Dispatch

No Masks, No Gloves

With India on lockdown, hundreds of thousands of people are cleaning up trash, medical waste, and even sewage without any protective equipment.

Sanitation workers in Secunderabad, India
Workers clean the coaches of a train amid concerns over the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus at a railway station in Secunderabad, India. NOAH SEELAM/AFP via Getty Images

MUMBAI—While most Indians remain confined to their homes under a three-week national lockdown to keep the coronavirus at bay, 30-year-old Bhimrao Tambe still spends eight hours a day on Mumbai’s streets. A contract sanitation worker with the city’s civic authority, he picks up waste with his bare hands and loads it onto a truck—without gloves, boots, a uniform, or hand sanitizer. For this work, he is paid $4 a day. During the 17 years Tambe has worked as a waste collector, he has seen his colleagues develop skin, respiratory, and eye ailments; a few have lost fingers to acute infections. The health threat, however, never loomed as large as it does today as the coronavirus spreads across India.

“At least in this extraordinary situation, authorities must give us the basic safety equipment,” said Tambe, who has taken to carrying his own soap to work each day and wearing a mask that he washes each night. “The garbage often contains medical waste: syringes, masks, gloves. The syringes have penetrated our feet many a time in the past, but now that is especially dangerous. I feel scared every day, but missing work would mean no food on the table for days.”

India is home to 5 million sanitation workers like Tambe—who clear not just garbage but also sewers and public toilets. For paltry pay, these workers often come in direct contact with human waste, working with little or no equipment and protection. Exposed to toxic gases, they are often at risk of chronic diseases. According to a 2018 report by a statutory body set up for the welfare of sanitation workers, one worker died every five days while cleaning sewers and septic tanks in India in 2017 and 2018. Countless others have suffered infections and injuries.

But the situation has reached a head in recent weeks. So far, India has identified 5,749 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 164 deaths. The national lockdown, which began March 25, is one of the strictest in the world. But the safety measure has not translated into better protection for India’s sanitation workers. Instead, these laborers now face great risk from the coronavirus, which studies suggest may also be spread by fecal-oral transmission. The 6,500 contract workers employed by the Mumbai government have yet to be given any protective equipment or hazard pay. In New Delhi, sanitation workers without masks or gloves have been specially assigned to disinfect and sanitize outside the homes of known coronavirus patients, according to Yogendra Rai, secretary of the Delhi-based Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, a trade union that represents 37,000 sanitation workers. “They are willing to do their job, but they need basic protective gear like masks and gloves. Doctors have personal protective equipment, and yet they are contracting infections. How will these workers stay safe?” Rai said. Thus far just two sanitation workers—one in Mumbai, another in Delhi—have tested positive for the coronavirus, while 53 of their co-workers who came in contact with them have now been placed under quarantine. But with limited testing, the real number of infected workers is doubtless higher and will grow over time.

Often informal workers, most of India’s sanitation workers belong to the Dalit community—the lowest rung on the 3,000-year-old Hindu caste system. Members of the community are perceived as “outcasts” and “untouchables,” often ostracized by the rest of the society, viewed as expendable, and relegated to the worst jobs. “No one cares if they live or die. They belong to a lower caste, and most of them are unorganized contractual laborers—a lethal combination in India,” said Milind Ranade, general secretary of the Kachra Vahatuk Shramik Sangh, a Mumbai-based labor rights organization.

The situation is particularly dire for so-called manual scavengers—sanitation workers who manually remove human waste from latrines. According to government estimates, more than 182,000 Indians do such work as manual scavengers, while human rights groups peg the number at 770,000. While the Supreme Court of India has lambasted the government for not providing safety gear to these workers, the state has made little effort to address the extreme dangers of their work. Scores die each year from asphyxiation and disease. The coronavirus will dramatically increase these numbers, rights workers warn. “Although their life is in jeopardy, sanitation workers, including manual scavengers, cannot afford to lose their jobs,” said Raj Valmiki of the Delhi-based Safai Karmachari Andolan, a nationwide movement to eradicate manual scavenging.

With coronavirus cases mounting, Valmiki’s group and other nonprofits have tried stepping in where the government won’t, donating masks and providing basic hygiene education. Meanwhile, waste collectors like 41-year-old Dadarao Patekar have resolved to take care of themselves. After his eight-hour shift, Patekar takes a bath as soon as he gets home and washes his clothes. He eats in a dish that’s kept separately from his family’s and cleans it as soon as he is done with his meals. He worries that if he is infected, he might transmit the virus to his three daughters or wife, who share a home that is just 40 square feet.

“I’m going to get the infection for sure, that’s indisputable,” Patekar said. “My wife worries every day, but even she knows it’s a risk we have to take. The other option is begging for alms.”

Puja Changoiwala is an award-winning Indian journalist and author. She writes about the intersections of gender, crime, social justice, development, and human rights in India. Twitter: @cpuja

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