Photograph by Sanjit Das, Panos Pictures/Redu​x
Photograph by Sanjit Das, Panos Pictures/Redu​x

How do you stop COVID-19 without clean water?

In India, drought and groundwater contamination means that washing hands isn’t as much of a cultural norm.

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Much to my mom’s chagrin, my father is a notorious believer in the “five-second rule”—when a chip falls on the floor, he has no compunction about picking it up and popping it in his mouth. I didn’t pick up that habit, but I also didn’t understand why mom got so agitated about it; he never seemed to come down with a stomach bug. And in a way, science backs him up: Stuff dropped on the floor does pick up a shocking amount of bacterial hitchhikers, but if you’re at home and you’ve been keeping things tidy, you’re not likely to have really harmful microbes on your floors in the first place.

Of course, that was before COVID-19. These days, I don’t touch a delivery box or a doorknob without vigorously washing my hands, much less sit down to a meal. Anything that hits the floor goes right in the trash, and then I wash my hands again.

From the start, “wash your hands” has been the mantra from health experts around the world as the most basic measure for protecting people and slowing the spread of this coronavirus. But what happens when access to clean water is a luxury, not a given? A single 20-second wash uses more than half a gallon of water, Nilanjana Bhowmick reports for Nat Geo. In rural India (pictured above), high percentages of households don’t have running water piped in, and many people rely on trucks to deliver set amounts every day. Sometimes, the trucks don’t come. The problem is compounded by drought and groundwater contamination. As a result, washing hands isn’t as much of a cultural norm.

Rural India isn’t alone. According to the CDC, about 663 million people around the world don’t have access to “improved” water sources, including piped water in homes and water from protected wells or springs. Some early reports even suggest that clean water may not be a given in the U.S. for much longer, as the ongoing pandemic strains the ability of utility managers to staff treatment plants and maintain water infrastructure.

While immediate solutions are not yet clear, the hope in India is that COVID-19 may be a wake-up call for the nation’s government to take quick action to tackle clean water shortages, and for people there to embrace hand-washing more widely. Here at home, perhaps it will finally convince my dad that the five-second rule is hogwash.

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