June 2021

Impact of the Second Wave of COVID-19 on the Waste Pickers Community

Authored by Rohini Malur, Hasiru Dala

The second wave of COVID-19 hit all of us harder in 2021 than we expected; this in spite of the catastrophic effects of the 2020 lockdown. The first lockdown resulted in extreme food insecurity, and devastated the informal recycling market. The informal economy was still reeling when the lockdown in Karnataka was announced at the end of April this year. 

As before, NGOs stepped in to ensure food relief, together and separately. But food insecurity was not the only concern. Livelihood support and food for waste workers who needed to work through the lockdown was also a priority. Hasiru Dala opened a fundraising campaign on Ketto, aiming to give rations for over 6,000 families in the areas where we work, livelihood support, medical support for waste pickers affected by COVID-19. We extended our campaign with the lockdown and also reached out for institutional support. The generosity of individuals who donated and campaigned for the cause cannot be set aside - we reached our fundraising goals and closed the Ketto campaign page before the lockdown was lifted. 

Food rations for the communities needed to be distributed with a great deal more care than last year; COVID-19 was spreading through the communities and our team was also vulnerable. As we sent rations to 9,011 families in Bengaluru alone we had to rely on vendors, volunteers and coordinators to ensure that everyone who needed food, received it. We coordinated with other NGOs to ensure that we could communicate needs to each other and cover every part of Bengaluru. 

Livelihood support (and daily meal support) for workers in Dry Waste Collection Centres was also a priority in Bengaluru. With the support of WaterAid India, 256 DWCC workers received a direct cash donation of INR 2,000 which allowed them to continue work during the lockdown period without worrying about lack of income due to lack of buyers for recyclables.

And urgently, COVID-19 affected the community in 2021 as it had not the year before. Isolation became a critical necessity, and in some cases hospitalisation. But there were huge challenges for both these actions - for one, waste pickers often live in communities with no options for privacy, or even individual toilets. Where are the people who are affected supposed to go for this essential self-quarantine? For another, in the early days of the lockdown, our public (and private) health infrastructure was overwhelmed, and in many cases it was almost impossible to find a hospital with beds to spare. The protocols for isolation and hospitalisation for mothers, children and pregnant women were particularly tough and difficult to navigate. In many cases, neither the hospital authorities, nor the team knew what the best options were for care. Deaths in the community in the early days of lockdown were sometimes entirely due to lack of accessible care. 

Hasiru Dala worked to ensure medical care was available for those who needed it, and in collaboration with HBS Hospitals, Karnataka Covid: Jeevan Anmol, Mercy Mission, St. Joseph's College and Titan Company and XLRI Alumni Association organised a Covid Care Centre at St. Joseph's College where underprivileged people (men, women and children) could have a place to isolate themselves and receive necessary medical care. 

Covid Care Centre at St. Joseph's College, Bengaluru

Video of the St Joseph COVID Care Center: https://youtu.be/PPI64ClJ8ag

During the lockdown and after, ensuring that waste pickers and their families can access vaccinations is a priority. A lot of work needs to be done to demystify both COVID-19 and the vaccine so that the community is not operating from a place of fear and mistrust. Vaccine registrations are proceeding apace and we are hopeful that a rapport can be built to ensure the population is vaccinated in time. 

Vaccination drives began before the lockdown was imposed, as we worked with PHCs to organise vaccinations for the communities. Through the lockdown we continued those partnerships, and were also supported by Bounce which provided a safe space to meet.  With Saamuhika Shakti partner LabourNet and support from ACT Grants, Hasiru Dala conducted the first joint vaccine camp mid-June. More such camps are planned in the coming months. We've reached 559 people from the community so far through such drives and need to increase engagement. To counter fake news and myths around the after effects caused by the vaccine, BBC Media Action is helping Hasiru Dala develop communication material to share within the waste picker communities in English, Hindi and Kannada. 

Assuming Bengaluru and the state can reach some sort of 'new normal', the issues of financial security and health care infrastructure that have now been exposed as fragile and vulnerable to breakdown, will have to be addressed to ensure that those of us who are forced to live on the margins have adequate protection against disasters which can strike at any time. 

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