In recent days, many sanitation workers have tested positive for COVID-19 in Tamil Nadu. With contract jobs and no pay during recovery, the workers battle societal stigma and ostracisation.

Sanitary workers cleaning seats at a metro stationImage for Representation/PTI
Coronavirus Coronavirus Wednesday, May 06, 2020 - 16:28

“As soon as I enter the home, my children say, ‘Amma I am scared of you, please wash your hands and legs.’ Do you know how painful it is for a mother to hear that? But we all bear this to serve the public,” says Sangeetha*, with a lump in her throat.

For sanitation staff like Sangeetha, on contract with the government, an already uncertain livelihood has been complicated further by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Sanitation staff, who are largely from Dalit communities, are already subject to discrimination and the stigma associated with their often caste-linked profession. With the COVID-19 pandemic, however, this stigma has taken a turn for the worse.

“People look at us like we are the coronavirus. They don’t understand that even we have families. They neither give us water, nor a place to sit. They stigmatise us and it is painful,” narrates Sangeetha.

In March, shocking visuals emerged from Chennai’s Pallikaranai area where residents were seen abusing, kicking and beating a sanitation worker. Alleging that she had not cleaned outside their house, a family of three physically assaulted the sanitation worker, pulling her hair, clothes and pushing her to the ground.

Battling stigma to one side, the workers say that the government has betrayed them by failing to regularise contract workers for over 10 years.

31-year-old Sangeetha has been working as a sanitation staff in Chennai’s Ambattur for the past 10 years. When her third child was six-months-old, she decided to take up this job.

“When I took up this job, only one thing was on my mind: my dirt can turn into manure for my children. That is why I took up this job, with hopes of being made permanent soon. Initially, the work was difficult but I managed somehow. But now, I have so many more difficulties in addition to the ones at work,” says Sangeetha, whose husband works as a construction labourer.

'Scared I might be a carrier’

The spread of the novel coronavirus has sanitation workers very worried. But, being frontline workers, they don't have the privilege of staying at home. They are among the least paid workers, with a meagre salary of Rs 379 per day. Further, the workers do not get leave during the pandemic period.

“I am scared of coronavirus, I am not denying it. I am scared that I will be the carrier of the infection, infecting everyone at home. We don't even have anyone to take care of us if we fall sick. Though we follow social distancing, wear masks and gloves, we are still scared we may contract the infection,” shares Sangeetha.

Sanitation workers are among those most prone to infection as the virus spreads among them, despite wearing masks, gloves and adhering to social distancing norms. Their financial situation also restricts their diet; many are yet struggling to eat three meals a day. While in some cases, the awareness spread by the Corporation fails to reach them, in many cases, they are forced to continue working without gloves, risking their lives.

'Ostracised, unable to get food or help'

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines sanitation staff as workers who provide an essential public service around the world. “A service we all rely on but which far too often comes at the cost of the health, safety and dignity of those workers,” it states.

40-year-old Radhika*, a contract worker at the Egmore Railway station, was tasked with cleaning the railway tracks during the pandemic. She has been regular to duty and never took leave unnecessarily. Even as Radhika and her husband, a daily wage worker, were surviving on their meagre salary with two daughters, life took an unexpected turn when her supervisor tested positive for COVID-19.

As recommended by her contracting agency, Radhika was taken to a COVID-19 testing camp near Egmore. She tested positive for the virus.

The sanitation worker, now a COVID-19 patient, was dejected for the timing too was frustrating: she tested positive for the virus on the day she received her salary.

Mani, Radhika's brother, explains, “My sister contracted the virus while she was serving the people, but she did not receive pay for the non-working days (when she was recovering from the disease). My sister and her children are unable to get food. Since their street is a containment zone, no one is coming forward to help her family.”

After Radhika tested positive for the virus at her residence in Kattankulam near Pulianthope in Chennai, many others also tested positive for the virus. “Though her co-workers understood her plight, people in her area continue to ostracise her,” he says.

'Social distancing difficult as sanitation worker'

Over 26 sanitation workers have tested positive at a ward in Chennai recently. While a sanitation worker died at a private hospital in Salem on Tuesday due to breathing difficulties, the cause of death is yet to be ascertained.

The state government has announced Rs 50 lakh as relief for kin of frontline workers, in case the workers contract COVID-19 and die during duty. However, there isn’t any data on the number of sanitation workers who have died of COVID-19. 

The figures on the number of sanitation workers who have contracted the virus and deaths of the workers are being collected, said an official from the Chennai Corporation.

However, activists raise concerns that some deaths go unrecorded.

For sanitation workers contracting the COVID-19 infection, activists list many reasons.

“The sanitation workers are being provided only surgical masks even while working in containment zones. According to some reports, surgical masks can only last for up to for 4 hours and anything more than that could pose risk of infection. Secondly, the Corporation should arrange for a place to bathe nearby whenever they work at a containment zone. The workers should also be provided PPE gear if the government wants to completely protect them from the virus,” says an activist who didn’t wish to be named.

The activist further explains, “Sanitation workers should be allowed to work in shifts. A sanitation worker should be allowed to work only once a week in containment zones, followed by two weeks of rest. The workers live in 10x10 rooms so isolation becomes difficult thereby, the infection easily spreads to their family members. The Corporation should consider all these aspects and take a decision.”

When asked about the reason for the rise in COVID-19 cases among sanitation workers, a Corporation official said, “Maintaining social distancing becomes difficult for workers so they are congested while coming to work.”

*Names changed

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