In this regular series by the Resilience@UT and 4TU Resilience programmes, UT researchers share their personal reflections on current events and trends that impact our daily lives, exploring their implications for resilience. The series is just one of many UT initiatives responding to the urgent need to respond to rapid societal and environmental change. As an academic institution, we have a role to play in strengthening the resilience of the social, technological and environmental systems that support us. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.
PREPARING FOR THE WORST: BUILDING HEALTH RESILIENCE IN SCHOOLS COVID-19 changed humanity, and yet, it did not. In May 2023, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that COVID-19 no longer constitutes a public health emergency of international concern (WHO, 2023a). Yet, long before that, many started acting as if the pandemic had never happened. While it might be easier for some to forget our pandemic lives, for those still dealing with its consequences, this is practically impossible. In nations like Indonesia, Bolivia and Honduras, where COVID-19 forced schools to remain closed for nearly two years (UNESCO, 2022), students struggle to get back on their feet. No need to elaborate on the chaos another pandemic would bring for them.
The next pandemicWhereas eyes were kept on the novel coronavirus, outbreaks of familiar infectious diseases like cholera, ebola, measles, malaria and dengue, alongside the emergence of new diseases (such as mpox and acute hepatitis of unknown origin in children), were reported worldwide (WHO, 2023a). The WHO urged countries to get ready for the next pandemic, which will most likely be caused by one of 12 diseases, including, once again, COVID-19, Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, Ebola, Marburg, Lassa fever, Rift Valley fever, Nipah virus and henipaviral diseases, Zika and the enigmatic "Disease X" (WHO, 2023b). If we are threatened with a new and even deadlier pandemic, I wonder what the lessons learned from COVID-19 are that can help us be better prepared.
Do you remember two years ago when people wouldn’t leave their homes without hand sanitiser? Hand hygiene is a part of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) services, which has played an essential role in the COVID-19 pandemic, and is one lesson we should not forget. WASH is fundamental to limiting exposure to diseases and reducing the probability of their transmission. Cleaning both surfaces and hands is a paramount measure to prevent eight out of the twelve diseases listed by the WHO as having the potential to be the next pandemic.
Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for ChildrenIn schools, the provision of WASH for pandemic preparedness becomes even more relevant, as children who stayed at home during the COVID-19 pandemic will be exposed for the first time to pediatric infections at older ages (Messacar et al., 2022). When attending school, young children are still learning the basic principles of hygiene and their developmentally-appropriate behaviours include self-soothing by putting their hands and other objects in their mouths. In addition, in their first three years of life, some children are still learning how to walk, spending much of their time closer to the ground and constantly using (and touching) surfaces to support their balance and movements. However, beyond disease prevention, the provision of WASH in schools must be considered because of its established educational benefits and potential to reduce inequalities. Promoting WASH in schools (i) improves students’ performance, (ii) decreases the gender gap in absenteeism, (iii) contributes to the sense of social belonging of children and young people with disabilities or limited mobility, (iv) helps children to develop their self-esteem and confidence, and (iv) encourages positive WASH behaviour change in schools, at home and in communities. Promoting WASH is ultimately an approach that enhances resilience to disease in young children and adolescents.
- Messacar, K., Baker, R. E., Park, S. W., Nguyen-Tran, H., Cataldi, J. R., & Grenfell, B. (2022). Preparing for uncertainty: endemic paediatric viral illnesses after COVID-19 pandemic disruption. The Lancet, 400(10364), 1663-1665. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(22)01277-6
- UNESCO. (2022). UNESCO Institute for Statistics based on UNESCO map on school closures. https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse
- WHO. (2023a). Disease Outbreak News (DONs). https://www.who.int/emergencies/disease-outbreak-news
- WHO. (2023b). Prioritizing diseases for research and development in emergency contexts. https://www.who.int/activities/prioritizing-diseases-for-research-and-development-in-emergency-contexts
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