Handwashing is first line of defense in preventing Coronavirus, but millions do not have access to soap and water

Posted by
Emily Haile
10 April 2020
Water, Health, Toilets, Disasters
Dr Martin Koné, 33, Health Director at Talo Health Centre, washes his hands with soap. Dr Koné has worked at Talo Health Centre for three months, having previously worked at a clinic which has received intervention from WaterAid, so knows first hand h ...
Image: WaterAid/ Guilhem Alandry


March 10, 2020—Preventing the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19) is almost impossible without clean water, decent sanitation and good hygiene. 

Currently, 785 million people globally lack access to clean water and 2.3 billion are without safe, private toilets. In the poorest countries almost half (45%) of health care facilities do not have clean water on site. 

According to the Unicef-WHO Joint Monitoring Programme, one in five healthcare facilities (21%) globally do not provide decent toilets and one in six health care facilities have no handwashing facilities at all.

"Handwashing is one of the simplest and most effective disease prevention methods available", says Kelly Parsons, U.S. CEO of WaterAid. "It’s unacceptable that millions of people worldwide do not have access to basic services like clean water, sanitation and soap for handwashing. We can and should do better to prevent illness and loss of life."

Data shows that hygiene services – including the ability to wash hands with soap – in health care facilities are often lacking. For example, in Eastern and South-Eastern Asia just one in three health care facilities (36%) had facilities to allow for handwashing with soap.

Also of concern are the number of health facilities without good waste management and general cleaning, which can contribute to the spread of infection. Only one in four (27%) health care facilities in least developed countries had the ability to safely dispose of medical waste, and only four countries had data on how health facilities are cleaned.

Progress on access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene in low- and middle-income countries is perilously slow, despite an international target to reach everyone, everywhere with access to clean water and toilets by 2030.

Handwashing has been shown to reduce cases of all respiratory diseases by 20% and diarrhea by 30% and can help healthcare centers be better placed to support a response to an outbreak.

Handwashing with soap helps keep food safe, prevents diseases, contributes to child survival, good nutrition, school attendance and greater productivity. In fact, handwashing with soap has been found to cut school sick days in half.

Yet, only one in five people globally wash their hands after going to the toilet. 

If everyone, everywhere had a place to wash their hands with soap and water as often as needed it would go a long way towards helping to contain and prevent the spread of diseases like COVID-19.

Fast facts on handwashing:

  • Only 1 in 5 (19%) people globally wash their hands with soap after using the toilet. [1]
  • 1 in 3 primary schools worldwide does not have handwashing facilities. [2]
  • Around 310,000 children die each year from diarrheal diseases caused by dirty water and poor sanitation. That’s over 800 children each day, or one child every two minutes. [3]
  • 443 million school days are lost every year because of water-related illnesses. [4]
  • 785 million people in the world – one in nine – do not have clean water close to home. [5]
  • Handwashing with soap reduces the risk of diarrheal diseases by 42-47%. [6]
  • Lack of access to sanitation and poor hygiene contribute to approximately 88% of childhood deaths caused by diarrheal diseases. [7]


1. Freeman MC, Stocks ME, Cumming O, Jeandron A, Higgins JPT, Wolf J et al. Hygiene and health: Systematic review of handwashing practices worldwide and update of health effects. Trop Med Int Heal 2014; 19: 906–916.
3. Prüss-Ustün et al. (2014) and The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (2018)
4. Human Development Report, 2006
5. WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) Report 2019
6. Curtis V, Cairncross S (2003) Effect of washing hands with soap on diarrhoea risk in the community: A systematic review. Lancet Infectious Diseases, vol 3, no 5, pp275-81.
7. Prüss-Üstün A., Bos, R., Gore, F. & Bartram, J. 2008. Safer water, better health: costs, benefits and sustainability of interventions to protect and promote health. World Health Organization.


For more information or to arrange interviews please contact:
Emily Haile, [email protected].

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