The rapid global spread of the COVID-19 has demonstrated that no matter how successful America is at fighting this pandemic here at home, we will never stop this threat unless we’re also fighting it around the world. In this series of issue briefs, the USGLC takes an in depth look at the global response and COVID-19’s impacts on vulnerable populations, global development and diplomacy, and the future of U.S. global leadership. Read more from our series here.

Last updated August 2, 2021

As the world grapples with how to contain COVID-19, there’s widespread focus on the fundamental importance of handwashing to prevent the spread of disease. But from families to frontline healthcare workers, millions of people in low- and middle- income countries simply cannot adequately wash their hands. A staggering 3 billion people across the world do not have access to reliable water and soap supplies. Consider how much easier it is for COVID-19 to spread throughout the world when the number one precaution cannot be taken.

Healthcare facilities:

  • With a scarcity of personal protective equipment (PPE) in many parts of the world, WASH is one of the key lines of defense for millions of healthcare workers on the frontlines of care and containment.
  • 45% of healthcare facilities in low-resource settings lack basic water services.
  • The inability to properly clean and disinfect hands, as well as medical instruments and examination rooms, makes infection prevention and control (IPC) deeply challenging, if not nearly impossible.
  • At the peak of this pandemic, 84% of healthcare facilities in Sub-Saharan Africa did not have basic hygiene service at points of care.

Homes & Communities:

  • 3 in 10 people worldwide could not wash their hands with soap and water at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, reveal WHO and UNICEF.
  • The inability to social distance in the world’s many crowded and impoverished cities, slums and refugee camps makes the handwashing situation all the more dire.


  • Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF, called sanitation and hygiene “a great equalizer for children.”
  • A 2020 UNICEF study found that one in five schools had no sanitation facilities, and nearly half lacked basic handwashing facilities.
  • According to UNICEF, just 51% of schools in low-income countries have access to adequate water sources and only 45% have adequate sanitation.
  • In schools that are still open, COVID-19 can silently spread among students and travel home with children and teachers.

Investments in WASH in response to COVID-19:

U.S. Agency for International Development

U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), through its Water for the World programs, provides water and hygiene products and promotes the importance of the practice in response to COVID-19:

  • In Burkina Faso, a USAID-supported program works with local governments on COVID-19 plans that address the availability of water, sanitation, and hygiene services. Through radio announcements and other communications, the program also promotes washing hands with soap.
  • In Indonesia, USAID has teamed up with partners in 120 communities to install 5,000 handwashing stations, 900 soap dispensers and 700 water taps. Since March 2020, USAID has collaborated with community health clinics, known as puskesmas, to teach people the importance of washing hands with soap and water through radio jingles and social media posts.
  • In Nigeria, USAID is sharing information about slowing COVID-19 and increasing the water supply to allow handwashing in public places, such as markets and hospitals. USAID is building on existing work Nigerian government agencies have done to promote hygiene and address COVID-19 by providing technical support for communicating risks. Finally, USAID teams up with telecommunications firms to spread good-hygiene messages to millions of Nigerians.

Multilateral Organizations

  • “Handwashing is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, yet millions of people across the world lack access to a reliable, safe supply of water,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.“Investment in water, sanitation and hygiene must be a global priority if we are to end this pandemic and build more resilient health systems.”
  • The World Bank estimates that $114 billion is the required global investment every year, until 2030, to reach Sustainable Development Goal 6: water, sanitation and hygiene.
  • The Asian Development Bank will invest more than $3.4 billion in water supply, sanitation, and wastewater treatment through 2021.
  • The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation granted the Duke University Center for Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Infectious Disease (WASH-AID) $4.5 million to support the management of field testing of “reinvented toilets” and other new hygienic technologies in India.
  • The European Investment Bank (EIB) will provide a loan worth $60 million for the drinking water and sanitation network development in Ecuador.
  • UNICEF and the Government of Japan launched a US$20.8 million partnership to boost ongoing COVID-19 preparedness and WASH response efforts in the Pacific region. 

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