Unprotected on the frontline
Sanitation workers across different South Asian countries are working with little protective equipment and poor access to handwashing and cleaning facilities during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a new report from WaterAid.
The report titled "Safety and wellbeing of sanitation workers during Covid-19 in South Asia", explored how the pandemic was impacting the lives and works of sanitation workers.
The research was carried out in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan over a period of approximately six weeks from the end of April until mid-June, where sanitation workers including sweepers and hospital cleaners were interviewed, according to press release received yesterday.
The report found that fear of infection and worrying for family members was a common concern across all four of the study countries.
Eight in ten workers interviewed in Bangladesh thought their job would put them at high risk of infection.
The workers were aware about using personal protective equipment (PPE) but the supply of such equipment was inadequate.
While use of masks and gloves was relatively higher, supply and use of more specialised equipment such as aprons or goggles was much lower, even amongst high-risk groups such as hospital cleaners.
In Nepal, a third of workers had received no PPE from their employers at all. Workers across India, Pakistan and Bangladesh also complained of suffocation when using PPE in hot weather.
The Covid-19 pandemic has aggravated the considerable occupational and health hazards these workers usually face, leaving many of them to continue working with limited protection and almost no formal guidance or support structures.
A sanitation worker in Khulna said, "We are continuing our job under great risk only to give the public some level of comfort. But it is very unfortunate that people do not value our sacrifice."
Practice of frequent handwashing also varied largely due to workers' access to facilities with soap and water. In India, 40 percent workers reported lack of any handwashing station at work.
Many sanitation workers across the four countries are in fear of losing their livelihood while almost half of the respondents reported challenges in meeting their daily expenses.
Across the board, they had very limited access to social protection or safety nets, with only a small minority being covered by some sort of insurance, and many missing out on emergency support measures introduced during the pandemic.
Vanita Suneja, regional advocacy manager (South Asia), WaterAid, said, "South Asian governments must put in place a comprehensive safety net to protect these workers, including health insurance, guidelines and training. Only with proper job recognition and protections these essential workers will be able carry out some of their roles in our society safely."