COVID-19: Is novel coronavirus spreading among Kolkata pavement dwellers through waste

Those who live by the streets often pick up waste for livelihood

By Jayanta Basu
Published: Monday 13 April 2020
A homeless man with his dog sleeps on the street in Kolkata. Two pavement dwellers in Kolkata reportedly contracted the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Photo: iStock

Two pavement dwellers in Kolkata who reportedly contracted the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), triggered suspicion of getting infected through roadside waste that contained traces of the virus (SARS-CoV-2).

Bio-medical waste — generated and disposed-of indiscriminately by home-quarantined patients — could contain traces of the virus, according to experts.

The virus might spread through congested areas in Kolkata, unless immediate strategies to contact-trace those who came in contact with the pavement dwellers were not taken, the experts warned.

The areas in question — under the Bowbazar Police Station in central Kolkata and Garden Reach Police Station in southern Kolkata — are said to be congested. The West Bengal health department did not issue a statement about the infections yet.

A police officer, however, told Down To Earth that the pavement dweller in the Garden Reach Police Station area was under treatment in the city’s Bangur hospital.

Kashif Zafar, a member of local non-profit Garden Reach Peace Movement, said the middle-aged person was first admitted to Nadial hospital before being shifted to Bangur.

A senior officer at the Bowbazar Police Station refused to comment on the suspected infection there.

“Pavement dwellers often double up as ragpickers and come in contact with waste,” said Arunava Majumder, a retired scientist from the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health (AIIH&PH) who has studied hygiene issues faced by ragpickers.

Infection through waste — if containing traces of the virus — was one of the likely routes of infection for pavement dwellers, according to him.

Bio-medical waste generated by more than 50,000 suspected patients under home-quarantine across West Bengal is not collected and treated separately by municipalities despite two back-to-back Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) guidelines.

The West Bengal Pollution Control Board wrote a letter to the state’s urban development, health and environment departments on April 8 and asked it to circulate the CPCB guidelines with local authorities for taking necessary action.

Experts said even if a small fraction of the 45,858 people under home quarantine, according to the state health department bulletin on April 9, turn out to be infected, a lack in proper waste management could prove to be hazardous.

“Bio-medical waste from used masks, tissue paper, used cotton, medicine left overs or any other materials disposed by quarantined people should be collected separately and incinerated, increasing high risk of infection spreading through this source,” said Utpal Chattapadhyay, the director of AIIH&PH.

“If such waste is mixed with normal waste, the entire waste effectively turns infectious,” said Majumder.

Bio-medical waste should be collected separately in yellow bags and be handed over to authorised waste collectors engaged by local bodies, according to the CPCB guidelines.

Municipalities should create a separate team of workers engaged in the collection of bio-medical waste after special training, the guidelines said.

Senior administrators of Kolkata and adjacent Bidhannagar municipal corporations told DTE that this separate collection of waste had not yet started in these cities.

“We will soon start the process. We are looking into logistics now,” said Pranay Roy, Bidhannagar municipal corporation’s mayor-in-council (Health).

Proper training should be imparted to both the quarantined families and waste collectors to properly manage waste, said Naba Dutta, the secretary of non-profit Sabuj Mancha.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :
Related Stories

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.