International Nurses Day 2020: nurses forced to face down pandemic with nowhere to wash their hands

Posted by
Maya Verber
11 May 2020
WaterAid/ Chileshe Chanda

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On what would have been Florence Nightingale’s 200th birthday, 12th May 2020 marks International Nurses Day. Nightingale, often hailed as the mother of modern nursing, crusaded for hygiene within hospitals, and advocated for handwashing during the 1880s, knowing that hygiene was paramount to protecting patients’ lives. 

However, for some nurses, handwashing and hygiene are still luxuries which they just don’t have. A staggering one in six healthcare centres globally lack safe handwashing facilities, a fact which, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, is terrifying.  

More striking still, nearly half of all healthcare facilities in the poorest countries do not have clean water available on site. This means that one billion people are forced to seek care somewhere where there is no clean water.

Handwashing with soap is the first line of defence against COVID-19 and many other diseases. It is a core part of the World Health Organisation’s response to the pandemic. Without it, health centres, the very places which are supposed to make you better and keep you well, are at high risk of becoming epicentres for the rapid spread of infectious diseases.  

International charity WaterAid has asked nurses across the countries in which it operates, about their experiences during the pandemic and the impact that access to clean water and soap can have.

Although cases of Covid-19 currently being reported in many developing countries are at lower levels than in Europe and the US, they are rising, leaving many nurses facing the prospect of tackling a pandemic without many of the basics nurses in developed countries have at their disposal. 

Salimata, 32, has worked at a health centre in Segou Region, Mali for eight years. She has faced big challenges in her role without the availability of clean water, and witnessed the impact, this has on the exposure to infectious diseases.

“The water problem is really the biggest problem we face because we can’t make sure we meet all the hygiene standards. No matter how determined I or the staff are, without safe water our role is limited.”

Rhoda Phandama, a nurse and midwife at Katimbira Health Centre in Nkhotakota, Malawi, commented on how important soap is:

“We do not have enough soap for the people to wash their hands thoroughly. We need to have enough supplies so that we are protected and that the clients who come here with issues like injuries and other diseases do not end up catching coronavirus. We need to have a hospital which is a safe place for everyone.”

Patricia Mwenyeheri is a nurse and midwife at Mzandu Health Centre in Ntchisi, Malawi. She considers herself lucky, in that she works in a health care centre where they have two handbasins with soap. One of these is in the maternity ward, where they treat over 300 patients per day, but she is worried about what will happen if Covid-19 comes to the centre:

“Once we have even one case of covid-19, it can quickly spread in our hospital, because we do not have the necessary resources.
“It makes me worried every day, I have seen other health workers are losing their lives whilst treating clients who have coronavirus. It makes me scared.”

Lennie is a nurse and midwife at Njola Mwanza Clinic in southern Zambia where WaterAid have helped to provide clean water and handwashing facilities. She has been practising as a nurse since 1977.

“The availability of handwashing facilities has made my work easier and safer. Clean piped water in our facility greatly helps to prevent spread of disease. 
“As a front-line worker, it’s hard to predict what situation you will face. I know we are pre-exposed. We are always putting on face masks, having soapy water and doing a number of things differently in order to protect ourselves.
“If we had proper Personal Protective Equipment that would be even better. Provision of soaps, PPEs, sanitizers and other such things would enhance disease prevention.”

As world leaders meets virtually next week for the World Health Assembly, WaterAid is calling for governments to urgently ensure that all healthcare centres and hospitals have clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene so that nurses, midwives, doctors and other front-line healthcare workers are protected and can provide safe care to patients.  

Tim Wainwright, Chief Executive, WaterAid, said:

“Thousands of healthcare workers in developing countries are facing down this crisis with no clean water or soap to wash their hands. 
“The vital role of good hygiene in preventing hospitals becoming breeding grounds for disease is being woefully overlooked as part of the global response to COVID-19. This is putting the lives of doctors, nurses and patients at risk and will likely extend the duration of the pandemic. 
“As leaders meet virtually at World Health Assembly next week, we want to see rapid commitments that will mean that no nurse, midwife or doctor has to work without somewhere to wash their hands.” 


For more information, please contact:

Maya Verber, Senior Media Officer, [email protected];
call our after-hours press line on +44 (0)7887 521 552;
or email [email protected].

Notes to Editors:


WaterAid is working to make clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene normal for everyone, everywhere within a generation. The international not-for-profit organisation works in 28 countries to change the lives of the poorest and most marginalised people. Since 1981, WaterAid has reached 26.4 million people with clean water and 26.3 million people with decent toilets. For more information, visit, follow @WaterAid or @WaterAidPress on Twitter, or find WaterAid UK on Facebook at

  • 785 million people in the world – one in ten – do not have clean water close to home.[1]
  • 2 billion people in the world – almost one in four – do not have a decent toilet of their own.[2]
  • Around 310,000 children under five die every year from diarrhoeal diseases caused by poor water and sanitation. That's almost 800 children a day, or one child every two minutes.[3]
  • Every £1 invested in water and toilets returns an average of £4 in increased productivity.[4]
  • Just £15 can provide one person with clean water.[5]

[1] WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) Progress on drinking water, sanitation and hygiene: 2017 update and SDG Baselines

[2] WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) Progress on drinking water, sanitation and hygiene: 2017 update and SDG Baselines

[3] Prüss-Ustün et al. (2014) and The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (2018)

[4] World Health organization (2012) Global costs and benefits of drinking-water supply and sanitation interventions to reach the MDG target and universal coverage