Hand-Washing Is A Great Way To Prevent Coronavirus — But Millions Lack Running : Goats and Soda One of the top pieces of advice is: Wash your hands to prevent infection. But millions of people don't have access to running water.

How Do You Wash Your Hands To Fend Off Coronavirus If Water Is Scarce?

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Africa is home to some of the most densely crowded cities in the world, making it a challenge to prevent the spread of coronavirus. But public health officials across the continent say don't underestimate the power of hand-washing. NPR's Malaka Gharib has this report.

MALAKA GHARIB, BYLINE: When the Ebola epidemic emerged in West Africa in 2014, one of the big concerns was - how are people going to get access to clean running water so they can wash their hands and prevent spreading the virus?

JOIA MUKHERJEE: It almost seemed like an insolvable problem.

GHARIB: Joia Mukherjee is chief medical officer with Partners in Health. The NGO delivered medical aid to countries in West Africa during the Ebola crisis. She says in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, aid groups were trucking in loads of water. But that was expensive and unsustainable.

MUKHERJEE: And yet relatively rapidly, the solutions were put together.

GHARIB: Simple solutions, like a hand-washing station made with two ordinary buckets.

MUKHERJEE: They were largely just ordinary buckets with a spigot put in them to mix a particular solution of chlorine and then a bucket underneath the spigot for the wastewater.

GHARIB: These stations were put in buildings, schools and markets. Mukherjee says it made a huge difference in helping to control the Ebola outbreak. Now fast forward six years...

MUKHERJEE: And I was really surprised with the COVID epidemic and happy that in Liberia and Sierra Leone, two countries that I was just in a month ago - they had already reinitiated this type of hand-washing. So lessons learned from Ebola were immediately being used in these countries that still would be extremely vulnerable to COVID.

GHARIB: At the moment, the number of known coronavirus cases are relatively low in countries across Africa, but those numbers are growing. In Kenya, an organization called WaterAid is setting up 10,000 public hand-washing stations. Myriam Sidibe, who works with the group, she's a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and is based in Nairobi. She says hand-washing stations can be tricky, especially in densely populated neighborhoods where people tend to gather around communal wells and faucets.

MYRIAM SIDIBE: Fifteen minutes from where I live, where you'll have people in slums - they're very crowded. They all live in the same house. It's going to be really difficult to experience and practice what we call social distancing in those areas.

GHARIB: Sidibe and her team have some ideas for dealing with this issue, like painting red markers on the ground where people should stand, just like some supermarkets here in the United States, six feet apart. And in Nigeria, public health officials are struggling with a universal issue - a lack of hand-washing knowledge. According to a recent survey, the majority of Nigerians don't know they need to use both soap and running water in order to wash their hands. Zaid Jurji is head of UNICEF Nigeria's water sanitation and hygiene program. He says they are trying to get the word out.

ZAID JURJI: To communal leaders through religious leaders, using media, radio stations to spread the message about the importance of washing hands with soap and running water.

GHARIB: But just telling people isn't enough. Myriam Sidibe spent years working to change hand-washing behaviors in 55 countries.

SIDIBE: I would say keep making the hand-washing messages surprising, make sure that they're dynamic.


COBHAMS ASUQUO: My brother, my sister, papa, mama and pikin...

GHARIB: These days, UNICEF is collaborating with musicians to sing about hand-washing and other ways people can protect against the coronavirus. Just last Sunday, UNICEF released a song from Cobhams Asuquo, a popular Nigerian artist. The song is called "We Go Win (Corona)."


MUKHERJEE: (Singing) But if we beat am, if we stop am, if we maintain good hygiene and practice social distancing, we go win.

GHARIB: Malaka Gharib, NPR News, Washington.


ASUQUO: (Singing) No shaking hands with your neighbor. Blow them a kiss from afar.

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