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World

Why Hand Washing, Needed To Thwart COVID-19, Is A Problem In Mexico

NOEL KING, HOST:

At this point, we have all heard how important it is to wash our hands. But what about people who don't have clean water? Tens of millions of people in Mexico are in that very position. NPR's Carrie Kahn is there, and she brought us this.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds - that's what we've been told. Two verses of the "Happy Birthday" song get you there. Or here in Mexico, as my daughter Mimi, currently on home lockdown from school, demonstrates...

MIMI: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: You only need one verse of Mexico's birthday tune "Las Mananitas."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAS MANANITAS")

PEDRO FERNANDEZ: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: It's a good 30 seconds long.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAS MANANITAS")

FERNANDEZ: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: While nearly every Mexican knows the song, 36 million don't have the water.

ELENA BURNS: How do you wash your hands if there's no water?

KAHN: Elena Burns is with the nongovernmental group Agua para Todos, Water for All, which advocates citizens' access to water. She says nearly 30% of Mexicans don't have reliable clean water piped into their homes.

BURNS: They have to walk somewhere to get water, or they have to depend upon a water truck coming by to, you know, pour water into barrels that they might have at their house.

KAHN: The barrels and buckets ran dry this week in Ana Hernandez Solis' (ph) small home in the Tlahuac district of Mexico City. She was not alone in the southeastern region of the capital, where nearly half a million people live.

ANA HERNANDEZ SOLIS: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "That's why I decided to leave there. We didn't have water, and we're supposed to be washing our hands constantly," she says. On Tuesday, Hernandez took her six kids, including her year-old baby, and moved where there is running water. I reached Hernandez by phone at her mom's tiny two-bedroom home, where she says everyone is packed inside.

HERNANDEZ SOLIS: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "But at least now everyone can keep clean, washing the dishes, their clothes and their hands as much as they need to," she adds. Architect Raymundo Chavez (ph) is in charge of public works in Tlahuac, where Hernandez's house is.

RAYMUNDO CHAVEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Even though people aren't leaving their homes," he says, "and many aren't going to work, there has been a significant rise in water use throughout Mexico City." He says that's putting a strain on the city's already troubled system that relies heavily on an array of water pumps drawing from deep wells. And, he says, as much as 40% of water is lost due to leaky and broken pipes. Mexico City's mayor, Claudia Sheinbaum, says workers are rushing to bring broken and inactive pumps back online.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLAUDIA SHEINBAUM PARDO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: In the meanwhile, she's urging residents to use only potable water for the most necessary of tasks at this time. Hopefully, that includes washing, washing and washing your hands.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAS MANANITAS")

FERNANDEZ: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.