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How Covid-19 Has Brought Paradigm Shift in Indian Attitude Towards Hygiene and Sanitation

A woman wearing a mask passes through a sanitisation tunnel at a mall in New Delhi. (Reuters)

A woman wearing a mask passes through a sanitisation tunnel at a mall in New Delhi. (Reuters)

As a precaution against Covid-19, the World Health Organization recommended alcohol-based hand sanitisers, which are mainly made up of ethanol, isopropyl alcohols, hydrogen peroxides in different combinations, for frequent hand hygiene.

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Arun Anand

Hygiene and sanitation would never be the same for a post-Covid-19 world, especially for Indians, as the pandemic has caused a fundamental behavioural shift in our attitude towards these. Today, people in India are more cautious about maintaining hygiene and sanitation, not only inside their homes but also at their work and public places.

It is a significant shift in paradigm that will pay a good social dividend in the long run.

People, by and large, are buying sanitisers, detergents, and disinfectants more frequently and in more quantities than before. In fact, sanitisers, which used to be considered to be a thing of the ‘elite’ has become an essential household item cutting across socio-economic and cultural barriers. However, buying the right kind of sanitisers remains a challenge as relatively companies have started flooding the market. Many of these sanitisers might prove to be hazardous to one’s health as they are ‘chemical based.’

This has also resulted in a new debate that revolves around the use of chemicals in sanitisers and other disinfectants.

A section of people believes that chemicals are essential for disinfection and that the increased use of sanitisers, surface cleaners, and laundry detergents is essential for safeguarding against the risk of infection. On the other hand, there are those who fear that the presence of chemicals in sanitisers and disinfectants may ensure better hygiene, but may not be good for their family’s health.

As a precaution against Covid-19, the World Health Organization recommended alcohol-based hand sanitisers, which are mainly made up of ethanol, isopropyl alcohols, hydrogen peroxides in different combinations, for frequent hand hygiene.

At the same time, the WHO had warned that disinfectants should be selected carefully, and their concentration should be noted to avoid causing damage to the surfaces on which it is used and, indeed, to people. Furthermore, it advised to keep children, pets and other people away during the application of such products and to wash one’s hands after using disinfectants. This is because such preparations can become toxic to human health and environment if used indiscriminately, and are known to have a toxic and hazardous impact on the environment when released by evaporation.

Anti-microbial agents like triclosan, which are found in many personal and home hygiene products, are raising concerns among scientists for their potential impact on both human health and the environment. In fact, one often comes across complaints about the growing impact of chemical-based sanitisers and other disinfectants on the skin.

While adults are also facing such issues, this could turn out to be more serious for the children.

Most sanitisers, cleaners and disinfectants nowadays are available in lightweight bottles and have appealing fragrance, which can be very tempting for young children. If children lick a small amount of these products, they probably won’t get sick, but ingesting any more could place it at risk of alcohol poisoning. Moreover, the fragrances found in most cleaning, sanitising and disinfecting products contain volatile organic compounds that impact both indoor and outdoor air quality and contaminate our sources of water supply – rivers, lakes and bays.

Luckily, there are options available that address both our needs and our concerns. Such “soft hygiene” solutions use the anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties of natural ingredients such as neem, turmeric, lemon – to name a few – to offer protection that’s as complete as offered by chemical-based disinfectants and sanitisers. Moreover, the absence of powerful chemicals in these products makes them friendlier and safer for use even over longer periods of time. They are also safe to use around children and pets.

It is important that households with young kids or elderly people show greater care and selectiveness in their choice of hygiene products, going ahead.

A couple of months ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the government’s Swachh Bharat mission has played a key role in the fight against Covid-19. That was an initiative at the national level.

The people of India would do well, in their own individual capacity, to work towards “Swachh and Surakshit Parivars” (Clean and Safe families) for themselves and their loved ones. It will go a long way towards beating back the coronavirus and ensuring a cleaner, healthier future for all of India.

(The writer is Research Director with a Delhi based think tank Vichar Vinimay Kendra)


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