The rapid global spread of 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.

As the world continues to grapple with how to contain highly-transmissible variants of COVID-19, focus on the fundamental importance of handwashing to prevent the spread of disease has become widespread. But from families to frontline healthcare workers, billions of people in low- and middle- income countries don’t have the resources to adequately wash their hands. A staggering 3 billion people across the world do not have access to reliable water and soap supplies. Consider how easy it is for viruses to spread throughout the world when the number one precaution, handwashing, is limited.

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. The inability to properly clean and disinfect hands makes infection prevention deeply challenging, if not nearly impossible.

  • 45% of healthcare facilities in low-resource settings lack basic water services.
  • 1.8 billion people use healthcare facilities that lack basic water services and 800 million use facilities with no toilets.
  • The extent of the problem remains hidden because major gaps in data persist.

Homes & Communities:

In the world’s crowded and impoverished cities, slums, and refugee camps, social distancing is difficult to achieve making the need for handwashing all the more dire.

  • 3 in 10 people worldwide could not wash their hands with soap and water at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to WHO and UNICEF.


In schools, COVID-19 can silently spread among students and travel home with children and teachers. Improved WASH services can have a major effect on keeping children in school.

  • Henrietta Fore, former Executive Director of UNICEF, called sanitation and hygiene “a great equalizer for children.”
  • UNICEF reports that nearly half of all schools do not have basic hygiene services, with 1 in 3 lacking basic sanitation and water. Children who cannot wash their hands face a greater risk of infection and diarrheal disease, putting them at risk of missing more school days.

School attendance is a global priority. As the latest data from the World Bank, UNESCO, and UNICEF show, school closures at the peak of the pandemic disrupted education for 1.6 billion students.

  • This generation of students are now at risk of losing $17 trillion in lifetime earnings in present value, or about 14% of today’s global GDP, as a result of COVID-19 pandemic-related school closures.

 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 handwashing in response to COVID-19. Since 2008, USAID’s water and sanitation assistance has resulted in 59.5 million people gaining access to sustainable drinking water and more than 44 million people gaining access to sustainable sanitation, globally.

Despite challenges brought on by COVID-19, USAID’s Water and Development Plan exceeded FY2020 targets ahead of projections:

  • 9 million people gained access to sustainable water service, with 68% gaining access for the first time.
  • 1 million people gained access to sustainable sanitation service, with 90% gaining access for the first time.

USAID works around the globe to ensure inclusive and sustainable growth through whole-ecosystem water security strategies and locally-owned solutions.

  • In Burkina Faso and Niger, USAID works with local communes to improve access to data and information so they can make informed decisions about water resources and WASH investments. Using this information, program implementers and communities developed a series of administrative ordinances that established fair water and land use, reducing the possibility of conflict.
  • 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.

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 in global investment is required every year, until 2030, to reach Sustainable Development Goal 6: universal water and sanitation access.
  • The UN/WHO’s Joint Management Program reported that achieving universal coverage by 2030 will require a quadrupling of current rates of progress in safely managed drinking water, safely managed sanitation, and basic hygiene services.
  • The Asian Development Bank will invest more than $3.4 billion in water supply, sanitation, and wastewater treatment through 2021 and has committed nearly $360 million for better water resources within its $20 billion package for COVID-19 response.
  • The World Bank’s Global Water Security & Sanitation Partnership supported 127 knowledge and analytical activities that influenced $14.2 billion in lending operations across the World Bank in FY2021.
  • The European Investment Bank will provide a loan worth $100 million to modernize the drinking water and sanitation network in Ecuador.

Last updated March 2022

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