Strengthen Benin’s hygiene and sanitation communications

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Interview with Alexis Tobada of Benin’s National Water Institute

By Alain Tossounon

Sociologist and speaker at Benin’s National Water Institute, Mr Alexis Tobada has a long experience in raising awareness for the adoption of hygiene and sanitation practices and, in particular, handwashing with soap and water. In this interview, Mr Tobada expresses his determination to improve sanitation and hygiene in response to COVID-19 as the Beninese have appropriated the simple but effective prevention practice. He advocates to strengthen the communication effort to make this hand hygiene practice sustainable, in order to continue saving lives beyond COVID-19 in the face of other infectious diseases.

WSSCC: As someone who has worked for a long time raising awareness for the adoption of handwashing, are you happy to see everyone doing it today to counter COVID-19?

Mr Alexis Tobada, Sociologist at Benin’s National Water Institute: The coronavirus acts like a straw fire that ravages everything in its path. It challenges the established social order and touches on an individual and collective problem: the survival of humanity. So it’s a matter of life and death.

In the popular imagination of Benin, when we speak of death, it is fear, it is panic that sets in. Who is ready to die? Even if you ask the oldest person in your family if they are ready to die, they will tell you ‘I have just been born.’

Similarly, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the government of President Patrice Talon has assumed its responsibilities. Have you seen the number of ordinary and extraordinary Councils of Ministers organized for this purpose? You have seen how many times the Minister of Health has already spoken in the media about this pandemic. The communication system put in place is impressive. In short, there is a whole social mobilization and an organization to fight against the spread of the virus.

At the same time, the less expensive and highly accessible means, or barrier, available is handwashing with soap and water. You do not need to consult a health specialist or go to a pharmacy before doing this regularly. I have carried out awareness-raising campaigns, emphasizing that handwashing with soap and water is the lifesaving gesture and I am happy to see that today the Beninese have adopted the practice.

WSSCC: We never managed to make handwashing practice a reality before, but with COVID-19, everyone is doing it in Benin. What made this happen?

Mr Tobada: It must first be recognized that hygiene is a huge area. If we limit ourselves to the hand hygiene component, awareness campaigns for handwashing with soap and water are not new. The results are there and are striking. It is enough to refer to all that has been done to see that the statistics do not reflect the resources mobilized. That is, anything related to behaviour change takes time to become a reality. It is a long process.

What is certain is that an evaluation of the practice of handwashing with soap and water during and after this period of the coronavirus pandemic will show that the statistics are improved and, for this reason, the awareness campaigns in progress must be continued for there to be more satisfactory progress. This also calls for improvement of the handwashing devices in place in communities.

WSSCC: How can this positive change in behaviour be made to last beyond COVID-19 and prevent other diseases, such as cholera, that plague our country each year?

Mr Tobada: You know that there are prerequisites that must be made to give hygiene its place in the development process. Indeed, in the recent past, Benin had a Directorate of Basic Hygiene and Sanitation (DHAB) which had branches in the departments. It no longer exists today. So basic hygiene and sanitation have declined, with all the related implications. We must look at the share of annual funding for this important component in the budget of the Ministry of Health. Reforms in the health sector must provide a strong role for hygiene, because, prevention is better than cure, as the coronavirus pandemic alone shows us.

A second and very important element is the revision, voting and adoption of the current Code of Public Hygiene, which has become completely obsolete. This code, voted and promulgated since 1987, is out of date in the face of political, institutional, social, economic, technical and environmental realities. The government must take on the legal context of hygiene head-on and adapt it to current realities.

Now is the time to continue and strengthen the communications system, even after we overcome the coronavirus pandemic. All of this, added to the do-it-yourself strategy of getting the community to make their own handwashing devices with soap and water, could yield satisfactory results. There, the non-governmental social intermediation organizations must intensify their activities by putting the community at the heart of the strategy.

Local authorities have a decisive role to play. Their involvement in Education Information for Behavior Change activities can lead to notable results.