The scavengers wait patiently for a dump truck to tip the trash on the summit of the landfill outside New Delhi. Armed with plastic bags, they plunge their bare hands into the garbage and start sorting it.
Every day, more than 2,300 tons of garbage is dumped at the landfill at Bhalswa that covers an area bigger than 50 football fields, with a pile taller than a 17-story building. And every day, thousands of these informal workers climb the precarious slopes to pick through what can be salvaged.
They are among the estimated 20 million people around the world — in rich nations and poor — who are pivotal in keeping cities clean, alongside paid sanitation employees. But unlike those municipal workers, they usually are not eligible for the coronavirus vaccine and are finding it hard to get the shots.
The pandemic has amplified the risks that these informal workers face. Few have their own protective gear or even clean water to wash their hands, said Chitra Mukherjee of Chintan, a nonprofit environmental research group in New Delhi.
“If they are not vaccinated, then the cities will suffer,” Mukherjee said.
Manuwara Begum, 46, lives in a cardboard hut behind a five-star hotel in the heart of New Delhi and feels the inequity keenly. Chintan estimates that each year, those like her save the local government over $50 million and eliminate over 900,000 tons of carbon dioxide by diverting waste away from landfills.
Still, they are they not considered “essential workers” and thus are ineligible for vaccinations.
Begum has started an online petition pleading for vaccines and asking, “Are we not human?”Duncan Wanjohi, right, and Kelvin Kimani, center, scavenge for recyclable materials on Sunday, March 28, 2021, from Dandora, the largest garbage dump in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)Isaac Kivai, who scavenges recyclables for a living, puts on a protective suit found in the trash at Dandora, the largest garbage dump in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, Sunday, March 28, 2021.
Duncan Wanjohi, scavenges recyclable materials for a living at a garbage dump at Dandora, the largest garbage dump in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, Sunday, March 28, 2021.
Sanitation workers employed by local governments in South Africa and Zimbabwe are likely to be in line for the COVID-19 vaccine after health workers, unlike those who sort through the trash. At the Dandora landfill in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi, some of the scavengers who are not eligible for a shot wear medical gear discarded by hospitals and health clinics, saying it especially protects them from the weather during the rainy season.
There is no doubt that these people provide an essential service, says Louise Guibrunet, a researcher at National Autonomous University of Mexico who has studied the issue.
In Mexico, scavengers help municipal workers on garbage trucks and often collect trash from neighborhoods not served by authorities. The work is dangerous, and injuries are common, so governments have an incentive to not recognize them or provide benefits like health care, she said.