Children washing hands to fight disease

COVID-19: the impact of the outbreak

With the threat of the virus increasing on a daily basis, we’re expanding our water, sanitation and hygiene work in the countries where we work to help prevent the spread of the disease.

By Action Against Hunger

Mar 18 2020

The coronavirus (Covid-19) is at the forefront of everyone’s minds, and Action Against Hunger’s teams around the world are taking the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of the disease.

While vulnerable communities are particularly at risk, many of these measures are also designed to protect health workers in communities and health facilities, who are also at risk of contracting the virus. These measures include restricting travel, reinforcing hygiene practices, defining isolation procedures in case of infection, providing masks for staff who are ill or in contact with sick people, securing equipment to protect our healthcare facilities, and more.

Clean water and hygiene

Current figures show that 45 of the countries where Action Against Hunger work have confirmed cases of coronavirus. It is difficult to know how great the impact of this will be on the work we carry out in each country, but we are helping to ensure we stop the virus spreading in vulnerable communities. 

“One immediate impact we are experiencing is on our ability to move staff,” says Action Against Hunger UK’s Director of Operations, Juliet Parker. “Not only could this be an issue in relation to responding to Covid-19, but it calls into question how effectively the [humanitarian] sector could respond to other emergencies. If there were a major natural disaster in the coming months, it is possible that travel restrictions may impede any international effort.”

The outbreak highlights the challenges that many communities with limited access to water face. Our water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programmes teach handwashing and other hygiene practices that are crucial for preventing the spread of diseases, including coronavirus.

We have seen evidence of these measures being effective. In Haiti, we helped eradicate cholera, thanks in part to the distribution of hygiene kits to all households with cases of the disease, and by educating communities about the importance of handwashing, clean water and improved sanitation.

A study in Pakistan also showed that children under five in homes that received soap and handwashing education saw a 50% reduction of pneumonia cases.

Last year, we reached 8.9 million people around the world with our WASH programmes. 

Vulnerable communities at risk

Undernutrition is a risk factor for complications and death in people with coronavirus. As we have experienced with other diseases such as cholera, malaria, and Ebola, undernutrition may make people more vulnerable to coronavirus because it weakens people’s immune systems. 

With healthcare systems in wealthier countries feeling overwhelmed with the outbreak, the impact could be catastrophic for rural health facilities in less developed countries where resources and staff are already limited.

The long-term impact of the pandemic on poverty and hunger is also a major cause for concern. As global economies decline in response to the outbreak, the demand for exports from less developed African, Latin American and Asian nations will also decrease.

“If there is less money going into an economy, this is going to filter down to the very poorest,” continues Juliet. “It’s too early to say what the scale of this might be, but it is conceivable that the humanitarian needs in some countries could increase if the price or demand for African exports, for example, is affected.

How we’re responding

In the countries where we work, Action Against Hunger will offer support to health ministries to strengthen local health systems and improve hygiene practices by working with community support groups, for example.

We’re improving access to clean water by building and repairing water sources. We’re hosting community sessions to teach mothers about handwashing, clean food practices, and safe infant practices.

We will closely be monitoring the developments in the coronavirus outbreak. Where possible, we will offer support to the countries we work in. We won’t be directly treating coronavirus cases, but we will help identify and refer infected individuals to health centres, and reinforce good hygiene practice to promote behavioural change. 

Coronavirus is dominating the news worldwide, but it is important that we don’t forget the 52 million children under five who are fighting acute malnutrition. Around the world, 5.3 million children under five die each year, nearly half from undernutrition. That’s 13 children every second.

To overcome this crisis, it's vital we respond as a global community.

We’re committed to addressing this pandemic, but the global fight against hunger must also carry on to ensure that more people have strong immunity against diseases like this. Children cannot be left at risk of dying from preventable causes.

Children washing hands to fight disease
Children washing hands to fight disease


We need to remember the 52 million children under five who are fighting acute malnutrition around the world.

Photos: Daniel Burgui and Sebastien Duijndam/ Action Against Hunger