Another Covid challenge

The focus of the Centre and state governments is now primarily on restraining the spread of Covid-19. In the process, however, a critical offshoot of this pandemic that has tended to be overlooked is the safe disposal of biomedical waste being generated at quarantine and treatment centres and homes of suspected patients. The volume of this hazardous refuse is swelling by the day, posing a huge challenge for urban civic bodies to dispose it of safely. Guidelines for scientific management of coronavirus-specific litter, released by the World Health Organization and the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) right in the beginning of the pandemic, are not followed adequately, except by some high-end Covid-dedicated healthcare centres. Elsewhere, this trash, including discarded personal protective equipment (PPE) and other unsafe material, gets mixed with regular medical or household garbage to end up at the landfills.  

Unfortunately, most people, including some of those who are adequately circumspect of the dreaded virus, are not fully aware of the dangers of improper handling of corona-wastes like used masks, gloves, aprons, shoe covers, swabs and syringes. But far more regrettable is the apathy of urban local bodies towards this vital issue. Most of them — even in the metros like Delhi and Mumbai — have failed to put in place the required systems for collection, segregation, logistics and risk-free elimination of this infectious material. The infrastructure and wherewithal needed for this purpose have not been ramped up in tandem with the spike in the amount of corona-waste over the past four months. While in normal times, hospitals typically generate about 500 grams of biomedical waste per bed daily, after the Covid-19 outbreak, this volume has risen to between 2.5 and 4.0 kg. However, the number of biomedical waste treatment units, which are properly equipped to dispose of perilous trash, has remained static at around 200. Of these, only two are in Delhi, which now tops in the growth of Covid-19 cases, and just one in Mumbai, which is also amongst the epicentres of infection. 

The slipshod handling of the corona-related junk, as reflected in its rampant mixing with other biomedical and household litter and its final dumping at the landfills, exposes sanitation workers, garbage collectors and rag-pickers to the risk of catching the virus and passing it on to others. No wonder, then, Delhi has recorded over 15 deaths of sanitation workers attributed directly to Covid-19. Many more have tested positive of this infection. The situation is no better in other towns. Thus, there is an urgent need to revamp the biomedical waste management infrastructure and ensure strict adherence to the safety norms laid down by the national and international bodies. The process of safe handling and disposal of Covid waste has to begin at the source of generation by segregating it and putting it in double-layered bags (one inserted in another) of distinct yellow colour as specified by the CPCB. It needs also to be transported separately to the designated bio-waste disposal plants or waste-to-energy units where it can be either incinerated, autoclaved or burnt systematically to produce energy. Besides, a massive awareness drive is imperative to make people conscious of the hazards of improper discarding of PPE and other Covid-related junk. Otherwise, the country would soon have a major coronavirus-induced waste crisis on hand. 

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