Water and sanitation improvements help health service delivery during COVID-19

Making strides to improve water, sanitation and hygiene in Sierra Leone

Tapuwa Mutseyekwa
A pregnant woman stands outside a health facility in Sierra Leone
UNICEF Sierra Leone/2021/Mutseyekwa
16 July 2021

Port Loko - Mainty Dumbuya lives just a stone throw away from Kuranko Community Health Centre in Port Loko. Over the last six months, she has watched with great excitement as work was done to install a piped water system at the health centre.

She has witnessed deep trenches being dug, massive water tanks being mounted on concrete stands and water basins being fitted to bring flowing water into the health centre, all part of efforts to promote good health and sanitation at this health facility, which services a population of over 7,000 people.

Mainty is happy that the new features at the Health Centre will ensure that proper hygiene and sanitation are practiced when she delivers her second baby in a few weeks’ time.

“I have been worried about having a safe delivery during this period of COVID-19, but I am very happy because the installation of water systems at Kuranko Community Health Centre will protect me from diseases,” says Mainty, whose frequent visits to the health centre for antenatal classes had been gripped with fears of contracting COVID-19 prior to this massive infrastructure overhaul at Kuranko Community Health Centre.  

Mainty recalls how before the significant facelift of this rural based facility in Port Loko, the clinic porters and volunteers would be seen making a beeline every morning towards the community hand pump to fetch water, an exercise which was both strenuous and time consuming.

“They would go to the water pump about three or four times a day and they would carry the heavy buckets and jerrycans on their heads,” says Mainty, as she gives an outsider’s perspective on the labourious undertaking endured by the health workers to bring water from the hand pump which the health centre shared with households in the village.

A pregnant woman washes her hands outside a health facility in Sierra Leone
UNICEF Sierra Leone/2021/Mutseyekwa
Patients now have easy access to clean running water, which they use for handwashing.

According to a WHO and UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (JMP), four in five health care facilities in Sierra Leone lacks basic water services, while half of the rural population, still struggles with access water to basic water supply services.  This situation leaves the health workers and patients with the daily struggle to find water to maintain good hygiene practices at the facilities.

With the onset of COVID-19 and with great awareness of the importance of good hygiene as a key prevention measure, Mainty often wondered if the water fetched from the community pump would be sufficient to keep the health facility safe and sanitary. 

“A lot of people, especially pregnant women like myself, had fears about visiting health facilities during the period of COVID-19. I am therefore happy that with pipe-borne water now running through the health centre, the levels of cleanliness are now greater, and we all get to practice good hygiene like handwashing before entering and while leaving the facility,” says Mainty.

With COVID-19 lurking across communities in Sierra Leone, health care workers have had to make the extra effort to meet the increased demand for water so that the facility would meet the health demands of patients in a timely, safe, and sterile manner. 

To respond to this need and ease the burden on the health care workers, the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office has collaborated with UNICEF to provide 42 government health care facilities with enhanced water and sanitation facilities to prevent, respond to and control the spread of COVID-19.

The intervention recognises that for proper handwashing at the points of care, for floors and walls at the health centre to remain spotlessly clean, for linen to be laundered and sanitised and to ensure that various medical procedures are undertaken, safe and clean water must always be available.

A nurse washes her hand inside a health facility in Sierra Leone
UNICEF Sierra Leone/2021/Mutseyekwa
Thanks to the easy access to clean running water, nurses can easily practice handwashing before attending to the patients.

This intervention has helped health facilities to receive patients with COVID-19 ailments, while also maintaining the smooth running of regular services such as child health programmes and maternity services. The provision of adequate running water supply has been important to ensure that health facility staff concentrate on providing care and support to patients as opposed to spending time fetching water from the community pump.

Mainty is also happy that in addition to the water supply systems installed at the health facility, three community pipes have been installed where households can fetch water and ensure that they continue with good hygiene practices even at home. 

“When communities have reliable water sources, they can continue to practice good hygiene at household level and therefore reduce the burden of ill health due to diarrheal diseases and other water-borne diseases,” says Bishnu Timilsina, UNICEF Chief of WASH.

Like other community members in Kuranko, Mainty is ecstatic with the timely support of flowing water, which will help them to ensure that they are well protected during the times of COVID-19 and beyond.