Hidden hazard of the COVID-19 pandemic

Hidden hazard of the COVID-19 pandemic

Hidden hazard of the COVID-19 pandemic
Medical and laboratory staff wearing PPE collect medical waste during a COVID-19 screening at the dedicated coronavirus facility of an Indian hospital. (File/AFP)
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Ever since its outbreak more than a year ago, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has left a lot of damage in its wake. The pandemic has disrupted education for hundreds of millions of students globally and left the entire world’s economy in tatters, with most countries set to report their worst economic performance in living memory. It has also caused job losses on an unprecedented scale, with experts putting the worldwide figure as high as half a billion.

While most of these losses can be made up for over time, as economies recover and education resumes, there is one cost that is likely to cause the planet harm for a long time to come, maybe even thousands of years: The enormous rise in the amount of plastic and biomedical waste being generated due to preventive measures against the pandemic and the treatment of millions of cases COVID-19.

One of the most hazardous types of waste produced by humans, biomedical waste has long been a major health and environmental challenge, as millions of tons of it is produced every day. According to the UN Environment Programme, a single hospital bed produces an average of about 500 grams of biomedical or healthcare waste every day. And World Bank statistics say that, in 2017, there was an average of 2.9 hospital beds per 1,000 people in the world, meaning there are close to 21 million beds producing more than 10.5 million tons of biomedical waste every day.

The amount of biomedical waste produced is much greater in the developed world than the developing. And, as with other types of waste, most of it ends up in poorer countries, where it is either dumped in landfill — poisoning the soil and water for centuries for come — or recycled, with immense health hazards for the unprotected workers involved. Some of this waste is also incinerated in the developed world, causing further environmental hazards due to the toxins released into the air.

If the hazardous waste situation was near-catastrophic before the outbreak of the pandemic, it has since deteriorated to cataclysmic. Though little data is available globally, most indicators and common sense point to a significant increase in the generation of this waste over the last 12 months. There are hundreds of sources of this additional waste. First and foremost, millions of healthcare workers have been using personal protective equipment kits for their safety, almost all of which is disposed of daily. Similar kits are needed for the tens of millions of people who have been hospitalized for treatment, as well as those — such as undertakers and mortuary staff — who deal with the bodies of the more than 2.1 million victims of the pandemic so far.

If the hazardous waste situation was near-catastrophic before the outbreak of the pandemic, it has since deteriorated to cataclysmic.

Ranvir S. Nayar

The number of hospital beds worldwide has also shot up dramatically, as most countries have set up makeshift hospitals in stadiums, schools or open grounds, or have simply built new hospitals.

But biomedical waste is not only generated in the healthcare industry. It has become all-pervasive in the name of personal safety and hygiene. Face masks have been mandated by governments globally and billions of these items have already ended up in waste bins, as have gloves and other protective garments.

Face shields are another new and significant source of such waste. These have become the new must-have item for travelers, particularly those using airlines. The number of travelers has certainly gone down dramatically, mainly due to the severe pandemic-related restrictions on cross-border movement. According to the International Civil Aviation Organization, the number of airline passengers fell by 60 percent in 2020. But that still means at least 1.8 billion people traveled by air last year, leaving behind a huge number of face shields and masks, as well as disposable sanitizer pouches.

Estimates from India are a case in point. The world’s second-largest nation by population is also second in terms of the number of COVID-19 cases (more than 10.5 million) and third in terms of deaths due to the virus (more than 150,000). According to data submitted to the Indian Supreme Court, there has been at least a doubling in the quantity of waste produced in hospitals in India. The Central Pollution Control Board told the top court in August 2020, when the pandemic was surging across the nation, that New Delhi’s biomedical output had risen from 25 tons per day in May to 349 tons per day in July, while in Mumbai the waste generation in hospitals had risen from 12.2 tons a day in June to 25 tons a day in August.

India was already facing a severe shortage of treatment facilities for its pre-pandemic waste. One can only guess what has happened to the amount of extra waste produced in the last year. There have been reports of it simply being dumped in landfills for future generations to deal with.

The same picture is almost certain to have been repeated globally, as there is little indication or even talk of governments or the healthcare industry rapidly adding capacity to deal with the unprecedented amount of waste that is now being produced. While one can excuse the focus of governments and hospitals on prioritizing the care of patients and saving lives, there is no excuse for kicking the hazard-filled can down the road for future generations to inherit and deal with. But it is not just for future generations, as the waste is also poisoning our present and the time to act is now. It would be good to see some urgency from global organizations, governments and the healthcare industry in dealing with this issue.

  • Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group.
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