Members of more than 61 per cent households, on an average, in Bangladesh do not use soap with water to cleanse their hands, although the picture has radically changed in recent weeks following the outbreak of COVID-19, a disease caused by deadly coronavirus.
Washing hands with shops frequently has been suggested by the World Health Organization (WHO) as one of the ways to escape coronavirus infection.
The results of a US-funded survey released in November last, said approximately 50 per cent households use only water to wash their hands while some 8.5 per cent households use natural cleansing agents like ash, mud, sand with water to rinse their hands.
The country has around 35.5 million households, according to a latest government survey.
However, no data on the change of habit with regards to washing hands with soap in recent weeks is available. But it is assumed that there has been a notable change in the people's habit.
The 'Demographic and Health Survey' was conducted by the National Institute of Population Research and Training under health ministry.
The US-funded survey has a reputation for collecting and disseminating accurate data in more than 90 developing countries.
Health economists are of the view that the habit of washing hands with soap, a critical component of good hygiene, has now been picked up widely in urban areas following outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
Handwashing with soap or alcohol based sanitiser is now considered as the most effective way of preventing COVID-19 that has killed over 27,000 globally, infecting around 600,000 people until March 28.
This handwashing practice is also a must before preparing food, serving food, eating and feeding a child, and after defecation, cleaning a baby's bottom or disposing of faeces.
The WHO in addition to handwashing asks people to maintain least 1.0 metre (3.0 feet) distance between two individuals to avoid infection.
In the meantime, Prof Dr Shamsul Alam, a senior secretary at general economics division, said, "People are not health-conscious; they neglect such hygienic issues in their daily lives."
The government should make cleansing agents affordable for all by cutting taxes on the import of raw materials of soap and other washing stuff, he added.
Prof Alam, who is involved with SDGs, said hygiene was omitted from MDGs but is included in SDGs, aiming to achieve universal access to a basic handwashing facility at home.
This time, handwashing practice has expanded as a result of the corona outbreak, he told the FE.
Health economists have expressed the view that the poor rate of handwashing does speaks of the lack of awareness among the population about their own health safeguards.
Dr AK Enamul Haque, a director at the Asian Centre for Development and economics professor at East West University, said most people are not aware of the benefits of handwashing.
The picture that emerged from the survey is a real one and that's why the government should take adequate measures to aware the people.
"Not only the pandemic, human bodies become infected with other diseases following lack of proper hand washing."
He recently visited four districts-Jashore, Jhenidah, Magura and Chuadanga-to oversee local markets.
"We've visited 100 local markets in 16 sub-districts of the four districts, but I got only two markets where toilets did have soaps."
Dr Haque said at least 110,000 people live in each square kilometre in Dhaka. Some 70 per cent of the inhabitants come out from home each day.
"Do we have any public toilet with soap facility in each square kilometre?" he queried.
Dr Abdur Razzak, a health economist working at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, suggested that the government make people aware of the fact that washing hands with soap is one of the effective ways of preventing Corona infection.
The knowledge level on handwashing is not satisfactory, with only 13 per cent of households in Rajshahi and Rangpur still using mud, ash and sand for handwashing.
"Campaign is a must, be it through television commercials or rallies," Dr Razzak told the FE.
He said many people are not getting liquid cleansing agents in the market following the corona outbreak in Bangladesh where the toll of official infected persons remaining less than 50.
Data relating to how many people actually wash their hands should be included in next surveys, he cited.
Dr Syed Abdul Hamid, professor and director at the Institute of Health Economics, said the lesson of coronavirus is handwashing and how to keep the environment clean.
The government should invest more in health to protect people from such deadly virus, he added.
"It is surprising that we don't have adequate kits to detect coronavirus," Dr Hamid told the FE.
Khairul Islam, regional director of WaterAid, an international organisation, said: "There has been a dramatic change in handwashing in the past few weeks."
Mr Islam, who oversees Wateraid activities in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal and Myanmar, told the FE, "The question is whether the habit will continue in future or not."
An observational study named 'Sanitation, Hygiene Education and Water supply in Bangladesh (SHEWA-B)' a decade ago found that around 20 per cent people actually wash hands with soap after toilet.
The latest demographic and health survey, however, shows a strong relationship between wealth and the handwashing habit.
The study showed 'wealth quintiles', a statistical value, representing the highest quintile or 20 per cent of the rich has nearly 84 per cent handwashing facility with soap and water.
Such facility belonging to the lowest quintile is 10.7 per cent. The second, third and fourth wealth quintile is 18.8, 33.0 and 47.2 per cent respectively.
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