis, everyone would have forgotten everything. We have an opportunity, now more than ever, to reprioritize this simple gesture, and put all means necessary into place so that regular washing hands with soap and water is normality in our country.

We can do it if we wish to. We trust the government. If the government engages, we can make it happen. After the confirmation of the first case of COVID-19, the Government of Benin quickly mobilized 10 billion West African CFA francs (US$ 17 million) for the response. This means that they are able to mobilize at least two billion West African CFA francs (US$ 3.4 million) each year for handwashing with soap and water.

The current situation is also an opportunity to invite everyone to play their part, including the President of the National Assembly, who has shown us in front of the cameras how important it is to wash our hands with soap and water. He must ensure that simple measures like handwashing, as well as others that support basic hygiene and sanitation, are taken into account in the vote on the next budget.

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