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'Wash Your Hands' Is Tough Message Across Africa

FILE: In this photo taken on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019, a man stands on a sun baked pool that used to be a perennial water supply in Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe. An estimated 45 million people are threatened with hunger due to a severe drought.

Leaders and medical experts around the world have said that no matter who you are, or where you live, if you want to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, wash your hands.

As South African President Cyril Ramaphosa noted this week, the virus doesn't discriminate. "[I]t is very real, and it poses a great danger to every one of us and to our society," he said. "It infects the rich and the poor, the young and the old, black and white, those who live in the cities and those in the villages."

One of the biggest challenges on the African continent is the simplest: universal access to clean water. Even in relatively well-developed South Africa, millions of residents lack clean running water at home.

It would take years to shore that up, so in the meantime, charitable organizations like Living Water International have gone into overdrive, setting up water distribution points and handwashing stations in countries including Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burkina Faso.

The organization's water and sanitation officer, Maitabel Achieng Okumu, says people have enthusiastically embraced the program. She spoke to VOA from Nairobi, via the Zoom conferencing app.

"Today everyone knows the beauty of washing hands," she said. "People have gone to an extent — even the boda-boda riders — the guys who are riding motorcycles — have their handwashing facilities. So the message is being passed through media, through community health volunteers. … People are really responding positively."

This is especially important in high-density areas like camps for displaced people and refugees.

In those places, groups like Catholic Relief Services are also upping their hygiene efforts, says the agency's Uganda country director, Niek de Goeij.

"We are able to reach well over 1 million Ugandans with new messages around handwashing and hygiene promotion in general," he said. "And so very specifically that can mean, for example, in the refugee settlements in the very northwest of the country, for example, like Bidibidi settlement, we have volunteers that are standing at the handwashing points where the refugees collect their drinking water, and while they are fetching their drinking water, we basically take the time with the refugees to talk to them about the coronavirus and how to better protect themselves and their families to make sure that they keep their water clean and stored well, and that they wash their hands frequently."

Experts say it takes 20 seconds to properly clean your hands. It's not a long time, but it could make a big difference.

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