Millions return to schools lacking handwashing facilities: UN

Some 818 million children at increased risk of being infected with COVID-19 when schools reopen, UN agencies warn.

School handwashing
School children wearing masks wash their hands and get their temperatures checked as they arrive to appear for exams in India [File: R S Iyer/AP]

More than 800 million children around the world lack basic handwashing facilities at their schools, putting them at an increased risk of catching the new coronavirus when schools reopen, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned.

A joint report (PDF) published last week by the WHO and UNICEF, the UN children’s fund, revealed that 43 percent of schools worldwide lacked facilities for basic handwashing with soap and water in 2019, affecting 818 million children – more than a third of them in sub-Saharan Africa. 

In the least-developed countries, seven out of 10 schools lack basic handwashing facilities, and half of all schools lack basic sanitation and water services, the agencies said.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused the largest disruption to education in history, with schools closed in some 160 countries in mid-July, affecting more than one billion students, according to the UN. 

As the virus continues to spread, with 21.8 million confirmed cases worldwide as of Tuesday, there has been an emphasis on the availability of basic handwashing facilities as a key condition for the safe reopening and operation of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Education is essential for escaping poverty, but schools without water, toilets and hygiene threaten the health and learning opportunities for millions of children, especially girls,” Ada Oko Williams, senior WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) manager at the NGO WaterAid, said.

“Progress towards ensuring every school has the water, toilets and soap they need to help pupils stay safe is achingly slow, and COVID-19 must act as a catalyst to ensure these basic services are prioritized.”

Closures of schools and other learning spaces have affected 94 percent of the world’s student population, up to 99 percent in low and lower-middle-income countries, according to a UN report (PDF) published last month. 

In an attempt to prevent the spread of the virus, many countries switched to online learning, but aid groups say this has only widened the learning gap between children from rich and poor families.

“Whilst many pupils have had access to some level of digital learning, a whole generation of children in developing countries risk being left further behind,” a WaterAid statement added.

“The poverty gap may continue to widen between children who are able to continue to access education and those who cannot. “

Source: Al Jazeera