The Platform


Since December of 2019, the world has been bracing itself as COVID-19 spreads globally. The CDC says that it may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads. As the coronavirus outbreak expands globally, there is increasing concern about how to deal with waste arising from quarantined households, potentially infectious patients, the staff caring for them, and medical laboratories.

The WHO reports that it is not certain how long the virus that causes COVID-19 survives on surfaces, but it seems to behave like other coronaviruses. Studies suggest that coronaviruses may persist on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days. This may vary under different conditions and is where those in the waste management sectors should take caution. It is important to protect yourself, as well as protecting others by properly managing waste and reporting it correctly. Now, it is urged to treat waste management, including medical, household, and other hazardous waste, as an urgent and essential public service in order to minimize possible secondary impacts upon health and the environment.

During such an outbreak, many types of additional medical and hazardous wastes are generated, including infected masks, gloves, and other protective equipment, together with a higher volume of non-infected items of the same nature. Unsound management of this waste could cause unforeseen “knock-on” effects on human health and the environment. The safe handling and final disposal of this waste is, therefore, a vital element in this effective emergency response. Effective management of biomedical and healthcare waste requires appropriate identification, collection, separation, storage, transportation, treatment, and disposal, as well as important associated aspects including disinfection, personnel protection, and training.

The safe management of household waste is also likely to be critical during the COVID-19 emergency. Medical waste such as contaminated masks, gloves, used or expired medicines, and other items can easily become mixed with domestic garbage but should be treated as hazardous waste and disposed of separately. These should be separately stored from other household waste streams and collected by specialist municipality or waste management operators. Staff handling waste should be properly trained, particularly careful to use personal protective equipment, and maintain good hygiene during this unprecedented outbreak. Healthcare facilities should make sure that their employees and those of their direct stakeholders are adequately trained, protected, and are provided with vaccination against tetanus, hepatitis and can access post-exposure prophylaxis.

During this coronavirus crisis, it should be ensured that waste collection will be continuously delivered to all-around cities, without any disruption and without any discrimination based on income, religion, race, or other identities. To achieve that, waste collection workers should be protected, as they are one of the most vulnerable parts of the population since they are already exposed to several health risks, including infections. Waste collection workers are the second most important human shield to coronavirus, after health workers. This is why waste workers have been granted ‘key worker’ status by the UK government, meaning they will continue to receive educational and care provision for their children during the current coronavirus crisis, so they will be able to continue their essential services. It can be suggested that governments should recognize the key role of waste workers and the waste sector during this period.

I think in developing countries, waste collection systems should have to develop contingency plans that will make sure that waste collection should be uninterrupted in any case, just to make sure that no extra health risks are added on top of the pandemic. Contingency plans should involve alternative solutions for personnel, vehicles, infectious waste, accumulation of waste, washing, disinfection, and street-cleaning services. It may be suggested that the immediate elaboration of contingency plans in each and every city in Bangladesh is affected by COVID-19. But, besides the extra measures that we have to take for collection workers, all citizens have to receive and apply new instructions, so we will be able to contain COVID-19.

Weak infrastructure would leave urban settlements in developing countries highly vulnerable, should the rapid spread of COVID-19 continue. To reduce the risks of coronavirus transmission in waste management in developing countries, all relevant governmental departments and ministries should have strong collaboration to control the management of waste sheltering COVID-19 contaminated persons or quarantined subjects. It should be recommended that the agencies under its supervision approach local authorities for the proper disposal of the wastes by disinfecting or incinerating it.

To summarize, I think all spheres of society should come together to collectively beat the virus and to minimize the human and economic impact of COVID-19. In tackling this massive and unprecedented challenge, I urge decision-makers at every level: international, national, and at municipal, city, and district levels, to make every effort to ensure that waste management, including that from medical and household sources, is given the attention – indeed priority – it requires in order to ensure the minimization of impacts upon human health and the environment from these potentially hazardous waste streams.

Khalid Bahauddin is working as Executive Director at Institute of Sustainable Innovation for Communities (ISIC), Dhaka, Bangladesh.