Facing an Invisible Enemy: Supporting Waste Workers during COVID-19

April 30, 2020

source: https://www.grida.no/resources/13300 photographer: Ieva Rucevska

“When I first heard the news of the lockdown, I was frightened, not by the virus but by the possibility of being jobless. It was a big relief when the government announced waste collection as an essential service. I was happy to be back at work, but there is a looming fear in my heart that I am putting both mine and my family’s life in danger by going to work. But there is nothing I can do other than wash my hands after I finish my work...but is it enough?”- says 48-year-old Shyam Thakuri, a waste worker from Teku, Kathmandu.

With the announcement of the nation-wide lockdown, we at the Accelerator Lab in Nepal have been closely monitoring the events surrounding vulnerable population, which includes daily wage earners . There are over 1800 formal and informal waste workers in Kathmandu. With the lockdown, about 30% of them have returned to their villages but still majority of them are working in Kathmandu1. This was not the case initially, as per Mr. Hari Shrestha- Environment Unit Head of Kathmandu Metropolitan City, “After the government re-opened waste collection centres, there was a strong hesitation from waste workers to resume work. This was due to inadequate information regarding COVID-19 and ways in which one can contract this virus. People assumed that one can get the virus simply by collecting waste and visiting the dumping site.” As a result, the city of Kathmandu saw a sudden rise in solid waste mismanagement with piles of waste from households getting dumped on the sidewalks.

Photo: Sanjaya Raja Shakya

However, despite the fear, waste workers resumed work, because now the enemy was not the virus, it was hunger! Soon, to provide safety measures to waste workers while on-duty, municipalities and few private waste collection companies started providing face masks and gloves, but this is not enough.

As per World Health Organization (WHO)’s COVID-19 interim guidance report2, “Best practices for protecting the health of workers at waste and sanitation treatment facilities should be followed. Workers should wear appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), which includes protective outerwear, gloves, boots, goggles or a facial shield, and a mask and they should perform hand hygiene frequently.” Despite this, every morning, thousands of waste workers like Shyam Thakuri risk their health to ensure that the city remains clean. You can see waste workers in your locality early morning, and rarely, will you find someone equipped with a pair of gloves/ face mask when instead they should have been adequately equipped with PPE.

After mapping local solutions, exploring collaborations and planning rounds of experiments to tackle this situation, the Lab has learned that instead of a single solution, we should consider a 3-step process guide to help waste workers face the invisible enemy:

Step 1: Installation of sanitization chambers: Everyday waste collection vehicles make multiple trips to Teku dumping site. The idea behind installation of a “spray-as-you-go-sanitization chamber” at the entry/ exit way of the dumping site, is to ensure that the vehicle operators are not at a risk of carrying infectants when the vehicle leaves the dumping site and travel to narrow streets of Kathmandu. We will be working with a bunch of local innovators who have designed a model of a sanitization chamber for the purpose of ‘non-manaually’ dis-infecting vehicles.

Step 2: PPE gears during working hours: A pair of gloves  and face mask is hardly a shield to combat respiratory or non-respiratory diseases. We will be working with local makers of reusable and certified PPE gear kits designed for waste workers. This simple step will ensure safety for waste workers and their families. By providing one pair of PPE gear kit, we can easily protect 4-5 lives, now imagine equiping 1000+ waste workers with PPE gears and in-turn protecting 1000+ families!

Step 3: Providing necessary trainings: We cannot ensure 100% safety for waste workers through sanitization chambers or PPEs  alone. As per our learning, we have found that lack of adequate information and safety practices results in stigmatization and discrimination towards certain groups and sectors. Thus, we aim to work with another innovative group to educate waste workers through telecommunication means that are well in their reach such as mobile phones and radio sets through relevant radio programmes, as half knowledge is more dangerous than ignorance.  

One important component for the overall success of this 3-step process guide is the way households discard their solid waste. Face masks and gloves used by the general public could be a source of infection for waste workers if not discarded properly. Thus, we are working with WHO to develop awareness materials and steps to properly treat household wastes before discarding them during the pandemic. Stay tuned for more on our mission to face the invisible enemy through grassroot solutions.  


1 Figures generated from internal research and consultation with Solid Waste Management sector.

2 “Water, sanitation, hygiene, and waste management for the COVID-19 virus”, Interim Guidance, 19 March 2020- WHO.

UNDP Accelerator Lab in Nepal is working closely with development partners, the private sectors and grassroot innovators as a “vehicle” to test innovative solutions around unplanned urbanization and unemployment, It is on a quest of to invest technical expertise on these two frontier issues in order to map, and explore a portfolio of experiments to foresee more possibilities.