How handwashing helped a community prepare for COVID-19

Handwashing — long proven to dramatically reduce transmission of communicable diseases — has taken on new importance during the global COVID-19 pandemic. For four districts in Sri Lanka, a recent intervention to promote handwashing couldn’t have come at a better time.

Participants convened for handwashing sensitization at a community center

A timely intervention

When the ‘Reaching the Unreached’ project launched more than two-years ago in Sri Lanka, no one could have predicted just how urgent the topic would become. The COVID-19 pandemic has tested public health systems around the world like almost no other event in our lifetimes. Sri Lanka has thus far led a commendable fight against COVID-19, armed with an effective healthcare system and a commitment to surveillance and tracing. However, public health depends largely on the actions of everyday people.

Reaching the Unreached, an EU funded program run jointly by Solidaridad, the Institute of Social Development and the Nucleus Foundation, aspires to improve the health and nutritional status of 236 marginalized and underserved estates and surrounding communities living in the Districts of Matale, Nuwara Eliya, Badulla and Monaragala.

More than 23,037 community members were sensitized on proper handwashing 

The project initiatives were designed towards the provision of equitable water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) for improved health and nutrition to benefit the target populations. A key initiative was to sensitize the estates and surrounding village communities on safe sanitation and water practices through Social Behavior Change Communication activities. One of the activities that was given great emphasis in the first two years of the project was the Importance of ‘Proper Hand Washing’.  The project deployed the local actors such as public health inspectors and midwives to facilitate the programs.

More than 23,000 people reached

By the end of the second year of the project, ‘Reaching the Unreached’ had engaged a total of 23,037 people through 389 handwashing programs. While it was not new knowledge that proper handwashing leads to better health outcomes, the practice of it has been suboptimal. Awareness activities included the 2019 Global Handwashing Day 15 October, which saw students presenting short dramas, art exhibitions, poems and songs to portray the importance of handwashing. Posters, calendars and publicity material were produced to disseminate the message widely among the communities.

Students give perform an original poem at the 2019 Global Handwashing Day event

It is evident that the proactive approach taken by the project in creating awareness around proper hand washing has been appreciated and complemented by the beneficiaries and the project stakeholders.

It was as though the project knew that COVID-19 was coming. [Because of the intervention] my sons already knew the proper way, as well as the importance, of handwashing when the rest of the country had to learn it through media as a new activity during the lockdown period.” – Nilakshi Indunil, project beneficiary

This behavioral change will be further sustained and become a way of life with the water supply units that will be rehabilitated or newly constructed in the 236 estates, schools and surrounding communities through the project in the future. These water supply units in schools are designed with ‘handwashing water troughs’ to be accessible to all including primary students and students with disabilities.

With zero cases of COVID-19 in the project communities to date, beneficiaries and project implementers remain hopeful that a continued commitment to handwashing and public health will keep these communities healthy long into the future.

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