The title question is an ethical dilemma of the highest order, and I am not a philosopher who can adequately adjudge moral responsibility. Of course, anyone who reads this title will say that the answer is obvious, that development on international sanitation has stalled because we are in a pandemic with a transmittable virus. Moving around spreads the virus and puts more people at risk.
Then, I ask, what of the 3 billion people who have no access to hand-washing facilities with soap and water? Already suffering from poverty, discrimination, and maybe even famine, they cannot drive to the supermarket to stockpile toilet paper and antibacterial gel. In slums and favelas, social distancing is a luxury they cannot imagine, plus, with schools closed, it’s even more people to share the small space with each day. With purses tightened, there are no extra funds for PPE.
So, if our rich western governments tell us to sing happy birthday while washing our hands, to use anti-bacterial gel, and to social distance, it’s all well and good, but it’s not the same for the developing world. There were many WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) projects developing infrastructure and hygiene culture in these parts of the world, mainly Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, that simply got put on hold, right when they were needed the most.
Would it not make sense, if the purpose of lockdowns and quarantines is to save lives, to place at least an equal importance on those with the least access to basic sanitation?
Water is a scarce resource
There’s a reason Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa fare the worst when it comes to water and hygiene issues, and it’s due to access to the resource itself compounding the financial problems. The UN found that in regions that require WASH infrastructure, less than 15% have the financial resources to do it themselves. With international aid and development required to make up the other 85%, the UN estimated that it will take more than 20 years to reach universal basic sanitation, and around 100 years to meet SDG 6 fully.
This extract from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, does well to highlight how physical sanitation projects may have stopped, but educational ones are now coming to the forefront of their work.
“In the pre-COVID-19 era, face-to-face regional and national workshops and trainings represented the key modality for the delivery of capacity-development support under the project, due to the high level of interactivity, the possibility of direct exchange of experience and knowledge, as well as the networking potential among participants. Distant learning tools were then used to complement face-to-face interaction and to offer support in situations when a physical meeting was not possible. In most cases however, distance learning tools were used to target single individuals or small groups of participants.”
“The global pandemic, which caused the cancellation of scheduled face-to-face activities, served as a catalyst, stimulating and accelerating a global shift towards an effective and robust distance learning highway. What made this possible is not only organizational adaptation to the new conditions but also the ability and willingness of the audiences worldwide to take advantage of distance learning tools, overcoming their limitations.”
“At FAO, we had to change our mindset, and design and implement online capacity-development activities having such a level of scale and degree of interactivity as to be able to continue supporting countries’ SDG monitoring efforts. As a result, in June and July 2020, we organized two five-week regional interactive online courses on monitoring SDG indicators on sustainable water use: one, in Spanish, for Latin American countries and the other, in English, for countries in South and South-East Asia. More than 200 water monitoring and management professionals and statisticians from 33 countries participated in the courses, offering positive feedback on the module.”
What can we do to change the negative trajectory and come back stronger?
It’s crucial, clearly, that we restart WASH projects to help the world’s poorest fight pre-existing, current, and future threats, not only pandemics but the climate crisis too. Any country looking to recover from Covid-19 will need a recovery package that has integrated all of the SDGs, and especially SDG 6.
Instead of seeing Covid-19 as an event that halts sustainable change, we need governments, organisations, and donors to renew their ambitions to see SDG 6 progressed. This means financial investment, but it also means aid, debt relief, subsidies, reforms, and strategic response. Sadly for the SDGs, investment and progress were insufficient before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, so now with economic meltdowns and stop-start lockdowns, the financial crevices are only going to deepen.
The answers to solving SDG6 are hard to come by, but I’d say that the richer and stronger countries need to redistribute the wealth and help the poorer ones. The nations with low WASH infrastructure also need to make a greater community to help their own communities, through education. Overall, we need to accept that pandemics like the one we are experiencing can come again in the future, and likely will, so we must prepare ourselves better.