Untold stories of Abuja waste collectors who work daily despite the risk of COVID-19
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This report tells the stories of over 20 waste collectors in Abuja who through their disregard for protective measures expose themselves to the danger of contracting COVID-19 and pose danger to the customers they serve.
“CUSTOMER! Mai dust bin!” Aminu Sani, from Zamfara State, calls out to prospective customers as he moves from one apartment to another with his old brown wheelbarrow in search of wastes.
He repeatedly hits his barrow with a tiny iron to attract residents who may want to dispose of their wastes.
“Akoi, dust bin,” meaning – “Yes, I have a dust bin” – the usual response Sani gets once a resident indicates interest.
He visits various neighbourhoods daily to pick bags of refuse, which are later deposited at dumpsites located at Gosa, Mpape, or Idu in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). He renders this service for amounts not less than N30.
Sani collects all manners of domestic and medical wastes, without protecting himself, thereby posing risks to himself and the residents he serves.
Abu Ali, another waste collector sits nearby a power transmission facility at the Umaru Musa Yar’dua highway, towards the Abuja City Gate.
He gazed at a filled waste container a few metres to the electric installation near the dumpsite.
More than 20 of his friends, he said, have just returned to the northern part of the country because they suffered from malaria fever, cough, and chest pain. Six of them left Abuja earlier while others followed shortly after. “But, I could not reach out to them to ascertain their current health status. My phone was already stolen,” he told the reporter.
Ali, 22, an indigene of Katsina State, Baure Local Government Area arrived Abuja in 2011. He has colleagues who also came from Zamfara, and Kano to make a living in the FCT. They are all involved in the informal business of waste collection, but none wears PPE.
While the Abuja Environment Protection Board (AEPB) focuses on highbrow areas such as Central Business District, Maitama, Wuse, Gwarimpa to mention but a few, Ali’s friends visit neighbourhoods and locations left uncovered by the AEPB. They are also paid N30 for each bag of waste, like Sani.
But, unlike Ali and his friends who collect waste from residential areas, other scavengers only stop at the dumpster by the major roads. They sort the collected wastes and pick items such as Aluminium materials, plastic bottles, cans and other metallic objects sold for recycling purposes.
Though waste scavenging has been banned in the city centres in 2018, experts believe that the waste scavengers play a significant role in the circular economy, promoting waste recycling as a form of achieving the Sustainable Development Goal (SDGs) in 2030.
Scavengers in the face of COVID-19
Shortly after the FCT recorded its first case of the COVID-19, six of Ali’s friends who were waste scavengers became ill. While Ali could not ascertain whether their ailments were COVID-19 related, he assumes so.
“…We have a lot of our people who are into this waste collection job. We are up to 50. Suddenly, some became very sick and patronised local chemists, Ali told The ICIR.
“They went to the chemist for medications but there was no improvement. They used herbs and it was still the same.”
He believes they might have contracted the virus while visiting different homes to pick up wastes, which, he said usually include disposed face masks, hand gloves, medical wastes and other unclean items.
Ali and Usman Mohammed, 27, expressed anger that he and his colleagues are exposed to danger that nobody cared about.
There are scores of waste collectors across the FCT, working in the frontline of the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic. And they continue to work despite movement restrictions.
Proper hygiene, safety kits vital to keeping safe amidst pandemic
Since the outbreak of the global pandemic in Wuhan China, late 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended the use of face masks, hand gloves, and social distancing as parts of safety measures. The same guidelines were adopted by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).
Globally, the number of COVID-19 cases has risen to 6, 246, 018, with over 373, 348 deaths. As of 1st June in Nigeria, the total figure of confirmed cases has risen to 10,168 cases, 6,861 active cases, 3,007 recovered while 295 deaths were recorded.
So far, government responses to Covid-19 pandemic including the daily briefing by the Presidential Committee have not addressed the plights of waste collectors
The United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), recognises waste scavengers as significant contributors in the cycle of waste management. An Environmentalist, Nnimmo Bassey, believes that waste collectors deserve government attention and economic support. He says they play a significant role in keeping the environment healthy but does this without PPEs.
“They would sort and clean up solid wastes at great risk to themselves,” Bassey adds, stressing that the public waste management system in the country is still elementary.
Findings by The ICIR also revealed that few scavengers make use of hand gloves. Majority of them, including the ones approached by this reporter, do not have facemasks or other forms of protective kits. “I was advised by my brother to wear a hand glove and cover my nose to keep safe from coronavirus but it is God that protects us,” Sani told this reporter.
As he spoke, he bent and pulled out a red rubber hand glove from the corner of his wheelbarrow. But prior to the conversation with this reporter, he had no face mask or hand glove on. Yet, he pressed the waste in his wheel-barrow with his bare hands to create space for more dirt.
I’m done working until COVID-19 is over
Jamiu Yusuf, 23, is new in the waste collection business. But while he moves from one house to another with his wheel-barrow, he is conscious of the new danger his work poses. He would rather suspend the business of waste collection until the pandemic is over but Sani, his master, would not bulge.
Findings by The ICIR reveal that most of the waste pickers still hold the belief that Covid-19 is a disease that afflicts only the rich, especially those who travel via aircraft. Their belief that God would protect them from the disease despite their non-adherence with safety measures makes them more susceptible to contracting the virus. Among several concerns, the scavengers pleaded with the AEPB to organise the informal sector and provide supports such as training and safety kits. They also called for proper coordination and monitoring of the group, including the contractors to reduce exploitation.
Bassey, Executive Director, Health of Mother Health Foundation, however, advised a complete overhaul of the waste management system. He wants waste collectors to be recognised as service providers rather than scavengers. The government, he said, should train and supply them with PPE so they could safely engage in waste collection, segregation, and recycling.
He described the waste collectors as a critical part of health service delivery.
To him, they bear a great risk as they go round picking wastes used by everyone at various homes, oblivious of their medical status.
“Covid19 has generated a situation whereby used nose masks that ought to be treated as medical wastes are being handled like ordinary wastes. Scavengers can easily get exposed to the virus if they pick masks that had been used by infected persons,” says Bassey.
“In addition to those specific medical wastes that should be handled professionally, any waste generated by an infected person has a potential of passing on the infection to them.”
David Terungwa, Executive Director of the Global Initiative for Food Security and Ecosystem Protection (GIFSEP), acknowledged the vulnerability of waste collectors in the pandemic and how they simultaneously pose a threat to the public..
According to him, the waste collectors come in handy and are still patronised by ‘thousands of people.’ He, however, called for proper coordination and sensitisation of the group.
“…There are reports of people picking up facemasks from dumpsites, washing and reselling them to the public. They are at risk to themselves and the general public. They should, therefore, be sensitised instead of looking at them as a nuisance to the society,” says Terungwa.
“We are as strong as our weakest link.”
AEPB – They are on their own
On 22nd May, The ICIR reached out to the AEPB to find out what assistance it offers waste collectors in the informal sector, particularly during the pandemic, but a top official who pleaded anonymity simply said, “they [waste scavengers] are on their own.”
When asked about policy guiding the operation of informal waste collectors, AEPD official responded that only environmental health workers could respond to the question.
But the source disclosed that the AEPB has registered contractors it works with on waste collection.
“The officials in uniform you see packing wastes within the city are our contractors. The cleaning service has been contracted out…but as for the scavengers. Honestly, those ones are on their own.”
When Mrs Janet Peni, AEPB Director of Information was contacted, she promised to reach out to the staff suitable to comment on the issue.
On 24th May, she sent the mobile number of Benjamin Ewerem, AEPB Deputy Director in charge of environmental health. The ICIR directed its question to Ewerem but, again, he referred the reporter to another official at the AEPB headquarters.
On 27th May, the reporter met with Ewerem at about 11:30 am, but, again, he referred the reporter to the Administrative Head of the AEPB after listening to the questions. At the MD’s office, the secretary said the reporter would need to write officially. She advised the reporter to again speak to Mrs Peni. The ICIR eventually wrote a request letter but got no response as of the time of filing this report.