The Relationship Between the Global Pandemic and Availability of WASH Services and Products

Favela in Sao Paulo, Brazil where COVID-19 has hit hard. Image is overlooking hundreds of homes in favela with mountains and city in the distance

Around the world, everyone has been impacted by COVID-19. Whether it has been in a job situation, a family member having gotten sick, or has affected products that are available to you, there is not a single person who has not felt the impacts of the pandemic. Yet, COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services in the global south.

Imagine you live in a favela – the slums of Brazil, where everyday life has become increasingly more difficult since the beginning of the pandemic. Your home is made out of salvaged materials like corrugated metal, sand, and concrete pillars. Homes are nearly stacked upon each other and are poorly insulated, making social distancing and privacy nearly impossible. You do not have running water in your home and must walk long distances in order to obtain freshwater.

This is Maria’s reality – a 40 year old, single mother, who had no choice but to move into one of these communities. Her experience may vary greatly from your own during the pandemic.

High Caseload

Sadly, Brazil has one of the greatest number of COVID-19 cases in Latin America, and over 626,000 deaths as of January 2022, according to SIWI (Stockholm International Water Institute) and Worldometer. Knowledge of proper handwashing as the best form of prevention has become prevalent during the last few years. Yet, PubMed states that availability of clean water and soap are often lacking in low-, middle- and high-income countries alike. Brazil, and countries like it, have been taking steps towards COVID-19 containment – protecting people like Maria and many others. They have done so by addressing the factors that impact availability of freshwater; educating communities on the importance of handwashing, along with providing essential products and services; and by focusing on recovery, maintenance, and prevention.

Water Scarcity and Inadequate Sanitation

Brazil, a country of 212 million people, currently has 1.2 million people without access to safe water and another 20 million without access to improved sanitation, as confirmed by Inequalities in both access to water and sanitation are impacted by varying levels of economic development – both in rural and urban areas. In rural areas, like where Maria lives, this means living without a flushable toilet or running water in her home, and generally higher rates of disease and infant mortality than in regulated urban areas. As unemployment grows, more move to the favelas of Brazil.

This is what happened to Maria and her son, Rafael, who now live in a favela just outside Sao Paulo. Up until the pandemic, Maria worked as a housekeeper at a local hotel. In the early months of the pandemic lock downs, many employees were laid off – Maria being one of them. She quickly fell behind on her bills and was evicted from her home. Her only option was to move her family to a nearby favela. In their new home, they were even more aware of the immense gap between rich and poor that has led to extreme differences in quality of living.

Things like climate change, how land is used, the quantity of water used for irrigation, and pollution heavily influence the availability of fresh water. Water scarcity is further impacted by situations such as population growth in urban areas and deficient sewage systems. Lower-income communities tend to be most affected and their health suffers as a result. 

The Importance of Handwashing

Hygiene products such as hand sanitizer, are sold out in most stores as well. Residents literally have to fight for the right to wash their hands. Maria, Rafael, and others in their community are among those who struggle to find hand sanitizer, and sometimes soap. Maria is aware of the dangers the pandemic poses, and is knowledgeable of good handwashing practices. Since soap is hard to come by, Maria must severely ration their supply for as long as she can.

According to The Harvard Gazette, washing hands with water and soap for at least 20 seconds creates friction that lifts and washes away microbes from the skin. WHO (World Health Organization) claims that properly washing your hands can prevent around half of all preventable infections, including COVID-19.

However, many people do not properly wash their hands – or are not able to do so during important times (such as after using the restroom or before preparing food). In Brazil, around 35 million people are unable to stay home and practice appropriate hand hygiene for their homes are without flushable toilets or running water. While many residents of favelas are mindful of safeguards to prevent getting sick, unreliable access to water makes them more susceptible to the virus.

This is what Maria and Rafael face in their home. Because there is no running water, she must make a somewhat treacherous journey, multiple times a day to access freshwater. Carrying the water back home is difficult for Maria. She must carry the water up a steep hill; on a good day she makes this trip 3 times. Around the world, in countries that encounter water scarcity, organizations such as Children International and the World Bank Group have made headway in combating COVID-19 by educating parents and children on the importance of routine hand washing and by securing fixed and portable handwashing facilities, soap or alcohol-based hand rubs, and reliable water supplies within various communities.

Reliable Access to WASH Services

Reliable access to WASH services is essential in containing and preventing transmission of diseases, including COVID-19. Preventing illness and their complications is not only cheaper for health systems, but also essential in ensuring their future. Combating the spread of antimicrobial resistance with proper handwashing and immunization helps to further reduce the burden on healthcare systems. Measures such as vaccination, diagnostic screening, and behavioral and lifestyle changes can reduce the need for hospital care and treatment while greatly improving disease outcomes.

Even though it is now common knowledge that prevention is the best way to fight pandemics like COVID-19, less than 3% of health budgets are dedicated to preventive measures, even in the higher-income countries like the United States. The inconsistency of clean water for many Brazilians makes handwashing a challenge. Residents of favelas wait on the government to make repairs, such as installing water tanks or sanitation systems, with the most vulnerable depending on support from their neighbors.

A Hopeful Future

Thankfully neither Maria nor Rafael have had COVID-19, but they have seen many in their community suffer. Maintaining, and in some cases implementing, public health infrastructure are among the greatest cost-efficient approaches in developing pandemic preparations, particularly in resource-constrained communities.

When families have running water in their homes and a flushing toilet, they are able to properly dispose of waste and practice proper hand hygiene. If WASH services and infrastructure are properly controlled during the recovery phase of a disease outbreak, secondary impacts like supply chain disruptions or panic-buying may be prevented. If not properly managed, these secondary impacts may amplify further the risks associated with water borne illnesses, in addition to COVID-19 (World Bank, 2020). 

Brazil has an ample amount of water, yet faces unfair distribution of water resources. Fair allocation of WASH services and products are critical in preventing and controlling illnesses like COVID-19. In conjunction with other protective measures such as physical distance and self-isolation, Brazil may actively mitigate the impacts caused by the pandemic, protecting Maria and millions of other people.

For families like Maria’s, being able to routinely access clean water and wash their hands can mean the difference between living well and simply surviving. You can make a difference in the lives of people around the world who do not have access to clean water. Become a water sponsor for $5 a month and you will be able to provide clean water for a family for 5 years. Follow along to learn more about the water crisis, share this article with a friend, and subscribe to our newsletter to stay informed!