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Why managing Covid waste is crucial to Bangladesh

Sameera Zaman | December 07, 2020 00:00:00

The Covid-19 pandemic has gripped the world and is reshaping the way the economies across the globe function. With limited cross-border trade, transportation use, industrial activities have been reduced to its lowest in recent memory. In addition, with humans under lockdown, their reduced interactions with nature proved beneficial to the environment as improved air and water quality has been reported all over the world. Wildlife flourishing in their habitats or letting loose in urban areas awed the humans with their certain degree of freedom. No different from the rest of the world, the coronavirus also found its way into Bangladesh, with the first case being reported on March 8, 2020. By the end of March, a nationwide shutdown, in form of general holidays, was imposed to tackle the community transmission of the lethal deadly pathogen. Due to the restrictions on most economic activities, the air quality in Bangladesh improved dramatically as well. According to a recent publication by Islam et al., the study on the impacts of nationwide lockdown due to Covid-19 outbreak on air quality in Bangladesh, calculated a 68 per cent decrease in the NO2 and SO2 concentrations on average in Dhaka city alone. The consequences of the lockdown displayed a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution globally. The bigger picture, however, goes beyond the lockdown period with severe environmental and health implications.

By the end of May 2020, economic activities in many countries started to resume. The gradual reopening of shops, restaurants, and many workplaces prompted the citizens to step out and adapt to the "new normal". While they came up with protective measures to fight for their lives and livelihoods, the pandemic is expected to bring some long-term behavioural, economic, and societal changes. Though this would have been an opportunity to make the much-needed, sustainable changes, a rapid rise in plastic use has been recorded. A substantial amount of waste, which may also be hazardous for nature, is being produced in the process of adapting to the pandemic. Disinfecting products, such as sanitizers and strong disinfecting agents are being widely used. Not only do these chemicals have long-term health effects, they are also generating huge amounts of waste such as plastic bottles and discarded wet-wipes, which can last up to a thousand years in nature. Owing to the global adoption of the use of personal protective equipment, gloves, medical masks, goggles, face shields, and gowns, these single-use items are also categorised as hazardous medical waste by the World Health Organization once discarded. Subsequently, as the number of patients increases, the use of protective gear will also increase generating more waste. This could be a potential source of re-emerging infection if not managed properly and contribute to increasing number of Covid-19 cases. Greater number of cases will produce even more waste, hence creating a vicious cycle.

The pandemic has created additional challenges for waste management for Bangladesh. The country was already struggling to manage the medical waste, despite formulating Medical Waste Management and Processing Regulations as of 2008. A study on Covid-19-induced biomedical waste production by Rahman et al. (2020) states that in April 2020 alone, 14?500 tonnes of medical waste were generated in the country. In Dhaka, an average of 206 tonnes of hazardous medical wastes is being produced due to Covid-19 each day. Inappropriate disposal and management of this waste is not only a concern for land and water pollution, but also threatens public health and safety. In many of the residential areas, the PPE were also discarded with household wastes, which posed a threat to the health and lives of about 40 000 informal waste collectors. Though these are now disposed of separately in some areas, the occupational health and safety measures of the workers remain undetermined. Illegal resale of the discarded protective items is not uncommon in the country. Not only managing hazardous medical wastes, but effective management of municipal, electronic (E-waste), construction, and industrial waste should be of the highest priority for environmental and health protection.

Despite the identified need for a sound waste management system, developing countries like Bangladesh face technical, operational, and financial constraints to put such a system in place, particularly in the middle of a pandemic where the economy is failing. This, in turn, makes them more vulnerable and exposed to the virus. With the Covid-19 pandemic showing no signs of abating, needs are more pressing than ever to manage toxic waste from households and hospitals to prevent the potential transmission of the virus.

Sameera Zaman completed her MSc in Environmental Science from the University of Freiburg, Germany, and currently works as an environmental and social researcher. [email protected]

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