Madagascar's Sanitation Workers serving communities amid COVID-19

In Madagascar, sanitation workers, just like health professionals, are classified as essential workers and are required by law to continue providing non-stop services during this pandemic to ensure that services to the  1.3 million inhabitants of the capital Antananarivo are not disrupted.
Hoby Randrianimanana
Sanitation workers in action at a dumping site in Madagascar

However, many of them are at enhanced risk for contracting COVID-19 as a result of their surrounding sanitation and hygiene environment.

“I have one face mask that I bought and have been using it for several days. There is no water point for us to wash after work, so each of us brings a bottle of water from home. I’m afraid of the virus but cannot afford to buy and wear better protective equipment,” says 45-year-old Jean-Marie Ramanamihafy Mandimby, who is a sanitation worker at a waste collection company serving the capital city.

 “Every day when we get to our work site, we have to prepare mentally for a foul discovery in the sewer lines,” Mr Ramanamihafy explains.

“While our job normally involves taking out debris and other elements blocking the flow of wastewater, such as plants, we also usually handle hazardous and repugnant waste dumped in the sewer lines. These range from domestic waste, faecal sludge, dead animals to corpses of infants. This job is just not for the faint-hearted,” he said.

Mr Ramanamihafy and his colleagues Augustin Fidimalala Nomenjanahary and Frederic Rakotonandrasana clean and dredge sewer lines in the fokontanies (neighbourhoods) of Isotry and 67Ha in Antananarivo that feature crowded slums, illegal constructions and popular markets.

The sanitation infrastructure in Antananarivo is outdated, having been constructed more than 70 years ago, and has been further degraded by illegal constructions and negligence. This makes for hazardous working conditions, particularly during the rainy season.

“When the pipes get clogged and our hand tools, which are old and scarce, can no longer do the job, we have to get down inside the pipes and remove the waste manually. I work with bare hands and feet because the ragged gloves and flip flops I usually wear when working on the surface are useless down there,” says Mr Ramanamihafy.

Sanitation workers like these men in the picture face increased risks of contracting diseases
Sanitation workers like these men in the picture face increased risks of contracting diseases. ©WSSCC/Hoby Randrianimanana

Realizing that the condition of sanitation workers would be further imperilled due to the lack of access to handwashing facilities, WSSCC’s sanitation programme in Madagascar, the Fonds d’Appui pour l’Assainissement (FAA), quickly stepped in and provided handwashing stations with soap for the workers and, in addition, trained all 1,000 staff on good hygiene behaviours.

“We observed a lot of sanitation workers not washing their hands and not wearing masks properly. So we immediately amplified messages around good behaviours to be adopted to prevent coronavirus,” says FAA’s Community Mobilization Specialist, Dr Fano Randriamanantsoa.

He emphasizes that safe sanitation means not only addressing the needs of the users but also taking into account the health, safety and needs of the sanitation workers. “These workers face daunting challenges on a daily basis,” he said.

Sanitation worker in Madagascar starting off his day at work ©WSSCC/Hoby Randrianimanana
Sanitation worker in Madagascar starting off his day at work ©WSSCC/Hoby Randrianimanana

WSSCC is transforming into the Sanitation and Hygiene Fund, a global financing mechanism that supports sanitation and hygiene efforts along with the four strategic objectives of household sanitation; sanitation in schools and health care facilities; menstrual health and hygiene; and innovation in sanitation.

FAA is expanding its programming and aligning its work with these four objectives and ensuring that no one is left behind.