Nepal’s community handwashing campaign pays off in times of COVID-19 crisis

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Phagu Tharu of Bansgadi Municipality, Bardia infront of his handwashing station at his home. Photo credit: Sangita Tharu.

By Renu Kshetry, KATHMANDU, Nepal - Just like the rest of the world, Nepal has taken preventive measures to contain the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19), announcing a lockdown from 23 March until further notice. The national lockdown involves long-distance buses being halted, non-essential services being shut and international flights to and from Tribhuvan International Airport being stopped from 22 March. The Government also sealed the border with India and China from the same date.

In Nepal, the number of COVID-19 patients as of 2 April has been reported as five. However, health officials have expressed concern that there might be more cases that remain untested.

At a time when the world is focusing on handwashing as one of the key prevention measures against COVID-19, some of the communities in the far-west region of Nepal are way ahead. They have already been practicing stringent handwashing routines, adopting the practice as a part of life thanks to awareness-raising and sanitation programmes.

Phaghu Tharu, a 47-year-old primary school teacher at Nepal Rastriya High School in Ward 5, Bansgadi Municipality, Bardia (530 kilometers west of the capital Kathmandu) believes that the 96 households in his community are extremely well prepared for any kind of hygiene-related diseases.

Thanks to a Bansgadi Municipality WASH Committee’s intervention, with support of WSSCC’s Global Sanitation Fund (GSF), all households of Ward 5 now have cemented wash stations for dishwashing and handwashing. Awareness programmes have also played a crucial role in changing the handwashing and hygiene behaviours of the community.

“We have already suffered a lot due to malaria, which was the result of lack of preparedness on hygiene and sanitation in the past, but we have now realised its importance and have ensured that we strictly adhere to it,” explains Mr Tharu, who is also a member of Laxmanpur Model Community Management Committee.

According to Mr Tharu, in the past, due to unmanaged piped water at homes and the lack of proper channels for the disposal of wastewater, standing water near homes became a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

“Every summer we used to live in terror due to malaria, and there were plenty of cases reported of malaria infecting all members of households, with the community having to step in to feed and take care of them.”

Since then, his village has become a ‘model community’ for sanitation and things have changed for the better.

“Handwashing might sound basic but we have realised the impact of it in our lives and we are trying to make it a part of our lives and we are getting there,” says Mr Tharu.

The movement for hygiene started two decades ago when there used to be regular meetings on community forest conservation.

“We got an opportunity to hold dialogues with the people from different communities and that helped us to understand that the tradition of constructing pigsty and live-stock sheds in front of the house was not hygienic,” he says.

“Besides that, handwashing with soap after use of toilet and collecting manure was not practiced, but later with the help of a sanitation campaign by the GSF and the Municipality, we were able to see the direct link between sickness and hygiene,” Mr Tharu said.

The model community has since moved live-stock sheds to the backyards of houses, ensured cleanliness of kitchen areas is maintained, and 92 households now use a gas stove instead of wood for cooking. Every household has constructed handwashing facilities with soap in their toilets as well near taps. They have also set up a place to dry out kitchen utensils. Today, every household has a toilet facility, with a safely managed sanitation facility.

The Global Sanitation Fund and its executing agency, UN-Habitat, started its total sanitation programme as a pilot project for nine months from July 2017, in two rural municipalities (RM) - Geruwa RM and Badhaiyatal RM. It expanded its coverage from June 2019 to two additional municipalities - Rajupur and Bansgadi.

In total, the total sanitation programme covers ten wards in two municipalities and two rural municipalities. It also covers 11 wards as follow-up areas. The GSF and UN-Habitat have selected 18 model schools for total sanitation and 43 model communities. A total of 1980 handwashing stations have been constructed so far in all ten wards.

Tara Bahadur Khati, the District Coordinator of GSF/UN-Habitat, believes handwashing has been key to promoting more hygienic practices in the community, since 2017.
“We have been working closely with the municipalities and ward offices to ensure that the local communities, schools and public offices strictly follow a few rules of handwashing” explains Mr Khati.

The key rules for handwashing established in the communities to cultivate a culture of sanitation and stop contamination of bacteria and viruses are as follows:

Keep water resources clean and safe and stop dirt contamination;
• Wash hands after use of the toilet;
• Wash hands and legs after work in the field and outside home;
• Wash hands and legs after cleaning sheds/hut cleaning of animals;
• Wash dishes separately;
• Wash hands after touching insecticide and pesticide

Facilitated by the Integrated Development Society-Nepal, a GSF/UN-Habitat partner, sanitation awareness boards have also been installed in every ward and in front of all health offices in Badhaiyatal RM, Rajapur RM. A strict code of conduct on hygiene has also been prepared. The preparation of both the sanitation awareness board and code of conduct are in process in Geruwa RM and Bansgadi Municipality.

Mr Khati explains, “Individuals and communities’ hygiene practices and behavior have improved a lot over the years. A drastic decrease in malaria-related infection and deaths is one of the examples of the improved situation.”

Reflecting on the COVID-19 pandemic, Shalikram Adhikary, Mayor of Bansgadi Municipality says that the municipality is strictly following its total sanitation strategic plan 2016- 2020 and had already issued directives on handwashing and hygiene in all government offices, public hospitals and post offices, long before the Coronavirus pandemic was announced.

“We had issued directives that every public office should have a handwashing facility with platforms and soaps and this was strictly followed. We have installed around 150 water drums with taps across various places of the wards. We have started a health desk in four places and seven health centres have handwashing facilities with soap and sanitizers.”

“The development of the Hygiene and Sanitation Code of Conduct and its effective implementation will ensure the sustainability of the total sanitation campaign at the local level” explains Mayor Adhikary.

“We are working very closely with various development partners and NGOs to executive our hygiene plans, and if all the communities become more disciplined and stay home, following handwashing guidelines strictly just like these model communities, then we are confident that we can prevent COVID-19 from spreading,” Mr Adhikary says.

“Maintaining proper hygiene and sanitation will definitely stop an outbreak of the infectious disease in the future and it is in our hands to stop that.”