When most countries in South Asia imposed lockdowns to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, only essential services – including sanitation and waste management – were permitted to continue. This put key workers in sanitation on the frontlines.
Sanitation workers have long been marginalised across South Asia because of stigma around the nature of their work and discrimination based on caste, ethnicity and religion. The COVID-19 pandemic magnified the considerable occupational and health hazards they already faced, leaving many working with limited protection and almost no formal guidance or support.
To understand the nature and extent of the challenges sanitation workers have faced during lockdowns, WaterAid facilitated studies in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, through telephone interviews with sanitation workers and key informants. The study revealed common insights:
- While workers were aware of the symptoms of and risks posed by COVID-19, many were ill-equipped to manage these dangers, because of lack of specific guidance or formal training, limited access to personal protective equipment (PPE), and inadequate handwashing and cleaning facilities.
- The pandemic exacerbated existing vulnerabilities, such as lack of health insurance or other forms of social protection. While there were examples in some countries of targeted support for sanitation workers, these were often sporadic and limited in scale, leaving most workers to manage any impacts on their health, income and rising expenses on their own.
- While there was increased recognition of the importance of their work during this critical time, attitudes towards workers sometimes changed for the worse. For example, there were cases of landlords and neighbours asking sanitation workers to leave because of the risk of contagion.
- The informality of sanitation work – which is more prevalent among female workers – magnified existing vulnerabilities of workers and was a proxy for absence of a safety net, regular income, insurance cover and access to PPE.
There is a clear need for sanitation workers to receive immediate support to enable them to cope with the heightened risks as the pandemic continues, and beyond.