With the Covid-19 pandemic taking its toll across Bangladesh, the authorities have yet to demonstrate any particular effort to safely manage coronavirus related medical waste.
Experts have repeatedly warned that the Covid-19 situation in the country might worsen in future if the safe disposal of medical waste related to the viral disease is not ensured.
Various surveys suggest hundreds of tons of medical waste is generated everyday across the country, but medical waste management remains unchanged and has seen no adjustment for the pandemic.
Authorities and experts say though some initiatives have been taken for the safe management of covid medical waste, many programs are yet to be implemented.
Among the steps taken so far, the Department of Environment (DoE) has only prepared a guideline for managing medical waste.
Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) is reportedly trying to source biodegradable plastic bags to distribute in as many as areas possible to keep covid medical waste separate, but they are yet to find such types of bags.
Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) has directed its waste collectors to gather medical waste separately, but in reality, no waste collector is doing this.
Prism, a non-government organization that has been working to dispose of the waste, has distributed personal protective equipment (PPE) to its staff amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Medical waste scenario
An average of 206 tons of waste relating to Covid-19 is being produced everyday in Dhaka alone, the capital of Bangladesh, according to a survey conducted in July.
A survey by the Environment and Social Development Organization (Esdo) in May found that at least 14,500 tons of waste was generated in April across Bangladesh. The waste included used gloves, masks, sanitizer containers, and polythene.
However, the number of waste collectors reduced to half in the capital in April. Esdo suspects they were sick due to covid infection.
According to a survey, medical waste generated outside Dhaka is five times more than in Dhaka.
Medical Waste Rules of no use
The government adopted Medical Waste (management and processing) Rules in 2008.
According to the rules, a licensing authority, an appellate authority, and an advisory committee were formed to issue licences, monitor waste management, and mete out punishment for violation of the rules.
But only one organization has so far obtained a licence to collect and manage medical waste according to the rules. So, all the committees and authorities formed under the rules are in effect, irrelevant and redundant.
Hospitals, clinics, diagnostic centres, city corporations, and municipalities have no accountability under the rules since there are no responsibilities or duties described for the health institutions. Besides, waste management of city corporations and municipalities do not fall withinthe rules.
Ziaul Haque, a director of the DoE, said: "The rules have some incompleteness. Only third party service providers need to obtain a licence under the rules for collecting and managing medical waste.
"An initiative for amendment of medical waste management rules has been undertaken to enhance the department's jurisdiction."
Prism is the sole organization involved in medical waste management that has obtained a licence under the rules.
Although the organization mainly works in Dhaka, they have expanded their operations in the Sylhet, Rangpur, and Narayanganj city corporations as well as Jessore and Savar municipalities.
They only manage medical waste generated by hospitals and clinics, though some such institutions do not avail their services in the above mentioned areas.
Anisur Rahman, executive director of Prism, said: "We collect waste from medical centres and incinerate 100% of the waste to avoid infection from the waste.
"We distribute high quality PPE [personal protective equipment] to all of our staff engaged in waste management. None of our employees have been infected with Covid-19 so far," he added.
DoE official Ziaul Haque said: "Only Prism has obtained a license for waste management and no other company or organization has even applied for it. So committees and authorities formed under the rules remain inactive.
"We circulated a guideline regarding medical waste management and directed the Local Government, Rural Development and Co-operatives Ministry, the Health Ministry, and other related organizations to maintain the guidelines. We have also directed the city corporations to supply double layer polythene bags to every household to separate medical waste from other waste.
"We are going to start enforcement soon if anyone violates the rules and guidelines for management of medical waste," he added.
Domestic medical waste uncared for
49.1% people, who took part in a survey conducted jointly by three organizations last month, store Covid-19 waste in the same container along with other household waste, raising the risk of infection.
Commodore M Saidur Rahman, chief waste management officer of DNCC, said: "We are trying to source biodegradable polythene bags to distribute to as many places as possible, to keep medical waste separated.
"Waste collectors will collect the waste separately and Prism will finally carry them [to incinerate]. We have already talked to Prism in this regard."
Air Commodore Md Badrul Amin, chief waste management officer for DSCC, says they are struggling to manage domestic medical waste.
"We have directed waste collectors to collect medical waste separately. But most households mix medical waste with other domestic waste. And the waste collection vans have no separate chamber to carry medical waste," he said.
Prism Executive Director Anisur Rahman said: "Domestic waste management is not our jurisdiction. But we told city corporations that if they can segregate medical waste from the other domestic waste and deliver it to at least a zonal waste collection centre, we will take and dispose of it adopting adequate safety measures."