Health and Healthcare Systems

Investing in handwashing facilities to protect communities and kickstart economies

Hand Hygiene day. Person washing hands in a sink.

Image: Pexels.

Charlotte Petri Gornitzka
Deputy Executive Director, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)
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Pandemic Preparedness and Response

  • 40% of the world’s population do not have access to handwashing facilities.
  • Hand hygiene should be universally available to protect us from current and future pandemics.
  • UNICEF and the World Economic Forum have launched the Hand Hygiene Market Accelerator, to support investment in hand hygiene products.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder that one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of a virus is also one of the most direct: handwashing.

The onset of COVID-19 more than one year ago heightened the importance of handwashing with soap, yet that fact rings even more true today. Handwashing with soap and clean water lowers the risk of contracting COVID-19 by 36% It can also help reduce the transmission of a range of diseases: it prevents one in five respiratory infections; cuts episodes of diarrhoea by nearly half; and is the most effective remedy against antimicrobial resistance.

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To beat these diseases, stop the spread of COVID-19 and better prepare for future pandemics, hand hygiene must become a reality for everyone, in all settings, especially in public spaces where significant transmission occurs such as in healthcare facilities, schools, markets and other crowded areas.

While hand hygiene communication campaigns are important to remind people of the importance of handwashing, the availability and accessibility of handwashing facilities is critical. Having soap and water in key settings is the main variable associated with actual habit adoption and behaviour change. Studies have shown that people with access to designated handwashing facilities in their homes and public spaces are twice as likely to wash their hands.

Yet three billion people – or 40% of the world’s population – do not have readily available access to handwashing facilities, even in some high-income settings. Nearly three-quarters of the people in the least developed countries lack basic handwashing facilities with water and soap at home. Almost half of schools lack handwashing facilities with water and soap. And more than 25% of healthcare facilities globally lack hand hygiene at points where patients receive care. This puts teachers, doctors, nurses, patients, students – all of us – at risk.

This must change. Together, we need to make universal access to hand hygiene infrastructure, services and products the new normal.

What is needed are vibrant local markets to trigger supply and demand for affordable, accessible and desirable handwashing solutions so that supplies are available where and when needed, for everyone. In too many countries however, markets for handwashing facilities are either non-existent or underdeveloped.

While several affordable innovations exist for both homes and institutional settings, the key challenge lies in scaling up the manufacturing capacity of these products and distributing them to the places most in need in a smart, efficient and cost-effective way. This requires accelerating the distribution and delivery chain of bundled solutions – those that package the handwashing station (basin) with the renewable (soap) – and getting them into local markets and ultimately into the hands of consumers.

In the short term, this is about procuring bundled handwashing solutions in priority settings, particularly in healthcare facilities. In the long-term, this requires market-shaping strategies that will incentivize local adoption, strengthen supply chains, and build a network of local retailers and producers.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

This level of ambition requires new and innovative collaborative models and ways of working. A business as usual approach will not meet these needs in the time and the scale required.

UNICEF and the World Economic Forum have launched the Hand Hygiene Market Accelerator, convening a range of public and private partners together to shape local markets to produce and deliver suitable, high quality, yet affordable hand hygiene products and services in a systemic, sustainable and resilient way.

The Accelerator aims to facilitate new partnerships and assess market gaps across the following areas:

  • Local demand for hand hygiene, and the current state and growth potential at household level, as well as in key institutional or “out of home” settings.
  • Availability of existing products and solutions and their affordability and suitability to meet both household demand and the standards required in institutional settings.
  • Local supply systems and the presence of a network of local, supply chain actors.
  • Regulatory frameworks and policies that can provide the enabling environment for local innovation and establishment of hand hygiene requirements.
  • Financing needs, subsidies and incentives for innovation to provide guarantees.
  • Presence of partner networks in country to accelerate value creation.

Together, we can pioneer new ways to tackle the global challenges in hygiene. Not only can we future proof vulnerable countries against new pandemics, smart investments in hand hygiene can generate savings in health expenditure of up to 16 times the cost. At the same time, filling the hygiene gap opens up new business opportunities for global players, and can also help to reinvigorate local economies by upskilling local business players.

What’s clear is we have a global, once in a lifetime opportunity to rally around this goal and achieve what is most needed to save lives today and in the future.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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