Global Access to Handwashing: Implications for COVID-19 Control in Low-Income Countries

Published May 15, 2020, in Environmental Health Perspectives (opens in a new window)


Low-income countries have reduced health care system capacity and are therefore at risk of substantially higher COVID-19 case fatality rates than those currently seen in high-income countries. Handwashing is a key component of guidance to reduce transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior systematic reviews have indicated the effectiveness of handwashing to reduce transmission of respiratory viruses. In low-income countries, reduction of transmission is of paramount importance, but social distancing is challenged by high population densities and access to handwashing facilities with soap and water is limited.


Our objective was to estimate global access to handwashing with soap and water to inform use of handwashing in the prevention of COVID-19 transmission.


We utilized observational surveys and spatiotemporal Gaussian process regression modeling in the context of the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study to estimate access to a handwashing station with available soap and water for 1,062 locations from 1990 to 2019.


Despite overall improvements from 1990 {33.6% [95% uncertainty interval (UI): 31.5, 35.6] without access} to 2019, globally in 2019, 2.02 (95% UI: 1.91, 2.14) billion people, 26.1% (95% UI: 24.7, 27.7) of the global population, lacked access to handwashing with available soap and water. More than 50% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania were without access to handwashing in 2019, and in eight countries, 50 million50 million or more persons lacked access.


For populations without handwashing access, immediate improvements in access or alternative strategies are urgently needed, and disparities in handwashing access should be incorporated into COVID-19 forecasting models when applied to low-income countries.

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Brauer M, Zhao JT, Bennitt FB, Stanaway JD. Global Access to Handwashing: Implications for COVID-19 Control in Low-Income Countries. Environmental Health Perspectives. 15 May 2020. doi:10.1289/EHP7200.