The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the protective measures of social distancing and washing hands have highlighted the enormous social and economic importance of water and sanitation. From sanitation workers in the United States to refugee camps around the world, people all have the same concerns about how to stay safe while going about their daily lives.
On Wednesday, March 25th, sanitation workers protested for hazard pay and better protective equipment, with Pittsburgh Bureau of Environmental Services employee Sheldon White saying, “We risk our lives every time we grab a garbage bag. We want better equipment, protective gear, we have no masks”. In New York City, sanitation workers also threatened to stop showing up if they weren’t provided protective supplies, and five New York City Department of Sanitation garages have had to temporarily close down for disinfecting. NYC Council Member Donovan Richards drew attention to the inadequate supplies for sanitation workers, tweeting “these essential workers deserve to be treated with dignity and respect”.
In some countries around the world, sanitation workers are handling hazardous waste without any protective gear, putting themselves at risk to keep others safe and healthy. While collecting garbage and cleaning sewers, workers lack access to gloves and even soap and water. Iqbal Masih, a sanitation worker in Karachi, Pakistan said, “Sanitiser? I don’t even know what that is. I clear up human waste with my bare hands. I wash my hands with water afterwards. Sometimes, people don’t even let me do that, so I have to find water somewhere else”. Sanitation work is considered an essential service exempt from lockdown and stay-at-home orders. According to Tim Wainwright, CEO of WaterAid, “sanitation workers carry out some of the most important roles in any society. It is shocking that they are forced to work in conditions that endanger their health and lives and must cope with stigma and marginalisation, rather than have adequate equipment, recognition and celebration of the life-saving work they carry out”.
In addition to sanitation workers working on the front lines of the pandemic response, densely populated refugee camps are also at especially high risk at this time. The tens of millions of people forced from their homes by violent conflict are already facing crowded conditions, poor sanitation, and limited healthcare resources, making social distancing and hygiene difficult, if not impossible. According to Manenji Mangundu, Director of the Norwegian Refugee Council in Burkina Faso, “the situation in densely populated camps such as Barsalogho with poor healthcare is the perfect storm for a devastating outbreak. Facilities are shared, shelters are shared. If one case is reported in the site, it can spread like wildfire”.
In response to the pandemic, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is seeking funds to support public information campaigns about the virus and the distribution of supplies, including soap and face masks. The UNHCR has said that this “mission is vital. If we fail to help vulnerable countries fight the coronavirus, it could put millions at risk and leave the virus free to circle back round the globe”.
WHO and UNICEF reports have shown that there are huge gaps in basic water and sanitation services around the world. Decades of underfunding for water infrastructure projects is putting many countries at higher risker during the pandemic, shedding light on the benefits and necessity of water and sanitation. According to Richard Connor, Editor-in-Chief of the United Nations World Water Development Report, “One of the reasons underlying the investment gap in water and sanitation is that these services are perceived mainly as a social… issue, rather than an economic one… Yet the economic costs of an outbreak are enormous… Realising the economic importance of water and sanitation should provide an additional catalyst for greater investment”.
As stated in a UNHCR report, “[COVID-19] is a test of the extent to which the benefits of decades of social and economic progress have reached those living on the margins of our societies… and will certainly expose shortcomings in sanitation, housing and other factors that shape health outcomes”. While we are all working to contain the spread of the pandemic and provide support to healthcare workers who are saving lives, this situation should also make us reflect on where we are in achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6, the availability of clean water and sanitation for all by 2030. The coronavirus crisis has drawn attention to the “essential” services of sanitation workers and others who deserve recognition, safe working conditions, and compensation for the important work they do.
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