New Delhi: Mahesh, 31, is working day in and out throughout the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. As a waste-collector of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), he is not scared about contracting the virus anymore. He is rather worried about his family. “I joined MCD on 2 March and on 22 March, I was asked if I want to be on Covid duty. Nobody forced me; I wanted to do this. My supervisors told me that if I am on Covid duty, my pay will be increased too. I just get tired and my body aches,” Mahesh told The Sunday Guardian.

Thousands of waste collectors are risking their lives to collect waste, especially from Covid-infected households. These waste collectors collect the waste from Covid-infected households and dispose of it in Okhla. In June this year, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) released updated guidelines for treating the biomedical waste generated due to the coronavirus pandemic. These guidelines have also emphasised the safety of waste handlers and sanitation workers associated with such healthcare facilities. The revised guidelines aimed to reduce the burden on Common Biomedical Waste Treatment Facilities (CBWTFs) and simultaneously do not compromise on safe disposal of Covid-19 waste.

“I started working in March. I get a message from my supervisors that I have to get the kuda (waste) from Covid-infected houses from this particular society. We take kuda from Covid-infected households on alternate days.

When we are allocated the duty of taking kuda from Covid households, we cannot take kuda from non-Covid households and vice-versa. We are supposed to visit a Covid household at least 7-8 times.

Now, the pressure is a bit less. Initially, we used to work for 15-18 hours and visit 70-80 households per day. Now, we visit 20-30 households per day,” Mahesh said.

“I haven’t tested myself yet. But I know I have the virus; my test might come negative, but internally, I know I have the virus. It doesn’t matter how many times we wash our hands, our job is like this. We can feel we are sick. Our body gets tired too. MCD has been really supportive. If anyone of us tests positive, they ask us to stay at home for 15-16 days. Our salaries are also not deducted,” he added.

Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the amount of biomedical waste produced in India has increased exponentially. Moreover, the rising increase in biomedical waste has led to most Biomedical Waste Treatment Centres (BMWTCs) running out of capacity to handle the waste. For instance, the two BMWTCs in Delhi have a combined capacity of handling 74 tonnes of biomedical waste in a day.

The two CBWTFs in Delhi are SMS Water Grace BMW Private Limited in Nilothi in west Delhi and Biotic Waste Solutions Private Limited in Jahangirpuri, with an operational capacity of 12 tonnes and 34 tonnes per day, respectively.

The SMS Water Grace collects Covid biomedical waste from government hospitals, including LNJP and Safdarjung Hospital, quarantine centers, isolation facilities, testing centers, dispensaries, private hospitals, and laboratories in six districts of Delhi–west, southwest, central, Shahdara, east and northeast. Meanwhile, the Biotic Waste Solutions cover north, northwest, New Delhi, south, and southeast districts. It collects Covid waste from AIIMS, Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, and Lady Hardinge Medical College, etc. Municipal corporations are responsible for collecting Covid-19 biomedical waste from houses of patients undergoing home quarantine. This waste goes to the waste-to-energy plants, which have incinerators with large capacities. Meanwhile, Delhi has three waste-to-energy treatment plants, at Sukhdev Vihar-Okhla, Narela-Bawana, and Ghazipur.

“I cover Dwarka sector-12, sector-18, sector-17, sector-3, sector-5 and sector-23, sector-22, sector-6, sector-10, sector-1 are covered by someone else. There are four others too. We follow the 15-day routine. The workload is too much. Suppose I take the waste from society and then after some time I will get a call that there is another case in the same society so I will have to come back again. I can’t say no otherwise my performance will be affected. We dispose of all this waste in Okhla and they burn it, I guess. There are separate vehicles for Covid patients and we sanitized it regularly,” the 31-year-old waste collector said.

Mahesh generally drives the van and his helper 21-year-old Saurav visits the houses to collect the waste-bag. According to the CPCB, the waste from Covid-19 patients should be collected in a yellow bag and properly sanitized before giving it to the waster collectors.

“So far, I haven’t contracted the virus. I wear PPE kit, masks, and gloves while collecting the garbage and ensure that it is sanitised and properly packed before collecting. I started working here last month. When I go back home after duty, I quickly change my clothes and isolate them. I quickly take a bath and then go inside the house. Now there are fewer cases,” said Saurav.

“At times, we are also asked to go to a different ward and we have to go because it is our duty,” Mahesh said.

According to reports, the unscientific disposal of coronavirus-generated bio-medical waste can cause numerous diseases like gastrointestinal infection, respiratory infection, viral hepatitis type A, B, and C, to name just a few. The discharge of toxins from these biomedical wastes can potentially affect the environment. The transmission of various communicable diseases due to infected syringes and needles can prove fatal to humans.