The thousands of islands dotted around the Pacific Ocean managed to stave off devastating coronavirus infections during the early stages of the pandemic while much of the rest of the world struggled. However, many of the main countries in the region are now reporting problems of rising caseloads that are threatening to overwhelm the already-fragile health systems.
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While the Pacific region is still recording lower infection rates than the rest of the world, countries such as Papua New Guinea, Guam and French Polynesia have all reported surges in the past couple of months. Whereas many of the islands were virtually coronavirus-free until as late as May, they were reporting a combined total of over 2,500 infections and 19 deaths by the end of August. The problem is that the Pacific has one particular risk factor that leaves it especially vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19: It has the lowest rate of access to clean water anywhere in the world.
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Only 55% of the largely rural islanders in the Pacific nations have access to basic drinking water facilities, while 70% don’t have access to basic sanitation. This puts the region below sub-Saharan Africa in terms of clean water access and is one of the reasons why it is the worst-scoring global region on the 2019 World Risk Index. Poor sanitation is well known to be linked to the transmission of many deadly diseases such as cholera, typhoid and polio. Lack of access to clean running water also presents barriers to carrying out basic preventative hygiene measures when it comes to COVID-19. From the start, the World Health Organization (WHO) emphasized the necessity of regular handwashing to prevent the spread of the virus.
Water access problems have been identified as a contributing factor in the spread of COVID-19, not just in the Pacific but elsewhere, with poor quality water supplies at risk of chemical contamination exacerbating problems. But lack of adequate sanitary hygiene poses a potentially more serious risk when it comes to combating the coronavirus. Research being carried out by environmental biologists at the University of Stirling suggests that the virus could be spread through untreated wastewater and sewage.
Professor Richard Quilliam, who is leading a £1.85-million ($2.4 million) study into the transmission of viruses and bacteria in water-based environments, said: “It has recently been confirmed that the virus can also be found in human faeces — up to 33 days after the patient has tested negative for the respiratory symptoms of COVID-19.” Professor Quilliam’s paper referenced examples of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS-CoV-1), which is closely linked to COVID-19, being detected in hospital sewage systems in China back in 2003. Faulty sewage pipelines were also implicated in the rapid spread of SARS-CoV-1 through Hong Kong apartment blocks in 2003, which led to 329 infections and 42 deaths.
Although there is so far limited research into the persistence of COVID-19 in aqueous environments, other coronaviruses are believed to survive in sewage for up to 14 days. Furthermore, there is evidence of COVID-19 surviving in wastewater and sewage systems. Back in February, traces of COVID-19 were discovered in the bathroom of an unused apartment in Guangzhou, China, leading researchers to believe that it had traveled through drain pipes. The novel coronavirus has also been found in sewage samples in places such as Paris and Queensland.
The dangers this could present to developing countries attempting to control the spread of COVID-19 are obvious. Many of these countries already experience high death rates from diseases that are rife amid poor sanitation, have health systems and facilities that already struggle to cope with existing pressures and have higher percentages of their populations vulnerable to the worst effects of COVID-19. Zimbabwe, for example, is one country still recovering from recent fatal cholera outbreaks caused by bacteria-infected water supplies. The country is now battling to contain a spreading coronavirus pandemic without adequate clean water.
But it’s not just poorer nations that are at risk. Even wealthier countries have millions of people who are struggling to get access to clean and affordable tap water. In the United States, approximately 67 million people could be at risk of having their running water supply affected as coronavirus moratoriums on disconnections come to an end in several states. The US already has the worst COVID-19 death and infection totals in the world, as well as one of the highest death rates. Exposing millions of households to water poverty is likely to make things much worse.
Diseases and viruses thrive where there is no clean running water supply. With the world facing up to a potential global water shortage crisis in the coming decades, it’s going to give epidemiologists plenty to chew over when it comes to the ongoing battle against COVID-19 and any future developing coronavirus strains.
While things such as bottled water and purification tablets can provide short-term solutions, this pandemic has highlighted how important it is to make drastic investments in improving water infrastructure around the world. The UN has already estimated that $6.7 trillion needs to be spent globally on water infrastructure by 2030. This includes not just the provision of basic sanitation in the most deprived countries but on worldwide measures such as better irrigation and industrial water practices to cut down on waste, as well as improved water recycling and reuse to try and avert a future crisis.
The issues of clean water access and global water security were around long before we’d even heard of the coronavirus, but the pandemic has thrown a new light onto them and reminded us of their importance. It’s crucial that action is taken sooner rather than later, not just for impoverished communities in the Pacific and other developing parts of the world, but for us all.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.