The Civility of Hand Washing

Published on 9th August 2010

It is human and moral that hand washing and general sanitation campaigns be heightened Ghana-wide. Across Ghana, the sanitation situation isn’t good. That makes it instructive that in Ghana’s Upper East Region, 14 junior high and primary schools in the Kassena-Nankana West District were brought together in hand washing campaign.

It is surprising that such a simple hygiene practice – washing hands before and after eating, using the toilet and holding dirty objects has become a national problem, veering into serious health issues.

Such civility should start from homes and schools, and then into the larger society. Schools, as part of their civic studies, are expected to teach appropriate hygienic and sanitation practices. The measure of any society’s depth of health is seen in its public sanitary practices.

Landing in Kumasi, Accra, Cape Coast, or Takoradi, one quickly realizes the dismal hygienic and sanitation practices to the extent of interpreting that the people aren’t healthy. In markets, beaches, traditional “chop bars” (restaurants), banks, internet cafes, road-side food sellers, among others, people ramble through activities with unwashed hands under the sweltering sun. They come from toilets, blow their noses and touch dirty objects but don’t wash their hands.

While I was staying at Adabraka, suburb of Accra, I would see a kebab seller, a young man, blow his nose repeatedly beside the stove he was using to roast the meat. Without washing his hands, he would immediately touch the meat being roasted. In the scorching sun, he would wipe sweat from his face with his bare hands, and without washing them, handle the meat being roasted. Despite all these unhygienic practices, the young man would sell the kebab to people, some of whom, I am very sure, might have seen his unhygienic practices. He was passing diseases to the public.

Health experts say that over 80 percent of diseases start from the hands. And if the hands aren’t cleaned and sanitized properly, diseases are transmitted into the larger society. The heavy incident of cholera and malaria that attack and kill most Ghanaians reveals the level of civility in public health practices.

Like the Foundation for Grassroots Initiatives in Africa (FGIA), a non-governmental organization, that mounted the Upper East hand washing campaign, in Canada for the past years, public health promotion by Public Health Agency of Canada has been advising people to wash their hands thoroughly in order to limit the spread of diseases. Across Canada, in banks, internet cafes, restaurants, offices, groceries, malls, convenience stores, libraries, shops and university halls, hand sanitizers are everywhere for the public to use. Canadians are using them as part of their civic health duties.

Since health-care services are inadequate in Ghana, Ghanaians should be more serious about the hand washing issues as a way of lessening the burden on the health-care system. The Adabraka khebab seller will help the Ghana health-care system if he can simply wash his hands any time he wipes his face with his hands or blows his nose with his hands.

At the web site of Public Health Agency of Canada, as part of its public health promotion, tips are given on how to clean one’s hands. The campaigns have saturated the Canadian public so much so that, in some cases, if one forgets to wash hands after using a public toilet (they call it washroom in Canada), another person nearby will remind the person to wash his or her hands. That isn’t rudeness, that’s part of civility.

The Canadian hand washing campaign became more pronounced during the flu outbreak recently. “Preventing the flu is everyone’s responsibility!,” charged Public Health Agency of Canada in its promo, using mass communication tools such as radio, public transport, e-health, television, flyers, newsletters, public bill boards, presentations, participatory communication, community organizations, etc to drum home the benefits of hand washing to one’s self and to the Canadian society.

In a simple public health promotion, Public Health Agency of Canada advises Canadians to wash their hands “several times a day with soap and warm water, especially: before meals; before feeding children, including breastfeeding; before and after preparing food; after using the toilet; after changing diapers or helping a child use the toilet; after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing; after playing with shared toys; before and after visiting with people who are sick; and after handling animals or their waste.” It may sound basic but that’s where the power of the message lies.

This is despite the fact that public health in Canada is among the best in the world, if not the best. But while public health promotion anywhere may use the same mass communication tools like Canada, in Ghana, as the FGIA thoughtfully did in Upper East Region, it should include traditional institutions, traditional rulers, traditional values, education institutions, drama and churches as part of its campaign. This is a reflection of the Ghanaian/African reality. FGIA’s inclusion of Ghana Health Services is laudable. But, like Canada, Ghana Health Services should take the lead, pro-actively, and work with non-governmental organizations. This is for fuller authority and sustainability of the hand washing campaigns.

Though hand washing exercises have the same positive health effects, in Ghana, unlike Canada, the implications are larger. There are cultural belief dimensions in Ghana. Hand washing and its added reduction of diseases will help push away the awful cultural believe that diseases are the work of evil spirits, the devil, demons, or witches and not poor hygienic and sanitation practices.

Simple hand washing will help rationalize Ghanaians in regard to evil spirits, the devil, demons, or witches and diseases. The diseases and ailments come from disturbing unhygienic and unsanitary practices.

When evil spirits, devil, demons, or witches are eliminated from the mindset of Ghanaians in relation to diseases and ailments, Ghanaians will come to the same conclusion as Canadians that “Hands spread an estimated 80 percent of common infectious diseases like the common cold and flu” and “…when you touch a doorknob that has the flu virus on it and then touch your mouth, you can get sick. But these disease-causing germs slide off easily with good hand washing technique.”

The Foundation for Grassroots Initiatives in Africa has shown the lead. The Ghana Health Services in collaboration with the Ghanaian mass media (as part of its public service duties) should join the hand washing bandwagon, for higher utilitarian reasons. A simple jingle or bumper – “Please, wash your hands,” “Please, wash your hands,” “Please, wash your hands” – will swab away most diseases and ailments.

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