If We Keep Washing Our Hands Like This After Coronavirus, How Many Lives Can We Save?

The number is staggering — and should be exactly what you need to never forget washing yours again

Among the tangle of confounding, changing and sometimes senseless medical advice prompted by the coronavirus, one directive has remained constant: Wash your hands as if your life depends on it (which it literally could).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you should wash your hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds “before, during and after preparing food, before eating food, before and after caring for someone at home who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea, before and after treating a cut or wound, after using the toilet, after changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet, after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, after touching an animal, animal feed or animal waste, after handling pet food or pet treats, after touching garbage” and just about everywhere in between, too.

Such thorough and frequent handwashing, they contend, “can help yourself and your loved ones stay healthy.” 

Indeed, routine handwashing with soap is one of the cheapest, most effective approaches for preventing the spread of many deadly and highly contagious illnesses. Time and time again studies profess that national handwashing programs would save billions of health-care dollars in developing and developed countries alike.

Research exposes that careful, prevalent handwashing reduces our collective chances of contracting diarrhea, which kills 2,195 children (or 3,000 children, depending on which numbers you go by) worldwide on a daily basis, by 42 to 47 percent. Studies also demonstrate that slapping suds between our hands can result in an overall reduction of respiratory infections, which are responsible for 4.25 million deaths annually, by 16 to 21 percent. Going by those numbers, if everyone in the world were to routinely wash their hands, researchers estimate that 600,000 children — and more broadly, one million people — would be spared from an early, needless death each and every year.

To some degree, the effects of improved, more frequent handwashing have already been seen in action. Since the 1990s, with worldwide improvements in sanitation and greater access to fresh water, diarrhea deaths in particular have been on a constant decline. Even surgeons only started washing their hands about 150 years ago, and needless to say, a hell of a lot more people have lived and continue to live through surgery as a result.

But despite some good efforts, much of the world still faces many, many struggles in the constant battle to keep their hands clean. Large-scale reports declare that more than one in three health-care facilities in low- and middle-income countries still have zero access to water, let alone soap. And when you account for the reliability and safety of that water — and that some dedicated health-care worker may have had to walk miles and miles with a rickety bucket to obtain it — the ratio of facilities without access to water increases to one in two. If not even health-care institutions have the means necessary for proper handwashing, you can imagine how few homes and schools are without these basic sanitation tools.

So to anyone out there who never washes their hands even though you have an endless supply of soap and water at your disposal, maybe check your handwashing privilege. I know, you may esaily weather the coronavirus pandemic, only inconvenienced by the cancelled concerts and closed shops. As a result, you may learn nothing from all of this. 

But the simple and routine act of wetting your hands, smothering them with soap and taking 20 seconds to massage them together, rather than hurrying out of the bathroom so you can spend those extra moments swiping on your phone or scrolling through your computer, is much larger than you. When you bring your hands together under a deluge of warm, soapy water, you contribute to an ongoing operation to save millions and millions of people’s lives, many of whom have yet to even experience their fifth birthday.

When you look at it that way, passing by your functional sink and fancy soap pump is more than just gross — it’s selfish, narrow-minded and just plain wrong.