Improving sanitation and hygiene in Ethiopia during the pandemic


An interview with Mesfin Sahele Gebreyes, E-SHIP Programme Manager

By Kevin Mwanza

Ethiopia, one of the countries where WSSCC has been working to advance better sanitation and hygiene for the vulnerable people, has so far managed to contain the spread of COVID-19 through a mix of surveillance, WASH-Infection Prevention and Control (IPC), health education and the promotion of handwashing, the use of face masks, staying at home and physical distancing.

The country has also closed all learning and prayer institutions, allowed most civil servants to work from home and set up quarantine, isolation and case treatment centres.

With an estimated 110 million people, Ethiopia has recorded 4,532 coronavirus cases and 74 deaths as of 21 June, according to the Ministry of Health.

We talked to Mr Mesfin Sahele Gebreyes, the programme manager of the WSSCC-funded Ethiopia Sanitation and Hygiene Improvement Programme (E-SHIP), about the situation in the country and what sanitation and hygiene measures need to be taken to keep people safe.

WSSCC: How has COVID-19 affected the hygiene situation in Ethiopia?

Mr Mesfin Sahele Gebreyes, Programme Manager of the Ethiopia Sanitation and Hygiene Improvement Programme: The practice of handwashing used to be very low before. But since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been handwashing promotions by known people, artists, and athletes, the Prime Minister, Ministers and religious leaders that have improved the situation. It is mandatory now to wash or sanitize hands before entering any organization.

A lot has improved, and there are innovative handwashing facilities which can be operated by foot like the pedal hand wash. It is also mandatory to wear masks in public places and while using public transport. Due to the state of emergency, transport companies are not allowed to carry more than 50 percent of the capacity of their vehicle but can double charge to recover their costs.

WSSCC: What are WSSCC and partners doing to support the fight against the disease?

Mr Gebreyes: WSSCC and other partners are working closely with the government within the health structure. There is a lot of financing and implementation support from these organizations. WSSCC has allowed 20 percent of its programming budget to the country to go towards the COVID-19 response. The regional technical assistants that are part of the government structure are supporting WASH and infection prevention and control measures.

Our sub-grantees are the regional health bureaus and district health offices. Most activities run at the district level. We prepared a COVID-19 budget that will mainly be focusing on two areas: mass media messaging through radio, because many people live in the rural where they have access to the radio as a primary source of information, and supporting regions to produce posters and banners in local languages. We will be using three different languages to reach these communities.

WSSCC: What are some of the measure put in place to ensure the disabled are also protected?

Mr Gebreyes: Through the government, sign language interpreters were trained on the nature of COVID-19 and the precautions that should be taken. If, by bad luck, the spreading of the virus increases and there is a need for the deaf to be isolated, the sign language interpreters are prepared and can easily communicate with the deaf.

We are also doing other things to ensure we can reach the disabled. In each state, district, zone and regional level, the government has identified people who are at risk in terms of mobility, hearing and sight, in case of a total lockdown. The Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs has also signed an agreement with three local NGOs to focus on elderly, disabled and street dwelling people. The government is bringing the neediest of them into centres where they are provided shelter, accommodation, food and medical assistance.

Some 12,000 food banks have been set up across the country, and mobilization is ongoing. The purpose of these food banks is to serve the poor, and the disabled should there be a total lockdown. WSSCC funding through the Dutch development organization, SNV, has also helped street dwellers to get handwashing facilities along the main road in Addis Ababa.

WSSCC: What else can be done in terms of hygiene and sanitation?

Mr Gebreyes: It’s good to see things from all perspectives. Handwashing is one option. In the absence of handwashing with water and soap, we should create facility access where people can get hand sanitizers. We cannot always rely on materials imported from abroad, so should try to rely on local capacity. We can push local alcohol factories and pharmaceuticals to produce these hand sanitizers. We have to use all the available options. If you fight from the health aspect alone and forget other factors like financing, it’s damaging, especially in an African country.