At 2020's World Health Assembly – the most important in a generation – we called on world leaders to ensure that urgent investment in hygiene and public health is central to a COVID-19 response and rebuild strategy.

The World Health Assembly is the annual gathering of health ministers to agree actions on urgent health issues. On 18 and 19 May 2020, ministers met digitally to adopt a formal resolution on the global health response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The coronavirus pandemic is a global emergency demanding urgent collective action – both to withstand this crisis and build resilience against future health crises. We are deeply concerned that governments and donors are failing to prioritise hygiene, water and sanitation (WASH) for communities and frontline health workers, as called for by the World Health Organization.

We urged health ministers to prioritise these fundamentals in the World Health Assembly resolution and in their national responses to COVID-19, and welcomed the inclusion of the importance of clean water and hygiene in the adopted resolution on the global COVID-19 response. But, despite this inclusion, we are yet to see any significant action and little additional resources have been committed for water and hygiene. Read our statement on the resolution here. The opportunity to drastically improve water and hygiene services in communities and healthcare facilities must not be missed, and we are campaigning hard to ensure it isn't.

Hygiene is a missing first defence against coronavirus

Good hygiene is a vital first line of defence against COVID-19, especially without a vaccine, and handwashing is one of the most effective disease prevention methods. Neither are possible without clean water and soap, yet 3 billion people lack soap and water at home, and, in health centres across the world:

  • 1 in 3 lack hand hygiene facilities at the point of care
  • 1 in 4 have no clean water on site
  • 1 in 10 have no sanitation services

In least-developed countries, more than half of heealth centres have no clean water on site and only three in 10 have the ability to safely dispose of medical waste. Without WASH services for frontline health workers, patients and communities, public health is impossible and global health security is dangerously flawed.

Governments and donors have neglected to invest adequately in the basics of clean water, soap and decent toilets for decades, and, even now, hygiene investment to bolster weak health systems is largely absent from COVID-19 national responses and donor support.

World leaders must act now

Last year, we called on ministers to prioritise WASH, particularly in healthcare facilities, as fundamental to patient safety and quality of care. The resolution was passed – a public, specific commitment by health ministers.

Now, more urgently than ever, we need world leaders to act on that resolution, and to build on it by putting water and hygiene at the heart of the 2020 resolution on COVID-19.

Watch our short film on the importance of WASH in healthcare facilities.

Hygiene: the missing first line of defence against COVID-19

We set out seven critical actions for heads of government and health ministers to take to ensure urgent investment in hygiene and public health is central to a COVID-19 response and rebuild strategy

WaterAid/ Laura Summerton