Fear of coronavirus stalks sanitation workers
When the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s solid waste management department of the G-north ward handed over June’s schedule for daily waste collection, one of its waste collectors turned apprehensive.Updated: Jun 23, 2020 04:46 IST
When the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s solid waste management department of the G-north ward handed over June’s schedule for daily waste collection, one of its waste collectors turned apprehensive.
Earlier this month, the 32-year-old was tasked, along with two other municipal workers to collect waste from the containment zones in block 119 – a set of nine areas in Dharavi, one of Asia’s largest slums which saw a severe outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic – and load it into a vehicle that would take the biomedical waste to the city’s only treatment facility located adjacent to the Deonar dumping ground.
“The fear of contracting the virus never leaves the mind,” said the sanitation worker, who asked not to be named as he is not authorised to speak to the media. “But work is work, and it has to be done.”
His job is risky, as very often residents of the containment zone do not segregate the waste they generate into hazardous biomedical waste (yellow bag) and household waste (black bag).
“Though residents were provided separate yellow and black coloured bags, we continue to receive one bag every day with all types of mixed waste including masks, gloves, banana peels, gowns and plastic bags that are spilling over,” said the worker. “It is scary when residents toss black bags in large garbage collection bins over the sealed boundary of the containment zone towards us.”
Donning a hazmat suit, face mask, rubber gloves and boots, the worker steps into the collection bin, handpicks both Covid-19 related and other waste falling out of the black bags and transfers it into large yellow ones marked Covid-19 waste before passing it on to his co-worker.
“We make a chain for quick transfer into the van, and move to the next colony of the containment zone. We take turns at every collection point as to who steps into the bin,” said the sanitation worker.
In areas that are not designated as Covid-19 affected, households are not even required to segregate the waste. Yet if, as a press briefing by the Indian Council of Medical Research stated, 69% of the patients testing positive were asymptomatic, then it is likely that a lot of the waste produced from such houses are contaminated by viable virus loads already.
BMC officials agreed that workers in the 46 waste segregation centres are at risk, as they separate dry from wet waste. Since April 15, when these centres reopened at the end of the first lockdown, sanitation workers have been dealing with mixed or unsegregated waste containing masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment from households in non-containment zones.
What’s more, some of this waste is even making its way to the city’s landfills in Deonar and Kanjurmarg, where at least 10 workers including two security guards reportedly tested positive for Covid-19 and recovered.
Anup Nilawar, the spokesperson for SMS Envoclean Private Limited, which runs Mumbai’s CBWTF estimates that at least 600 kg of plastic from personal protective equipment finds its way to the landfills due to non-segregated waste from households and home quarantine centres.
The situation isn’t any better in Delhi. At least 15 sanitation workers have died, and 40 have tested positive for the virus till now.
“After Covid-19 outbreak, every house, roadside and drain has discarded masks, gloves or face shields. Even if one of these items belongs to a positive person, the sanitation worker who is handling it will also contract the disease. As the number of cases increase, this problem will get bigger and it will be our sanitation workers who will lose their lives,” Sanjay Gahlot, president of Delhi Safai Karamchari Union, said.
“They call us corona warriors, but the truth is that they are sending us to this war with no weapons and eventually such a warrior succumbs to the enemy,” said Rakesh Kumar, a contract sanitation worker with the East Delhi Municipal Council for the past five years.
Kumar, who ties a thin towel around his mouth and nose, said that he had not received his salary for the past three months from the municipality, either.
“We are providing PPE kits, which includes a head cover, glasses, masks, a full body suit, gloves and gumboots to our sanitation workers who collect waste from houses where someone has been tested positive. But those who collect waste from regular houses and sweep the roads and clean drains are only provided with gloves,” an official of East Delhi Municipal Corporation said on the condition of anonymity.
The official said that government guidelines make protective kits mandatory for those directly handling the waste generated by positive patients. Even though the other sanitation workers are also at risk, an acute shortage of PPEs forces them to ration them out.
The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has laid out a detailed guideline for handling ‘biomedical waste’, but its definition does not include protective gear from non-positive residents, thus putting thousands of sanitation workers and waste collectors at risk. While the Solid Waste Management Rules (2016) specifies that domestic hazardous waste from households needs to be disposed of in a separate bag and handed over to collectors separately, from where it should be sent to a separate plant for being sanitised and treated, these rules have never been implemented in Delhi.
“In such a scenario, domestic hazardous waste such masks and gloves are also discarded as solid waste. Cases are rising in Delhi and a number of people are asymptomatic, so it is important that the safety of waste collectors be kept in mind,” Swati Sambyal, a Delhi-based solid waste management expert, said.
She said that while the government needs to come up with a protocol to handle domestic hazardous waste, a simpler solution to this problem could also be to encourage the general public to use reusable, cloth masks, instead of disposable gear.
“A regular two-layered, cloth mask can be washed and reused and this will ensure that disposable items do not end up in the waste pile.”