Bangladesh has been identified as one of the 20 most vulnerable countries to be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Its high population density, poor infrastructure, and low levels of awareness of basic preventive measures culminate in a highly vulnerable and fragile country on the brink of a major crisis, with severe ramifications for public health, the economy and social cohesion. The recent surge in confirmed cases in the country poses serious concerns. The first three known cases were reported on 8 March 2020 by the country’s epidemiology institute, Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR). Infections remained low until the end of March but saw a steep rise in April. As of 10 June 2020, there have been a total of 74,865 confirmed cases in the country, with 15,900 recoveries and 1,012 deaths. All available predictions indicate that the situation is going to deteriorate further if no serious measures are taken.
Like other developed and developing countries, one of the key tactics applied by governments to break the chain of infection was to restrict the movement of people out of their homes barring people delivering essential services. One of the categories of workers covered under essential services are sanitation and waste workers. As they are dealing with waste collection and management, cleaning of public places, and maintaining sanitation services, their work requires them to move across different areas and work in high-risk settings including health care facilities, and in quarantines and containment zones. It is therefore important to ensure the health and safety of these workers and their families and mitigate any risk of spread of the infection through their movement.
Like other countries in the South Asia region, sanitation and waste workers in Bangladesh are generally marginalised, socially and economically, living in congested colonies, slums or low-income informal settlements with limited access to basic services. Vulnerable groups, especially people living in poverty, from lower caste and religious minorities are more likely to engage in these types of work and are discriminated and stigmatized because of their profession. Sanitation workers face greater risk of infection, injury and death than do average workers, and rarely have insurance or access to health services. Given the nature of their work and their living conditions, they are at higher risk than the general population of becoming infected by COVID-19. In the overwhelming and competing demands during pandemic, it is important that their rights to health, safety and dignity are not compromised and their voice gets heard.