Reducing bacterial and COVID-19 infections through sustainable School WASH project

By Kean Smith

The East and South African Region (ESAR) comprise of the following 21 countries: 


Botswana Burundi 






Madagascar Malawi 





South Africa South Sudan Swaziland Tanzania 




According to the United Nations Population Fund 1, these countries have an estimated combined population of 617 million people with more than 127 million 2 pre-primary, primary, and secondary school students. 

Although handwashing facilities are necessary in schools to promote and maintain a hygienic learning environment for children and staff of schools, “[globally], 818 million children lacked basic handwashing service at their school, including 355 million whose schools had facilities with water available for handwashing but no soap.” 3

In Sub-Saharan Africa, about a third of all school-age children lack basic handwashing facilities. This represents about 293 million children. UNICEF reported in April 2013 that “[o]f the countries with available data, all report less than 50% coverage, with an average of 13% of schools providing students with hand-washing facilities.” 4 The World Health Organisation indicated that a lack of handwashing facilities and soap leads to increased risk of students contracting “… infections caused by a host of bacterial, viral, and parasitic organisms …[sic]” 5which can cause diarrhea.

The COVID-19 virus continues to have a major impact on the enrollment of students in schools and their access to quality education. According to UNESCO 6, at the beginning of April 2020 192 countries had imposed country-wide school closures which affected 91.2% of total enrolled learners (1,596,564,925 affected learners). 

Despite the serious nature and effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, frequent and proper hand hygiene is one of the most important measures that can be used to prevent infection with the COVID-19 virus 7. In a recent article, UNICEF stated that “[w]ater and hygiene facilities will be a crucial part of schools reopening safely. Administrators should look at opportunities to improve hygiene measures, including handwashing …”. 8 As part of the World Health Organization’s checklist for schools, Administrators, Teachers and Staff should “[p]romote and demonstrate regular hand washing and positive hygiene behaviors and monitor their uptake.”  9

It is widely accepted that the risk of catching infections like diarrhea and COVID-19 can be reduced by handwashing with soap. This is critical to preventing COVID-19 and to reduce the burden of disease and death. In a study10 conducted between July and August 2009, it was concluded that handwashing with water and soap was more effective than handwashing with water alone and no handwashing. Bacteria was found in 8% of the samples taken after handwashing with soap, in 23% of the sample taken after handwashing with water alone and 44% of the sample taken after no handwashing. The Right to Quality Education Team (RQE) of the Centre for African Justice, Peace and Human Rights (CAJPHR) is taking a sustainable approach to addressing the lack of handwashing services in schools. For example, in its recent project at Independence Layout Primary School located in Enugu, Nigeria, the Team with the support of its funders and stakeholders renovated the existing four toilet rooms and constructed two additional ones. Besides, it installed a water reservoir (Water Wells and Overhead Tanks) which provides basic handwriting and drinking water facilities to students and staff. These deliverable, especially the handwashing services have helped provide a hygienic environment which had drastically reduced the spread of infections among its students and staff and will set the foundation to facilitate the reopening of school during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

At a media briefing on 7 September, 2020 the Director-General of the World Health Organization said that “[COVID-19] will not be the last pandemic. History teaches us that outbreaks and pandemics are a fact of life. But when the next pandemic comes, the world must be ready – more ready than it was this time.” CAJPHR is doing its part through its RQE Team to ensure that schools are ready to provide a hygienic learning environment where students can continue their education.

  1. World Population Dashboard. [no date]. Available at: [Accessed: 3 September 2020].
  2. Schools remain locked for more than 127 million children in Eastern and Southern Africa 2020. Available at: frica [Accessed: 2 September 2020]. 
  3. Hygiene Baseline pre-COVID-19 Global Snapshot [no date]. WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (JMP)., p.4. Available at: http://JMP-2020-COVID-global-hygiene-snapshot.pdf [Accessed: 7 September 2020].
  4. Snapshot of WASH in Schools in Eastern and Southern Africa 2013. Nairobi: United Nations Education Fund., pp. 3 and 8. Available at: df [Accessed: 8 September 2020].

  5.  Diarrhoeal disease. 2017. Available at: [Accessed: 7 September 2020].

  6.  Education: From disruption to recovery. 2020. Available at: [Accessed: 8 September 2020].
  7. Water, sanitation, hygiene, and waste management for the COVID-19 virus – Interim Guidance 23 April, 2020 WHO and UNICEF
  8. ‘What will a return to school during the COVID-19 pandemic look like?’. 2020. Available at: [Accessed: 7 September 2020].
  9. Key Messages and Actions for COVID-19 Prevention and Control in Schools 2020. New York: UNICEF, World Health Organization and IFRC., pp. 4, 6 and 9. Available at: ol-in-schools-march-2020.pdf?sfvrsn=baf81d52_4&gclid=EAIaIQobChMIqaPcso3X6wIVw-F3Ch38vQ0iEAAYAS AAEgKKdvD_BwE [Accessed: 7 September 2020].
  10. Burton M, Cobb E, Donachie P, Judah G, Curtis V, Schmidt WP. The effect of handwashing with water or soap on bacterial contamination of hands. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2011;8(1):97-104. doi:10.3390/ijerph8010097