Workers involved with waste management are at high risk of contracting the virus themselves and transmitting it to other people
Like any other day, Zakaria, a teenage boy, came to collect garbage from houses early in the morning, brushing aside any fear of exposure to the deadly coronavirus.
Wearing shorts and a t-shirt, he was holding a plastic bucket in his hands while chewing something. But he had no masks or hand gloves.
Asked about the coronavirus pandemic, Zakaria said: "I heard the coronavirus disease is a dangerous disease transmitted by people, which is why I am distancing myself from other people. But I do not think I will get infected. I bought a mask and kept it at home.”
This is not a unique situation as most workers involved with the waste management of the city are still unaware of the severity of the pandemic or they are aware but are helpless due to the lack of protective gear. They are at risk of contracting the virus themselves and transmitting it to people they interact with.
The capital city has become silent after the government declared and then extended the general holidays following the coronavirus pandemic. Many of the city’s residents returned to their hometowns or villages.
But like Zakaria, waste collectors remain in the city to do their jobs going from door to door.
The waste collectors are now struggling with their daily lives but no one cares about them even though they are very vulnerable to the coronavirus infection.
According to Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) and Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC), there are some 4,000 and 3,000 waste collectors in the respective city corporations who collect household waste and take it to secondary transfer stations (STSs).
Officials concerned said these waste collectors do not directly work for the city corporations, but under different area based voluntary organizations. After getting approval from the city corporations, these organizations collect waste from houses and take it to STSs in vans.
Zahir Miah has been working as a garbage collector, or officially a primary collection service provider (PCSP), for 12 years in the Jafrabad area of DNCC. His son Zakaria and wife Mina Akter have also been helping him with his work for several years. Zahir was appointed by the Jafrabad Housing Society.
After collecting the garbage, Zahir first separates the garbage in different sections and brings them to the nearest STS by a van. The city corporation then collects the garbage from the STS using a refuse compactor (garbage compactor truck).
Zahir earns Tk20,000 each month based on the per house fee for garbage collected from each house, which is Tk50 per apartment as fixed by the housing society.
Selling recyclable material is a major source of income for garbage collectors which helps them bear the cost of daily essentials for their families.
According to a recent study, 32 types of industries are involved with recyclable materials in the country, including cosmetics and medicines.
"All the shops that usually buy these recyclable materials have been closed down. My income has been reduced by more than half as I am not able to sell anything,” said Zahir.
“Neither society nor the city corporation has done anything to help me and my family to survive. I have borrowed Tk7,000 in just the last six days to buy daily essentials. But I cannot even borrow money anymore because all of my neighbours with whom I am close have returned to their villages,” he lamented.
“There are eight members in my family. I don’t know how we can survive if the current situation continues,” Zahir said.
Visiting the STS located in Kalabagan under the DSCC, this correspondent talked with several garbage collectors and cleaners working there.
Sana Ullah, a cleaner who was supervising the unloading of garbage, said they were not specifically made aware of the severity of the disease by anyone official.
However, the city corporation did give them hand gloves, masks, and gumboots on March 26, while the garbage collectors were only given masks and hand gloves, Sana said.
Kalabagan STS Conservancy Inspector Habibur Rahman Talukder said they provided garbage collectors with hand gloves and masks but they are not used to using masks.
Answering a query, Habibur said he was not aware of any plan or initiative by the DSCC to help garbage collectors financially.
All garbage collectors appointed by concerned housing societies or social volunteer organizations work under the supervision of ward councillors. This makes it the ward councillor and the respective housing society’s duty to provide them with protective equipment as well as financial help, Habibur commented.
Md Mohiuddin and Abul Khayer, both garbage compactor truck drivers, emphasized their need for special protective gear during the coronavirus pandemic.
Like many other waste collectors, Sahid, Din Islam, Akash, and Yunus expressed deep frustration with their gradually dwindling incomes.
Saying that they did not receive any help from the government or any social organizations, they fear what the future has in store for them.
DNCC Additional Chief Waste Management Officer S M Shafiqur Rahman said: “It is the Disaster Management and Relief Ministry’s duty to help them. Our office is not designated for this type of work.”
"This is not the time for generating income, but a time for surviving," he remarked.
Shafiqur also said: “We have instructed them to collect garbage with the greatest caution. They are using masks and hand gloves. We have also told them to collect garbage using sealed bags in places like Tolarbag.”
Air Commodore Md Zahid Hossain, chief waste management officer of DSCC said they have supplied masks and hand gloves to van service providers even though they are not city corporation employees.
“We have distributed rain coats, masks, hand gloves, and gumboots among our cleaners,” he added.
DSCC has formed two committees to help people in this situation—one is area based and led by a zonal officer, and the other is ward based led by a councillor.
Regarding the DSCC mayor’s announcement of providing 50,000 low-income, ultra poor families with one month’s food, Zahid said needy workers should contact the councillors of the wards where they live or work.