Garbage collectors who make sure diseases don’t spread are now at risk of contracting Covid-19Sanitation workers are a high-risk group since they come into contact with objects that could host the coronavirus but they’re working without proper protective gear.
While most of Kathmandu has been forced indoors by the lockdown, Babu Pode still leaves home every day at 5:30 am. He goes to Kalimati, then Teku hospital and up to Tripureshwor, collecting garbage.
Pode is one 835 garbage collectors and sweepers employed by the Kathmandu Metropolitan City and as an essential service, they continue to go from road-to-road-alley-to-alley collecting garbage and sweeping the streets. And most of them do so without adequate protection from the coronavirus.
“Everyone is inside, but we have no choice even though we are at very high risk of contracting the coronavirus,” said 42-year-old Pode. “The city has just provided us with a surgical mask and gloves. We don’t feel safe.”
Alongside city employees like Pode, there are around 2,500 privately employed garbage collectors, who are all at heightened risk of contracting Covid-19, say doctors.
“People who pick up garbage are at risk, not from person-to-person but from objects that might have been touched and discarded by infected persons,” said Dr Sher Bahadur Pun, a virologist at the Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital.
Like Pode, 39-year-old Maya Tamang, also a garbage collector, said that she is afraid of contracting the disease. Although she’s privately employed, all she’s received as protective gear is a pair of surgical gloves and a cloth mask.
“I have been using the cloth mask and the gloves by washing them after use,” said Tamang.
According to Nawaraj Maskey, owner of a private garbage collection company that mobilises 20 garbage collectors every morning, there is a shortage of protective gear in the market and they’ve only been able to provide equipment that might not be effective enough to prevent Covid-19.
“I have talked to city officials but they keep saying they will get the protective equipment soon,” he said. “It's been two weeks and we still don’t have it.”
When Mitra Ghimire, general secretary at the Solid Waste Management Association Nepal, an umbrella organisation of over 70 private garbage collection companies, visited the Health Ministry to ask for supplies, he was told that since even doctors don’t have safety measures right now, they couldn’t expect Personal Protective Equipment for garbage collectors, he said.
But it’s not just protective equipment, garbage collectors are facing numerous difficulties carrying out their jobs. Without public transport, they have to walk to their assigned areas for clean-up and while on their way, they are often harassed and detained by the police, according to city police inspector Purna Chandra Bhatta, who is responsible for mobilising sweepers and garbage collectors. In the first week of the lockdown, he had to get half a dozen detained garbage collectors released, he said.
“It’s hard for the people collecting garbage,” said Bhatta. “If these people are not mobilised, there will be a risk of other diseases.”
According to Kathmandu’s environment division chief Hari Bahadur Shrestha, the city is working to obtain protective gear but he was unsure when exactly these would be distributed to garbage collectors and sweepers.
“We can’t stay at home, as officials call for work calling it an emergency sector. Even my children whose schools are closed due to coronavirus do not want me to go out, but I have to work for them,” said Pode.
Until Saturday, over 1.13 million people had contracted Covid-19, with 60,381 global deaths.
Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak
UPDATED as of September 22, 2020
What is Covid-19?
Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease, is an illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Common symptoms of the disease include fever, dry cough, fatigue, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
How contagious is Covid-19?
Covid-19 can spread easily from person to person, especially in enclosed spaces. The virus can travel through the air in respiratory droplets produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes. As the virus can also survive on plastic and steel surfaces for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for up to 24 hours, any contact with such surfaces can also spread the virus. Symptoms take between two to 14 days to appear, during which time the carrier is believed to be contagious.
Where did the virus come from?
The virus was first identified in Wuhan, China in late December. The coronavirus is a large family of viruses that is responsible for everything from the common cold to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). After an initial outbreak in Wuhan that spread across Hubei province, eventually infecting over 80,000 and killing more than 3,000, new infection rates in mainland China have dropped. However, the disease has since spread across the world at an alarming rate.
What is the current status of Covid-19?
The World Health Organisation has called the ongoing outbreak a “pandemic” and urged countries across the world to take precautionary measures. Covid-19 has spread to 213 countries and territories around the world and infected more than 31,405,983 people with 967,505 deaths and 22,990,260 recoveries. In South Asia, India has reported the highest number of infections at 5,557,573 with 88,943 deaths. While Pakistan has reported 306,304 confirmed cases with 6,420 deaths. Nepal has so far reported 65,276 cases with 427 deaths.
How dangerous is the disease?
The mortality rate for Covid-19 is estimated to be 3.6 percent, but new studies have put the rate slightly higher at 5.7 percent. Although Covid-19 is not too dangerous to young healthy people, older individuals and those with immune-compromised systems are at greater risk of death. People with chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, or those who’ve recently undergone serious medical procedures, are also at risk.
How do I keep myself safe?
The WHO advises that the most important thing you can do is wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol content. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands. Clean and disinfect frequently used surfaces like your computers and phones. Avoid large crowds of people. Seek medical attention if symptoms persist for longer than a few days.
Is it time to panic?
No. The government has imposed a lockdown to limit the spread of the virus. There is no need to begin stockpiling food, cooking gas or hand sanitizers. However, it is always prudent to take sensible precautions like the ones identified above.