RIYADH: Business leaders and citizens have called for stiff fines to be introduced for those who irresponsibly throw away used items of personal protective equipment (PPE) without realizing that such actions can fuel the spread of the deadly coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
Although penalties are in place for people who fail to wear masks in shops and other designated buildings, there are currently no punishments relating to the dumping of PPE on streets or in public areas where such actions could contribute to the transmission of COVID-19.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Abd Al-Aly, a spokesman for the Health Ministry, called on people to ensure the safe disposal of masks and gloves.
“These things must be thrown in the trash (bins) … so that we avoid being subjected to the transmission of diseases and infections,” he said.
Manal Aqeel, a fashion designer who owns an abaya store in Riyadh, said she had regularly found gloves and masks strewn around her shop doorway.
“This issue has been bothering me since the beginning of the pandemic, and it got worse following the announcement of fines for violators who do not wear masks in public places.
“I see this mostly in parking lots and in front of stores that are crowded with customers such as supermarkets, wholesale shops, and variety stores. With so many customers on a daily basis they (store owners) probably can’t control the situation of people leaving the store with a shopping cart and then throwing their mask and gloves near their car or in the shopping cart itself,” she added.
“The solution to this problem is that each store should have somebody to supervise the situation outside and ensure that gloves and masks are being disposed of in the right places.
“Shop owners are making sure that people are wearing masks in the entrances because if they don’t the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs will slap them with fines but when customers leave they are not responsible for how they behave outside.”
Aqeel suggested heavy fines should be imposed on people who irresponsibly threw away PPE. “Shop owners should provide more trash bins near parking lots and people should be more aware of the situation and how dangerous it is for the environment,” she said.
Sara Shuqair, a quality control specialist with a government organization, said that the responsibility for the safe disposal of such items should rest with the individual, not shop owners.
“Some shops offer trash bins everywhere especially in front of their outlets. Despite that, people still throw gloves and masks outside of the bins. Unfortunately, people do not realize the seriousness of this issue and its consequences. You also see this phenomenon in national parks where people do not clean up after themselves and leave their trash.
“If there is a strict punishment or fine for those who throw waste in the streets, people will be more careful. Violators do not always learn their lesson until they are fined,” she added.
Malak Al-Harbi, a housewife who lives in the Royal Commission for Yanbu, said all Saudi cities should be kept clean and organized. “I’m still committed to staying at home during this pandemic. The only place that I go to is the beach and you will never see trash by the seaside here,” she added.
Mohammed Al-Sufyan, a spokesman for the Eastern Province municipality, said the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs had issued numerous instructions and protocols on the issue.
Under the municipality’s rules, all outlets and stores were required to provide face masks, gloves, and sanitizers and follow appropriate hygiene guidelines. It has also published and distributed booklets and pamphlets about the safe disposal of face masks and gloves including, where possible, using trashcans with hands-free pedal-operated openers.
The municipality’s inspection teams had already imposed fines and penalties for breaches of public health and safety regulations including instances of overcrowding and non-compliance with precautionary measures and had increased the number of inspectors fivefold, Al-Sufyan added.
“We encountered big challenges when the COVID-19 crisis emerged, but things have changed now, and we are in more control of the pandemic. The awareness campaigns helped people realize the dangers of the pandemic. Although there are still violations, people, in general, are following the precautionary measures,” he said.
Nasser M. Al-Hamidi, the chairman of the Environment Friends Society’s media committee in Al-Zulfi City, said: “We are in desperate need of increasing public awareness about the proper and safe way to dispose of a used face mask.”
He called on civil society institutions and environmental organizations to step up efforts to curb the practice.