IN THIS difficult time of the COVID-19 outbreak, some vulnerable communities are struggling harder than others to remain alive. They are struggling so hard to earn their daily bread that hygiene has been pushed to the bottom on their priority list. When we talk about public health, we almost never talk about the community that works day and night, by putting their hygiene in jeopardy, to keep us and our surroundings healthy although they are an essential part of our health protocol.
In Bangladesh, sanitation workers, one of the most marginalised communities, who are treated as outcasts, live in crammed, dirtied shanties. Now when the world is going through the COVID-19 emergency, these sanitation workers appear to be the most ignored as they work almost unnoticed in the most confined and dangerous spaces. They are almost always stigmatised because of their profession. Social stigma, poverty, limited access to basic needs, risk of infection and injury make their lives more vulnerable.
SANITATION workers living in Netrakona are a case in point that can more or less mirror how such people are doing in the rest of the country amidst the COVID-19 emergency. Even after a few months of the breakout of the disease, sanitation workers of the area were not made aware of the danger of the disease at work. Almost all of the people there say that they first heard of the outbreak on television. They were not initially given any instruction on how to protect themselves. Many of them said that they had to buy masks and other sanitisation materials on their own when the disease broke out. They were given masks later, but the number of masks was inadequate. They were yet to be given any personal protective equipment. This belated awareness left them in an unhygienic condition, leaving many of them having contracted COVID-19.
SANITATION workers everywhere live in slums. They also have direct connection with faecal sludge, waste water and polluted air. Naturally, they not only work in high-risk environment but also live in a hazardously vulnerable atmosphere. A Water and Sanitation for Urban Poor estimate says that 48 per cent of the sanitation workers contracted COVID-19 and about 47 per cent of their family were infected through them. A male sanitation worker who works for the municipal authority says they themselves need to pay for their treatment if they fall ill and they do not get any medical support from the agency they work with. Their failure for not going to work costs a day’s wage. In the current emergency, when they saw physicians with complaints of cough and fever, they were not given any medication.
Access to sanitation
ONE way to head off COVID-19 infection is to maintain social distance, which is quite impossible for sanitation workers. Sanitation workers live in a cluster of families with a single toilet. The place, therefore, remains crowded throughout the day. Earlier they often used open roadside sewers for urination and defecation, which was an embarrassment for women. They also face trouble in accessing drinking water as they need to stand in long queues early in the morning to fetch water from a single source. This makes it difficult for them to maintain hygiene.
Impact on income
THE general holiday that was ordered as a preventive measure against COVID-19 left them spending all their savings. Restrictions have now been eased, but the situation has not significantly improved. Estimates show that there had been an 80 per cent decline over the past two months in their savings and their income has reduced up to 48 per cent. Most of them have borrowed money to cope with the situation even after cutting down on their expenditure by about 70 per cent. Many of them earned some additional money from cleaning job in residential areas, but the opportunity has shrunken and even if they find any work, the payment in most cases is quarter of the usual. It has, therefore, become difficult for them to have two meagre meals a day.
SANITATION workers are put in double jeopardy because of the recent flooding. They also had to struggle for their survival amidst flooding when more than half a million people were affected. The low-lying places that these workers usually live in became flooded. One of them says that they did not get relief supplies from the government although people in similar condition in other areas received supplies.
WOMEN and children are the worst sufferers in such crises. Waste workers in general are discriminated against and women workers suffer doubly for being waste workers and being women. They are routinely paid less than male workers. Besides, women workers are not entitled to any maternity leave or any special health care during pregnancy. The COVID-19 emergency has become an easy defence for such discrimination.
Children of sanitation and waste workers, many think, would be engaged in the same profession when they grow up and they are mostly hindered from upward social mobility. In schools, most students do not want to sit next to the children of sanitation workers. During the ongoing emergency, they face difficulties in attending classes online as they have no access to the internet.
Human beings cannot live alone. Interdependence creates a strong bond among people of all walks of life. But prejudices somehow persist in society against sanitation workers. We forget that we live a clean, hygienic life because there are waste workers. The outbreak has given us a chance to think twice before we do anything discriminatory against this community.
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