Community angst, concern and stockpiling amid the COVID-19 crisis hasn’t been pleasant.
One positive, however, is a renewed emphasis on good hygiene and how washing your hands can help prevent germs from spreading.
We all need to learn and practise this important life skill every day and not just during a virus outbreak.
In terms of good hygiene practices, we should know what to do, understand why, and be reminded about this.
This message is more important than ever with the COVID-19 outbreak, as the simple act of thoroughly washing your hands with soap and water can remove microbes from the skin to help prevent transmission.
Before COVID-19 many of us didn’t realise that washing with soap for 20 seconds or “the length of two Happy Birthdays” was needed.
This is because soap is critical for the emulsion it creates that helps to wash away the germs.
A recent New York Times article by Ferris Jabr ends with the following quote: “Soap is more than a personal protectant; when used properly, it becomes part of a communal safety net.
“At the molecular level, soap works by breaking things apart, but at the level of society, it helps hold everything together.
“Remember this the next time you have the impulse to bypass the sink: Other people’s lives are in your hands.”
Yet soap isn’t a given in all Australian government schools as it should be.
Good hygiene at home, in the workplace or at school has many benefits and can reduce the spread of a variety of infections.
To do this we need the ‘software’ and the ‘hardware’ in place – that is the knowledge and equipment.
These practices and education about germs should happen at every stage of life.
This starts with pregnant women and their partners, parents and babies’ groups, kindergartens, early learning settings, schools and workplaces.
Soap should be provided in schools as a matter of course.
Most early years programs provide soap, and it is standard in independent and Catholic schools.
But some people may be shocked to hear that this isn’t the case in all government schools in all Australian jurisdictions.
The situation seems to vary between city schools and remote schools.
For example, some primary schools in Perth may provide soap but others in remote Western Australia may not, as it is up to each principal.
The gold standard is Victoria with its personal hygiene policy, which specifies the provision of soap in schools.
We have worked with the Northern Territory Department of Education and Health for a number of years and they support and encourage the provision of soap.
However, after checking with other states and having looked at their policies to compare, we were unable to find reference to the provision of soap in WA, NSW and SA.
If we are serious about reducing the spread of all types of infections, including COVID-19, we must be real about the software and hardware required.
We need to learn about germs and the best ways to prevent them from spreading.
We have approached ministers and Departments of Education over a number of years about soap provision.
In some cases it has been relegated to the ‘too-hard basket’ or explained that schools are independent and it is up to the principal.
We don’t think this is good enough.
Education ministers should provide their students, teachers, support staff and visitors with the equipment to practise good hygiene, including soap and reminders about frequently washing your hands.
We would also add faces to this.
As part of Indigenous Eye Health at the University of Melbourne, we have been working in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia for more than 10 years to eliminate trachoma, a preventable eye disease that can result in blindness if untreated.
Australia is the world’s only developed country to have trachoma, which is still found in some remote Aboriginal communities in Central Australia.
After many years of concerted effort, trachoma rates in children have fallen but we still have more work to do.
Trachoma rates first began to fall globally 100 years ago when living conditions and hygiene began to improve, particularly in major cities.
This means washing hands and faces using soap, and having taps with running water and mirrors at child height so children can see if their faces are clean.
Soap needs to be provided and replenished as a matter of course.
Now we have COVID-19 challenging the world, it is essential that we facilitate basic hygiene in all schools so children can wash properly and prevent the virus, and in remote areas to prevent trachoma as well.
Emma Stanford is a research fellow at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health. Hugh Taylor is Professor of Indigenous Eye Health at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health.