Forty percent of the world’s population does not have access to a basic hand-washing facilities. It has been seen, now more than ever during this Covi-19 pandemic, that basic Hand Hygiene is one of the most cost-effective and efficient interventions for the prevention of infectious diseases. Today’s Global Handwashing Day webinar was a humble contribution in not only spreading that message on the importance of handwashing with soap but also the need for concerted action to address the critical gaps in ensuring this simple yet powerful sanitation behaviour is practiced by all! In this spirit, the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance (GIWA) & the Water Supply Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) organised this webinar bringing together the World Health Organisation (WHO), UNICEF India, UNFPA India, United Nations Volunteers and heads of interfaith leaders of the five major faith traditions – Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain & Sikh.
Founder/Chair of the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance and President, Parmarth Niketan Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji so beautifully shared in His opening welcome address, “This is a day to come together…together in the name of health, hygiene and for a healthy, happy society. In our tradition, proper hygiene practices have always been a core foundation of our traditions. Before doing puja or meditation, we bathe. We emphasize the purity of both mind and body, and we must remember that in order to have hygiene on any level, we must have water. Clean water brings life and health. It is a blessing. Let’s pledge to work together to conserve and preserve our water. We must bring all of the people of the world – all of the faiths, all of the groups – together, to work together. If people are not healthy, if we don’t have clean water how can we have a healthy world.”
The most cited reasons in India for not practicing hand-washing are lack of a place to wash hands, lack of soap and limited water access. Thanks to the efforts of the Government of India under the visionary leadership of our Hon’ble Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, India is inspiring a grassroots people driven movement to be the change, moving swiftly towards the Sustainable Development Goals, the Government of India has successfully led the largest cleanliness movement as the flagship Swachh Bharat Movement and is now under the Ministry of Jal Shakti committed to ensuring running tap water in every home via the Jal Jeevan Mission.
Speaking on the commitment of the Government of India to ensure healthy hygiene practices in Covid-19 and beyond the Hon’ble Union Minister of Health & Family Welfare, Dr Harsh Vardhanji shared in his video message for the occasion, “The Covid-19 pandemic has enhanced the critical role that hand hygiene plays in prevention of transmission of the disease. It’s an important component of the plan for appropriate Covid behaviour launched by the Hon’ble Prime Minister. In fact, hand hygiene, with properly-worn face-cover or mask and physical distancing has become the most-powerful tool and social vaccine to prevent the spread of Covid-19. This webinar will not only increase awareness, but will also facilitate the behavioural change inculcating hand-washing as a regular practice and will be an important step in the development of a healthy lifestyle and disease prevention.”
Dr Saumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist of the World Health Organisation in Geneva, offered that “what’s critically-important to understand why hand-washing is important – to do the advocacy that’s necessary for behaviour change – to convey it, we must ask who can bring about that change. And, that’s when faith leaders can play an important part in that role. In their sermons, in their preaching, to tell people that these sanitation and hygiene behaviours are vital… In times of pandemic, we must speak of the three Cs that need to be avoided: Crowded places, Close contact with people and Closed indoor, poorly-ventilated spaces. These are three things. But, the fourth behaviour that is critical is the most-important action of hand-washing with soap.”
Dr Yasmin Ali Haque, UNICEF Country Representative for India, joined the conversation to say that “who would have thought that something that our mother’s were constantly reminding us of would become such a global event. It’s such a simple measure, but it’s so effective in preventing infection and the spread of many diseases. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water – it’s not even anything very high-tech. It’s there and available and so important, especially when we’re talking about reopening schools. And, for that, we must really teach children, talk to them, encourage them about the importance of handwashing is necessary to create a safe environment.”
Argentina Matavel Piccin with the UNFPA India, meanwhile, stated that “It’s always very challenging to convince people to change the way they do things. To tell them that the simple action of washing their hands will ward off half of the diseases in their lives. Ironically, it’s taken a giant enemy such as the Covid pandemic to reposition hand-washing at the centre of the way we stay alive as a community and as individuals. It’s important that we join together to develop and promote Covid-appropriate behaviours, of which hand-washing is at the very centre. And, if we only focus on women and girls in that effort, we’re sure to succeed. They are arguably the most powerful agents for positive and sustainable change!”
Pujya Sadvhi Bhagawati Saraswatiji, Secretary-General of the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance shared, “bringing together members of so many different sectors of the community reminds us that health, hygiene and solutions to them – including hand-washing – are everyone’s responsibility. Everyone has the power to really make a difference. Hand-washing is the simplest, least-expensive, easiest and quickest tool that we have to actually transform the health and hygiene of the world. As we wait for medical miracles and a vaccine for Covid, we already have a medical miracle, a health miracle – this incredible thing with just some water and some suds that can prevent so many illnesses, so many needless deaths. Nearly 2 million young children die each year because of Diarrhoeal and respiratory illnesses. Yet, simply good hand-washing with soap actually can prevent about a third of diarrhoeal illnesses and about 20 percent of respiratory illnesses. And to think that all of those lives could be saved by something that we already have – hand-washing!”
Arun Sahdeo, Country Coordinator, United Nations Volunteers in India, contributed as well, saying that “volunteers are the greatest asset available anywhere in the world. And, if we talk about bringing about behavioural change among the people, there is no other asset as valuable as volunteers. Millions of volunteers throughout India have been doing wonderful work in helping to change to Covid-appropriate behaviour. Despite those numbers, Indians arent volunteering as much in this crisis. I would request that we promote volunteerism across all platforms.”
Haji Syed Salman Chisthy, the Gaddi Nashin of Dargah Ajmer Sharif, said, “In Islamic spirituality, the first and foremost aspect of the spiritual path is the cleansing of your ego and the cleansing of your physical aspect. It is mandatory, not an option. You must clean yourself ritualistically so that you can present yourself to the Divine in prayer and worship. So, today’s Global Handwashing Day is vital for us to remember our faith traditions and these values that put hygiene and sanitation at the centre.”
Father Paul Moonjely, Executive Director, Caritas India shared “Corona has brought about a change in communities. It’s helped to remind us that we need a community approach to health and hygiene. This is not something new. Pujya Swamiji has always reminded us of this through our Vedic traditions. Even in the Bible, in Leviticus, it is said that when you have illness, then you shall clean yourself for 7 days with running waters, and you shall be clean. It’s a beautiful reminder that washing the full body, including the hands, has something to do with the human dignity and respect to the body. When you respect your body, you are respecting yourselves as well.”
“If you are talking about the last mile,” stated WSSCC India Head Vinod Mishra, “if you’re talking about marginalized citizens, and the hand-washing stations available to them, it’s not very adequate. We have to reach out to these people and these places to make sure that hand-washing practices become universal. Hand-washing brings enormous benefits, reduces spread of disease, helps children to stay in school and generates savings in health expenditures. It is critical, especially in this pandemic situation.”
In addition to all of these respected leaders, beautiful videos of hand-washing instruction activities throughout India and at the Parmarth Gurukul were shared, as were inspiring messages of interfaith support from Pujya Sadhvi Shri Shilapiji, of the Jain faith from Veerayatan Institute, Kutch, Gujarat, Venerable Bhikkhu Sanghasena, from Buddhist Tradition in Ladakh also the Founder of the Mahabodhi International Meditation Centre of Ladakh, and Sardar Paramjit Singh Chandhok of the Sikh tradition also the Chairman, Delhi Gurudwara Bangla Saheb. Presentations on the work of the UN Volunteers and the WSSCC Team in Jharkhand during the pandemic were also shared.
The webinar had participation of global policy makers, government functionaries, civil society representatives, organisations working in the WASH and Health sector and faith-based societies. The virtual meeting was moderated by Ganga Nandini, Director of Programme Implementation, Integration & Communication, GIWA and was organized to build awareness around hand-washing with soap and to initiate a dialogue around this simple and powerful tool that can be leveraged to create an effective solution for virus-spread in the current pandemic.
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