WaterAid's hygiene behaviour change response to COVID-19

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COVID-19, Hygiene

Hygiene as a first line of defence against COVID-19

At WaterAid, we have always promoted hygiene behaviours as one of the most cost-effective public health interventions in reducing the burden of global infectious diseases and improving dignity. Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues across the globe threatening healthcare systems and livelihoods, we are positioning hygiene – especially handwashing with soap and along with other key behaviours – as the first line of defence in preventing the spread and protecting people from the disease.

As leaders in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector, we are playing a vital role in preventing the spread of COVID-19 by focusing on one of our key areas of expertise – hygiene behaviour change. We have many years of expertise in implementing at-scale hygiene behaviour change programmes using an evidence-based, behaviour-centric approach.

Our COVID-19 response

Leveraging our ongoing hygiene behaviour change programme in many countries, we have responded to COVID-19 very quickly. Because of the nature of COVID-19, we are using non-contact methods to promote behaviour change, including social, digital and mass media and other non-contact methods, as part of the first phase of our response. We are also designing and implementing innovative hands-free inclusive handwashing facilities in public locations and institutions.

The second phase of our response will be to ramp up our existing community-based hygiene promotion using do no harm principles, while continuing mass media campaigns. Through our response to COVID-19, we aim to reach 99 million people in the 28 countries we work in across South Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Our reflections on our hygiene behaviour change response

In this document, we reflect on the creative development of our hygiene campaigns; working in partnership with governments; our phased approach; and transitioning from an initial emergency response to long-term, sustained behaviour change. We divide our work into the following themes, discussing our response and providing key recommendations based on our lessons:

  • Hygiene at scale using non-contact methods – using mass, digital and social media to promote key hygiene behaviours.
  • Making hygiene inclusive – developing hygiene programmes that are accessible for all genders, disabilities and ages, and making hygiene relevant for people in different social economic settings.
  • Hygiene behaviour change technological and product innovation – designing innovative handwashing facilities and promotional package materials.
  • Hygiene integration – integrating hygiene promotion into health, immunisation, schools and the private sector.
  • Monitoring and evaluating our hygiene programmes and sharing learning.
  • Effective collaboration and networking at country, regional and global levels.
  • Making hygiene responses sustainable beyond the current pandemic – responding to challenges we have faced and looking to the future.

COVID-19 is a stark reminder that the simple act of handwashing with soap can save lives and prevent future pandemics. It has also shed light on inequalities in access to basic services and the barriers people face to practising this lifesaving behaviour. We will continue to be creative in changing behaviours and delivering handwashing facilities and soap, while demanding that governments fulfil their responsibilities to ensure everyone has access to water. With an unprecedented focus on handwashing and high uptake in handwashing with soap, we have an opportunity to change hygiene behaviours for an entire generation and make hand hygiene possible for all.