The first line of defence against the spread of COVID-19 is to wash hands with soap and water, an act of good hygiene practice. However, many people in developing countries with limited access to clean water or sanitation facilities, have to walk 6 km every day to collect water. Many others have no access to clean water at all, making the precautionary measure of washing hands a challenge.
Statistics show that 840 million people worldwide lack access to basic water services. Some have argued that ensuring the availability of clean water to these people could bring the overall global cases down by 9 % and reduce the number of deaths by 6 % or more. Consequently, the impact access to clean water has on the global pandemic is the reason COVID-19 might partly be considered a WASH disease, calling for attention and strengthening of WASH development activities.
Fundamentally, COVID-19 presents a public health crisis, lays bare the already existing water crisis and threatens to worsen economic development, contributing to more poverty.
Public health in Madagascar not equipped against rapid spread of COVID-19
As of 1 June, Madagascar has recorded 790 cases and 6 deaths. According to the authorities, there have been 168 confirmed recoveries. However, the threat of the virus spreading suddenly is real, given the challenges of the provision of WASH services in the country. Furthermore, the public health care system would be overwhelmed.
According to Madagascar’s Ministry of Health, “there is one doctor per 10,500 people, one nurse per 8,400 people and one midwife per 15,000 people” (WSSC, 2020). Moreover, 75% of Basic Health Centres fail to meet basic surgical standards, with even more in need of permanent medical supplies (WSSC, 2020).
This poor access to health care is evidenced by the negative effect it has on maternal and child health. According to the UN Inter-agency group for Child Mortality Estimation, Madagascar child mortality rates are high, with over 53 deaths per 1,000 live births for children under the age of 5 (2019). Under such circumstance, it is evident that fragile health systems, especially in developing countries are not prepared nor equipped if coronavirus infections increase rapidly.
Increasing access to clean water is key to fighting the global water crisis and COVID-19
As mentioned earlier, COVID-19 exposes the already existing water crisis. The World Economic Forum’s latest Global Risks Report ranked water crisis above both infectious diseases and food crises. However, COVID-19 presents a strong case of the worst-case scenario, which is a combination of all three.
Thus, struggling communities and families, especially in developing countries forced to depend on unclean water and live without proper sanitation facilities, also struggle with food insecurity due to droughts. Moreover, they are also at risk of contracting waterborne diseases that continue to take over 3,570,000 lives every year. 50% of deaths due to waterborne disease represent children. In particular, diarrhoea deaths attributable to WASH in Madagascar account for 13,9% deaths according to the Institutes for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).
WASH programs are concerned with preventing these deaths and improving the living conditions of people deprived of access to clean water. Even though success has been registered over the years with respect to this sustainable development goal a lot remains to be done, especially in rural areas.
We at the Elemental Water Foundation are concerned that water scarcity will only increase in the coming years due to unpredictable weather patterns caused by climate change and population growth. Therefore, the current worsening water crisis and COVID-19 threat calls for urgent and collective action to the end of increasing access to clean water and improving WASH infrastructure.
COVID-19 is expected to cause economic decline and slow down development
In addition to the loss of life, COVID-19 also has the potential to cause social and economic devastation in developing countries. As economists brace for a global economic recession comparable to the 2008 financial crisis or worse. The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown threaten to stifle economic growth as many countries in Africa rely on the tourism industry.
Consequently, with the decline in travel and flights, many will either lose their jobs or receive considerably less income. An African Union report states that 50 billion dollars and two million jobs could be lost connected to the industry. In addition, remittances are an important income source for sub-Saharan Africa.
According to the World Bank, sub-Saharan Africa received 46 billion dollars in remittances in 2018. A decline is expected due to the global dimension of the crisis, just like the 2008 financial crisis. Moreover, the drop in commodity prices will reduce government revenues as many African countries rely on the export of commodities such as oil, copper and cacao.
This means that governments will have less money to spend on improving public facilities such as healthcare, sanitation, schools and safe drinking water. Indeed, all of these can have devastating impacts on the lives of many people and be disastrous for the most vulnerable communities.
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic increasing access to clean water is crucial to reducing the risk of the virus spreading as many developing countries, including Madagascar have fragile health system without the capacity to treat a large number of patients.
COVID-19 Has called attention to the persistent water crisis that continues to take the lives of millions of people every year. Therefore, increasing access to clean water is critical to improving public health and strengthening defence and resilience against other future infectious diseases.
Lastly, COVID-19 is expected to have crippling economic and social implications, resulting in a shortage of resources for providing public facilities for vulnerable communities, of which access to safe drinking water is the most basic.
The Elemental Water Foundation strives to improve access to clean water for vulnerable communities. Our activities are aimed at and elemental to further development, including ensuring healthy lives, achieving food security and economic growth.