As Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, hygiene practices remain essential

Themes: Behaviour change Health impact Hygiene WASH
Countries: Ghana Ghana-local Kenya Kenya-local

Covid-19 infections have significantly declined in many parts of the world, after the spread of the Omicron variant, and that is also true in Africa.

With the end of restrictions and with vaccinations levels still low in much of the continent, however, the adoption of good hygiene practices is as important as it has ever been, since the beginning of the Covid pandemic, in early 2020.

According to the World Health Organisation, actions taken by national governments in early 2022 have increased the number of vaccine doses distributed, from 54 million in January to 62 million in February. Much more is needed, though, to significantly increase the continent’s overall fully vaccination rate, which was around 15% of the adult population. “Fifteen countries are yet to reach 10% of their population fully vaccinated,” said the WHO.

During the first phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, in 2020 and 2021, WSUP promoted hygiene practices in Kenya and Ghana, with campaigns supported by the Hygiene and Behaviour Change Coalition (HBCC), an initiative led by the UK government and Unilever.

Both countries have recently put an end to the restriction measures implemented to fight the spread of the coronavirus, including the compulsory use of face masks in crowded, enclosed spaces. Considering that about 84% of the Kenyan population have not yet been fully vaccinated, hygiene practices remain as important as in the early stages of the pandemic.

The most recent Covid wave in Kenya took the daily number of cases to a record average total of 2,774 in late December 2021. The wave quickly lost strength, though, as was the case with many other countries affected by the Omicron variant. In March 2022, the average daily number of new cases was already below 10. This trend has convinced the local authorities that rules of social distancing and face masks wearing were no longer needed.

Hygiene messaging in a school, Kenya

Handwashing messages in a school in Nakuru County, Kenya.

“Last month the government announced the end of the restrictions. Life is now normal, bars are open, and it is not compulsory anymore to wear a face mask anywhere,” says Beatrice Masaba, WSUP’s People and Support Officer in Kenya. The situation in the country may prove challenging, as large crowds have been gathering in public spaces as part of political rallies in the run-up to the August general elections.

In this context, it is important that hygiene practices, such as washing hands with soap regularly and covering the mouth when sneezing or coughing, are understood by the population as permanent features, not only a temporary measure related to the peak of the Covid pandemic.

“It is now a duty of the Kenyan citizen to make sure that they are safe and everyone around them is also safe,” says Masaba. “People need to understand that the measures were put in place for Covid, but they go beyond. It is about all diseases that are related to hygiene, such as cholera.” According to the WHO, a two-week vaccination drive in Kenya in early February increased the average of people vaccinated daily from 70,000 to 200,000.

Video: building resilience to Covid-19 in Ghana and Kenya

Hygiene is essential

In Ghana, the peak of the latest wave of Covid-19 happened in early January 2022, when the daily average of total of cases reached 1,231. Almost as quickly as it went up, however, the number came down, reaching two digits in February. After another rise in February, when the daily average peaked at 144, Ghana has recorded low daily average figures in March and April, of between 10 and 20.

A billboard in Accra, Ghana, promoting hygiene messaging

“Due to the low number of cases in the country, the President announced the elimination of all restrictions, and now there is no mandatory use of masks,” says Frank Kettey, WSUP’s Country Manager in Ghana. Without measures to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, the protection is now in the hands of the people – literally, as handwashing is one of the most powerful tools in preventing infection. “Hygiene proved to be very important, essential,” says Kettey. “Without masks, it is now even more important.”

Ghana has benefited a lot from the Covax programme, established by the WHO to guarantee distribution of Covid vaccines in developing countries and the most vulnerable communities. “As it stands now, there isn’t shortage of vaccines, but there is still some hesitancy,” says Kettey. The vast majority of the population in Ghana remain unvaccinated.

Hygiene practices that were promoted during the first phase of the Covid-19 pandemic have given people additional protection. But as restrictions are lifted in many countries with low vaccination rates, these hygiene practices will need to be maintained to keep the virus at bay.

Read more about WSUP's Covid-19 response

Top image: Child washing hands at school in Ghana, as part of the HBCC programme.