Post-COVID-19: Unveiling the Evolution of Hand Hygiene

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a significant change in our daily lives, with one particular practice emerging as the unsung hero of public health: hand hygiene. What was once a simple act of hand washing has now transformed into a ritualistic defense mechanism against the invisible threat of the virus. Hand sanitizers have become ubiquitous accessories, symbolizing our heightened awareness and dedication to protecting ourselves and others.

However, as the immediate threat of the pandemic begins to fade, so does our commitment to hand hygiene. The once-ritualistic hand washing is now becoming a fading custom. The transition from meticulous hand cleansing to its current state reflects the evolving narrative of a society moving towards a semblance of normalcy.

Handwashing has proven to be a simple yet powerful tool in the fight against the highly contagious SARS-CoV-2 virus. As the pandemic unfolded, public health experts and authorities globally emphasized the importance of regular handwashing to reduce transmission rates and protect individuals from infection. Proper handwashing involves using soap and water to cleanse hands thoroughly, eliminating not only visible dirt but also invisible pathogens such as viruses and bacteria. The mechanical action of rubbing hands together while washing, combined with the soap’s ability to break down the viral lipid envelope, has been highly effective in reducing the risk of infection.

October 15th is celebrated annually as Global Handwashing Day, a day dedicated to mobilizing people worldwide to wash their hands. This year’s theme is “Clean hands are within reach.” Ranga Reddy Burri, President of the Infection Control Academy of India, highlights the silver lining of COVID-19, emphasizing the importance of handwashing as a simple intervention that can significantly reduce the burden of various diseases, including flu, diarrheal disorders, and upper respiratory tract infections. Handwashing, when practiced correctly, has the potential to halve child mortality rates, especially in low and middle-income countries.

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Dr. Burri also points out that in many developing countries, diarrheal disorders remain a significant burden. Improving hand hygiene in communities could reduce these disorders by at least 50%. The major obstacle to improving handwashing practices is a behavioral one, as people are often not taught about the necessity of handwashing from childhood, especially after defecation, traveling, and eating. Extraordinary circumstances like the COVID-19 pandemic have proven effective in altering behavior due to fear, making it crucial to activate schools and incorporate handwashing initiatives into the curriculum.

A comprehensive study conducted by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) in India revealed some concerning gaps in knowledge about handwashing practices. While 91% of respondents acknowledged the importance of washing hands with soap in reducing the risk of disease transmission, 15% were unaware of even a single step in the proper handwashing process. Furthermore, the study highlighted the absence of budgeted activities within various departments dedicated to promoting hand hygiene, emphasizing the urgent need for improvements in handwashing infrastructure in Anganwadi centers.

Amidst the surge in disinfectant and antiseptic usage, it is important to note that there is no need for antibacterial soaps in routine handwashing scenarios. The public is advised to avoid using antibacterial soaps unless tap water or a sink is unavailable. A basic, traditional hand soap is sufficient to maintain hygiene and prevent infections. Just as with antimicrobial resistance, there is a looming threat of antiseptic and disinfectant resistance. Kiran Madala, Scientific Committee Convenor of Indian Medical Association Telangana State, warns about the potential side effects of these substances and advises against their excessive usage.

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To ensure a consistent messaging strategy on the importance of handwashing, the government needs to establish a cohesive communication framework. This involves connecting ASHA workers at the grassroots level to tertiary care hospitals, drawing inspiration from successful past campaigns. Incorporating a memorable jingle can enhance public awareness, while addressing infrastructure inadequacies is crucial. The lack of accessible and sanitary public restrooms, even in urban areas, poses a significant challenge to hand hygiene. The government must invest in developing public facilities for defecation and urination to maintain high standards of hygiene.

Integrating hand hygiene into the school curriculum is pivotal, as instilling these practices at a young age can establish lifelong habits. However, the effectiveness of such measures depends on the presence of adequate facilities and sanitation within government educational institutions. It is crucial for the government not only to formulate educational programs but also to invest in the necessary infrastructure to support these initiatives.

In conclusion, hand hygiene has emerged as the unsung hero of public health during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the immediate threat of the virus may be diminishing, the importance of handwashing and its impact on reducing the spread of diseases cannot be understated. It is imperative for individuals, communities, and governments to prioritize and sustain hand hygiene practices to protect public health and be prepared for future pandemics and epidemics.

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