So you are not feeling well, no symptoms of the virus as yet, but you somewhat suspect you might be coming up with flu, so you see a doctor anyways. When walking in, the receptionist is wearing a mask, hand gloves, and a hand sanitizer is on the welcoming table with a label written: “Wash your hands.” Just like the receptionist, the doctor is wearing a face musk, perhaps a bit more advanced, a pair of gloves, and treats you with some medications, including a test of the Corona Virus (COVID-19).
When leaving, you get a free box of musk and gloves as you wait for the results. Significant necessary pro-cautionary steps taken, unfortunately, very little focus is put on the one thing you, the receptionist and the doctor have in common: Waste. The waste may include hand gloves, face mask, and any other medical or even household waste produced in these tough times. Which begs the question, can the very things we use to protect ourselves by our biggest threat towards fighting this attention-seeking deadly disease?
Having lived in the village, the township, the big cities, and even abroad, I have had the opportunity to witness, possibly even understand how underrated the potential damage of waste can be, from household disposal to commercial production. On the 24th of March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a press report on waste management as an essential public service in the fight to beat COVID-19, highlighting the importance of safe and effective management of biomedical, health, and households waste. The report calls to attention the fact that this essential service requires "appropriate identification, collection, separation, storage, transportation, treatment, and disposal, as well as important personnel protection and training." My fear as an environmental agent is that our systems, particularly the visibility of our waste, need to adapt to change and quick. Still, unfortunately, the pace is slower than a 20-year-old ocean turtle on land.
I initially asked the question, could the waste in our bins be spreading the coronavirus, and the answer to these questions is not straight forward. It depends on how you, myself, and the world chooses to do, behavior, and even believe about the treatment of our waste moving forward. Here is an example, in my own country, stunning South Africa, a week ago, the chairperson of the South African Medical Association Angelique Coetzee wrote a strongly-worded open letter to the Limpopo Member of the Executive Council for Health Phophi Ramathuba. Following two doctors who tested positive for COVID-19, they worked at Mmametlhake Hospital in Mpumalanga. Still, they lived in Modimolle, Limpopo, fortunately, the doctors are in good hands spending their isolation period in a Limpopo multi-drug resistant tuberculosis hospital. A part of me believes that all the waste the two doctors directly produced during work hours and even after their shift was treated with efficiencies. However, if the waste was unfortunately not arranged as well as it should have from proper identification, collection, separations, storage, and even transportation, then it potentially threatens many lives as it may be a growth opportunity for the virus.
I write this piece to encourage individuals, corporates, and governments to consider investing in waste management systems that don't only give us real-time visibility of how much waste is produced but also identifies inefficiencies in how we currently handle the waste.