The situation we’re living through is tough and anxiety-provoking for most of us and it’s important to take care of ourselves and stay calm. But we also need to remember that those of us who have homes to quarantine ourselves in, jobs that we can work from home for and a stable income are truly privileged.
And, with privilege, comes our power to support people who are already marginalised in our society and whose suffering has increased due to the COVID 19 crisis.
This post looks at how we can support waste-pickers who perform and essential function in our cities and stand to be deeply affected by the crisis and the lockdown.
Who are waste-pickers?
Waste-pickers are people who sort through and segregate our household waste, in order to find recyclable waste. They make a living out of selling the recyclable waste to scrap dealers. According to an article there are an estimated 1.5 million to 4 million waste pickers in India.
Why is their work important?
Waste pickers lead recycling efforts by actively sorting through the mounds of household waste generated. By separating and selling plastics and other recyclable materials, they stop these from polluting land (as landfills) and water. This is an essential effort to fight pollution.
What are the problems they face?
Waste pickers come from very disadvantaged backgrounds and often have no other way of making an income. There is no dignity of labour. Instead, they face a lot of stigma, especially since their work is associated with certain castes. Waste picking involves health hazards, since there is a high chance of coming into contact with hazardous medical waste and biological waste like soiled sanitary napkins. Often, waste pickers are not given gloves or any other protective gear.
How are they affected by COVID 19?
The COVID 19 crisis will hugely amplify the risks and upheavals that waste-pickers face. They stand to suffer deeply, whether they go to work or they do not. Continuing with work makes them extremely vulnerable to being infected because they come in contact with and sort through waste like masks and tissues. Many of them are not even given protective gear, sanitiser, washing soap and water to protect themselves from infection.
If waste pickers cannot continue with their work, many of them will be on the verge of destitution. In the absence of their daily wages, they may not even be able to afford food to survive.
What can we do to support waste pickers?
1. Segregate household waste: Waste should be segregated into 3 categories- compostable waste (food and other organic waste), recyclable waste (eg. plastics) and biomedical wastes (tissues, gloves, masks, sanitiser bottles, anything else that may be infected).
2.Tightly seal the packet with biomedical waste with and mark it with a red dot so that waste pickers know it is hazardous. This will reduce the need for waste pickers to touch the hazardous waste, and reduce chances of infection. According to experts, waste segregation is a way of breaking the chain of transmission.
3.Use cloth masks instead of disposable ones: Cloth masks can be reused and disinfected after use by washing with antiseptic cleaners (eg. Dettol) and drying in the sun. Disposable masks not only increase the amount of waste that needs to be sorted through, it also increases their likelihood of infection while going through them
4.Donate to initiatives giving food and hygiene support to waste pickers: The lockdown has majorly affected the amount of work that waste-pickers can do and the income they earn. Some organisations, like Hasiru Dala in Karnataka and Waste Warriors in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh have set avenues through which donations can be made for their welfare.
5.Coordinate with members of your Housing Community or local Municipal Authorities to find out whether local waste pickers are getting protective gear and safety kits containing gloves, masks (as deemed necessary), sanitiser, washing soap and access to water for hand washing. If not, work with members of your residential area to raise funds for these facilities for them.
Taking these small, simple actions can make a significant difference to the lives of our fellow human beings who are at grave risk. We encourage you to exercise your power, take action to create your own stories of hope!
You can find out more about waste-pickers and the effects of COVID 19 on them through these links:
- Who are waste pickers and what do they do: https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/oppressed-and-unrecognised-life-waste-pickers-crucial-india-s-sanitation-72426, http://hasirudala.in/
- Waste pickers’ demands during this time: https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/covid-19-ensure-hygiene-ration-and-financial-security-us-sanitation-workers-write-pm-121010
- Relief funds: http://hasirudala.in/news/wastepickers-and-covid19/, https://wastewarriors.org/message-on-covid-19-and-our-relief-fund/
- Steps that we can take: https://globalrec.org/tag/india/, http://www.proearth.in/how-to-manage-your-household-waste-under-covid-19-conditions/
What are the other ways that we can support waste pickers and other marginalised communities? Please let us know in the comments or by writing to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
I am a feminist, bookworm, occasional writer and perpetual learner. I work at Kolkata Sanved, an NGO that uses Dance Movement Therapy for healing and empowering marginalised communities, and I’m currently training to be a Dance Movement Therapy Practitioner.