New research on the potential spread of COVID-19 reveals that the human waste or faecal matter is another way – other than the established transmission route, i.e., respiratory means – to get infected. The new finding means that there is a greater need to ensure proper water, sanitation and hygiene facilities to curb the spread of coronavirus. Not that this was not clear enough already, sanitation and health in many areas in Pakistan is a work in progress, but this latest discovery highlights just how important it is to turn our attentions towards this hitherto ignored issue.

Unfortunately, water and sanitation are a low priority compared to other sectors such as health and education. Also, at the national level, policy and plans are weak or absent, and effective action is undermined by institutional fragmentation and poor coordination within and outside government. Allocations within federal budget – particularly for sanitation – are low.

It is true that Pakistan achieved the 2015 Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for sanitation, reducing the proportion of people without sustainable access to basic sanitation by half; this included increasing rural access to sanitation to 67% in 2018. However, this success masks disparities between rural and urban areas. Besides, access to drainage and the safe disposal of human waste are challenges in all provinces of the country.

According to a 2018 World Bank study, 21% of people in rural areas practice open defecation. The challenging task is not only ending practices such as this and providing facilities but also changing community behaviour. The state needs to shift the emphasis from improving access to sanitation to enhancing the quality and safety of ‘Water, Sanitation And Hygiene; (WASH) infrastructure and the safe management of human waste. The pandemic has allowed for us to assess issues that normally did not take precedence; let’s use this to our advantage and allow for a healthier society to develop.