Scavengers wait patiently for a dump truck to dump trash on top of the landfill outside India’s capital New Delhi. Armed with plastic bags, they plunge their bare hands into the trash cans and start sorting them.
Every day, more than 2,300 tonnes of waste is dumped in the Bhalswa landfill which covers an area of more than 50 football fields, with a pile taller than a 17-story building. And every day, thousands of these informal workers climb precarious slopes to choose what can be salvaged.
They are among the roughly 20 million people around the world who play a vital role in keeping cities clean, alongside paid sanitation workers. But unlike these municipal workers, they are generally not eligible for the coronavirus vaccine and find it difficult to get the vaccine.
The pandemic has magnified the risks these informal workers face. Few have their own protective gear or even clean water for washing their hands, said Chitra Mukherjee of Chintan, a nonprofit environmental research group in New Delhi.
“If they are not vaccinated, cities will suffer,” Mukherjee said.
Manuwara Begun, 46, lives in a cardboard shack behind a five-star hotel in the heart of New Delhi and feels the inequity deeply. Chintan estimates that each year those like her save local government more than $ 50 million and remove more than 900,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide by diverting waste from landfills.
Yet, they are not considered “essential workers” and therefore are not eligible for vaccinations.
Begun started an online petition advocating for vaccines and asking, “Are we not human?”
Sanitation workers employed by local governments in South Africa and Zimbabwe are likely to line up for the COVID-19 vaccine after health workers, unlike those who sort the garbage.
At the Dandora landfill in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, some of the scavengers who do not qualify for a shot carry medical equipment discarded by hospitals and health clinics, claiming this particularly protects them from inclement weather during the winter season. rains.
There is no doubt that these people provide an essential service, explains Louise Guibrunet, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who has studied the issue.
In Mexico, garbage collectors help municipal workers in garbage trucks and often collect garbage from areas not served by the authorities. The work is dangerous and injuries are common, so governments are under pressure not to recognize them or to provide benefits such as health care, she said.
They are often already poor and move to unfamiliar cities to make a living sorting garbage, says Robin Jeffrey, a professor at the Institute for South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. The fact that many of these workers in India belong to poor Muslim or Dalit communities adds a layer of prejudice. Dalits were once known as “untouchables” and are at the bottom of the country’s hierarchical caste system.
“The vaccine is just another very dramatic example of exclusion that prevailed before COVID-19 hit the horizon,” said Jeffrey, co-author of a book on waste in India in 2018. .
India has said it will give vaccines to everyone over 45 from April 1. In private hospitals, each injection is sold for 250 rupees ($ 3.45), but they are free in government hospitals.