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By Raza Naqvi
A webinar to exchange plans and methodologies to protect vulnerable groups from COVID-19 was hosted in May by the India Support Unit of the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) in partnership with the UK’s Institute for Development Studies (IDS), Sri Lanka’s Regional Sanitation Centre (RSC), and the Freshwater Action Network South Asia (FANSA).
Participants from various countries highlighted how they are supporting marginalized communities during the pandemic, and shared good practices and innovations in sanitation and hygiene.
A representative from Afghanistan opened the discussion with an explanation of the importance of hygiene and how proper sanitation and hygiene facilities can prevent the world from deadly diseases.
“One thing we have learned during this crisis is to keep our hands clean,” said Ghulam Qader Azad, Director for Water and Sanitation in Afghanistan.
“Our government will focus on developing handwashing facilities across the nation, keeping vulnerable communities in mind. We will create awareness among the masses from a WASH perspective,” he said.
Rasheed Bari, who works in the WASH sector in the Maldives, said there will be more focus on the water safety plan and improving sanitation facilities.
“Due to poor sanitation, there is always the risk of water contamination, which causes diseases. Given the COVID-19, we will ensure that there’s water safety for all and access to basic hygiene services,” he said.
Key focus on vulnerable groups in Nepal
According to the letter shared during the webinar described efforts of Nepal’s WASH sector, Local governments (LGs) and Development Partners (DPs) have been installing handwashing stations in areas where poor and vulnerable communities live. In addition, Water Users and Sanitation Committees (WUSCs) in Nepal have initiated to introduce tariff rebate schemes to support water consumers (especially vulnerable groups).
On the question of good practices and innovations to fight COVID-19, Nepal’s Ministry of Water Supply has prepared a guidance note in Nepali and English languages on Minimum WASH Requirements in COVID-19 Quarantine and Isolation Centres in collaboration with National Sanitation and Hygiene Coordination Committee (NSHCC) and Development Partners.
“The ministry has also facilitated the process of formulation of provincial contingency plan and then to replicate it at a local level,” the letter explained.
COVID-19 included in ODF plus: India
Vinod Mishra, the National Coordinator of WSSCC in India, informed webinar participants that WSSCC will be working along with the Government of India (GOI) to help states achieve Open Defecation Free (ODF) plus status, and that COVID-19 has been added to it.
He also said that the GOI has sent a letter to WSSCC India, indicating that there will be a special focus on ‘Swacchagrahis’ (cleanliness volunteers).
“Risk mitigation strategies should include using an appropriate combination of social, engineering and administrative controls, safe work practices and personal protective equipment to prevent sanitation worker’s exposures,” the letter states.
Mishra also discussed the protection of vulnerable communities, saying that the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation and the Department of Panchayati Raj have allowed the gram panchayats (village authorities) to procure disinfectants, masks, gloves and sanitizers for stepping up cleanliness as they are vulnerable.
Handwashing compendium for low resource settings by IDS
A key aspect of the webinar was the launch by IDS of “Handwashing compendium for Low-Resource Settings,” of particular benefit to low-income groups as it comprises cost-effective ways of ensuring sanitary conditions.
“COVID-19 is going to stay here for long. It is important that people make good hygiene practices a part of their lives and don’t forget it after we get over with this pandemic,” said the IDS’s Jamie Myers.
“We understand that marginalized communities are often left behind, so to ensure that no one is left behind, the IDS has come up with a handwashing compendium for everyone.”
Changing handwashing behaviours in Sri Lanka
Ananda Jayaweera, an Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) specialist in Sri Lanka, discussed plans focused on improving handwashing habits.
“The current habit is to wash hands before consuming meals and after defecation, but this needs to be changed,” said Jayaweera.
“You need to keep your hands clean all the time, and to spread this message, we will use every possible tool,” he said.
“To protect our poor countrymen, we are ensuring that they are receiving soaps and sanitizers free of cost. We have also installed 61 temporary handwashing stations in areas where people from marginalized communities reside.”
Pakistan’s efforts to protect the poor
Tanya Khan from WSSCC Pakistan described Pakistan’s continued efforts to battle COVID-19 and protect vulnerable groups from the disease.
“Groups like the Peace and Development Organization (PADO), Help in Need and OXFAM, among others, are working every day to protect our poor citizens,” said Khan.
PADO’S Furqan Ullah said the WASH sector has been active on the coronavirus ever since the outbreak.
“We are developing handwashing facilities for vulnerable groups and also providing them with handwashing hygiene kits to ensure sanitary conditions,” he said.
“We will also start a campaign about handwashing to create awareness. Vehicles will be used to disseminate the information so that there’s no human contact.”
Iftikhar Ahmed, from OXFAM Pakistan, said his organization is installing water tanks for quarantine facilities.
“We are also distributing PPE kits to healthcare workers and for vulnerable communities, and we are providing hygiene kits that contain sanitizer, soap and masks, among other things,” he said.
Urban slums and public toilets in focus: Bangladesh
Nurullah Awal, participating from Bangladesh, said that urban slums and public toilets are the highest priority. He said handwashing stations are being installed in urban slums and hygiene kits are being distributed to the poor.
Sanat Bhowmik, from COAST Trust in Bangladesh, said his organization is providing hygiene kits, sanitizers and disinfectants to the government authorities.
“They are distributing them to the poor,” he said.
“We are also providing these materials to Rohingya refugee camps.”