Younten Tshedup 

Many people around the capital yesterday sincerely went about washing hands at home, outside offices, and shops little realising that it was the Global Handwashing Day.

The Covid-19 pandemic has made people more aware of the importance of handwashing. The change in behaviour was also partly due to the increasing number of handwashing taps in schools across the country.

According to a joint press release from the health and education ministries, UNICEF Bhutan, SNV Bhutan, and the Central Monk Body, since the onset of pandemic, the number of handwashing tap-points in schools across the country has recorded an increase of 77 percent.

Records with the education ministry show that from 9,654 handwashing tap-points before the on-set of the pandemic early this year, the number has today increased to 17,071 tap-points.

This means that at the national level, from one tap-point for every 17 students, the access has increased to one tap-point for every nine students.

Similarly, at the dzongkhag level, excluding the four thromdes, the tap-to-student ratio has more than doubled from one tap for 19 students to one tap point for nine students.

At the thromdes as well, the ratio has doubled from one tap point for 26 students to one tap point for 13 students.

Among the regions, schools in the central region recorded the highest increase in handwashing tap-points with 92 percent new taps. From 1,823 tap-points, the central region today has 3,505 taps improving the student-to-tap ratio from 19 to 11 per tap today.

The central region includes Bumthang, Gelephu Thromde, Trongsa, Tsirang, Dagana, Zhemgang, Sarpang and Wangdue.

From 3,239 taps before the pandemic, the eastern region today has 5,529 handwashing taps in its schools. The region saw an increase of 71 percent. The student-to-tap ratio improved from 14 to eight students per tap.

The region includes Samdrupjongkhar Thromde, Lhuentse, Mongar, Pemagatshel, Samdrupjongkhar, Trashiyangtse and Trashigang.

The western region’s schools saw a 75 percent increase from 4,592 taps to 8,037 today. From one tap for every 19 students, the ratio has today improved to one tap for every 10 students. Phuentsholing and Thimphu Thromdes, Chhukha, Gasa, Paro, Punakha, Haa, Thimphu and Samtse comprise the western region.

According to the joint press release, the figures include all taps including those in the toilets and barrel handwashing stations with multiple taps. “All taps as informed by the district education officials are functional and have access to regular water supply.”

Commending the progress, Education Minister Jai Bir Rai said that this was a result of the education fraternity rising up to the call to secure the safety of children. “The numbers indicate the readiness of our schools to reopen safely and ensure access to handwashing facilities for all students.”

Lyonpo said that for people to be able to practice hand hygiene, they need hand hygiene facilities that are conveniently located and easy to use. “Our schools are now well equipped with these facilities.”

Health Minister Dechen Wangmo commended the efforts of the education ministry and partners in improving the handwashing facilities in schools across the country.

“The change we’re seeing in terms of improved access to proper handwashing facilities in schools is one of our biggest achievements to date and a proud moment for all of us,” the minister said.

“The Covid-19 pandemic provides a stark reminder that one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of a virus is also one of the simplest – handwashing with soap,” she said.

Handwashing and religion 

Calling on all to wash hands with soap, the Central Monk Body’s Leytshog Lopon Sangay Dorji, in a video message, said that since mental wellbeing depends on a healthy body, taking good care of the body and maintaining hygiene was critical.

“Buddha, in his teaching, had also emphasised on the importance of hygiene, as the body is the most important part of our lives,” the Leytshog Lopon said. “As we observe the Global Handwashing Day, I urge all to wash your hands with soap not just to mark the day but to make it a daily practice.”

The monastic institutions in the country have about 97 percent of its handwashing facility through tap-points. The remaining three percent comprises buckets, tanks, taps connected to syntax and washbasins, according to the Wash Baseline Survey in Monastic Schools and Nunneries in Bhutan, 2019.

The survey found that only a quarter of the monastic institutions had both soap and water at the handwashing facilities compared to 71 percent with only water.

In terms of the frequency for group handwashing activities, at least half (53 percent) of the institutions conducted group handwashing activities once a week for monks and nuns. There are 248 monastic institutions in the country today.

This year the Global Handwashing Day was observed with the theme ‘Hand Hygiene for All’ and aimed to catalyse the momentum from the Covid-19 pandemic, which has highlighted the critical role of hand hygiene to prevent disease transmission.

The global hand hygiene for all initiative, according to the SNV Bhutan Country Representative, Kencho Wangdi, was designed around three stages of responding to the immediate pandemic, rebuilding infrastructure and services, and reimagining hand hygiene in a society.

“The achievement in handwashing facilities in schools is evidence of the efforts of the Bhutanese government in responding, rebuilding and reimagining hand hygiene in the country.”

UNICEF Bhutan Representative Dr Will Parks said that the improvement in handwashing facilities in schools was significant and showed the government’s priority in ensuring the safety of children across the country.

“This progress will help stop the spread of Covid-19 and keep children safe by providing them an effective learning environment,” said Dr Will Parks. “Handwashing with soap is a lifesaving measure and UNICEF commits to work closely with the Bhutan government on improving access to inclusive WASH facilities in schools and public places to secure the safety of everyone.”

Meanwhile, the country this year also witnessed a significant drop in the cases of common cold and diarrhoea, the leading causes of morbidity among Bhutanese.

The decline, although no studies were done, is also linked to the increased frequency of handwashing in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic.