Ten years after the United Nations recognised water and sanitation as human rights, the world finds itself reeling from the devastating toll of COVID-19, a virus against which hand-washing and hygiene are the first lines of defence.

One of the most important lessons we learned from this pandemic is that we are only as healthy as the most vulnerable members of our societies, and today, huge sections of the global population are still being left behind in their access to water, sanitation, and hygiene.

Before the pandemic hit, 40 percent of the world’s population already lacked access to basic hand-washing facilities at home, and children at almost half of the world’s schools did not have water and soap. While many governments have increased the provision of public hand-washing stations during the pandemic, the economic fallout of COVID-19 has only exacerbated what was already an urgent need in homes, schools, and healthcare facilities all over the world. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic may contribute to the first increase in global poverty in more than 20 years, and by 2021, an additional 150 million people could be pushed into extreme poverty.

One in four healthcare facilities around the world lacks basic water services, one in 10 has no sanitation service, and one in three lacks hand hygiene facilities at points of care. Data has shown that even where there are adequate WASH facilities, front-line healthcare workers have been 12 times more likely to test positive for COVID-19 compared with individuals in the general community.

Insufficient access to water and sanitation not only risks millions of lives, especially those of women and children, but also affects many other development goals including gender equality, climate resilience, peace, and education.

Lack of access to water and sanitation does not exist in isolation. It is part of a web of systemic challenges and inequalities, intensified by a lack of political will and chronic under- and misdirected investment in the sector. Even before the pandemic hit, there was a decrease in donor aid money, and it is now expected to drop further with growing domestic pressure for spending at home.

Building forward from the pandemic is an opportunity to do things better, an opportunity we must seize without delay. Businesses and schools are reinventing the way they work and we believe that the water, sanitation and hygiene sector can also find new ways to build forward better. To be successful, we must strengthen political will at the highest levels in favour of water, sanitation and hygiene; improve multi-stakeholder engagement in countries; and reinforce good governance and finance. Good governance and the realisation of human rights are certainly the right things to do. But they are also catalytic to enable countries to attract more finance, to absorb it, and to invest in sustainable solutions.

Read the full article about water and sanitation amid COVID-19 by Catarina de Albuquerque Aljazeera.