Every morning, 40-year-old Mahalakshmi (not her real name) wakes up at 5 a.m. and quickly gets ready for work as a sanitation worker. She pulls on her uniform—a light blue knee-length cotton shirt—over a red and green synthetic saree.
She packs a bar of soap, a water bottle, some hand sanitizer and a small pouch of loose change.
Then she puts on her mask, ensuring it’s snug before rushing out.
Mahalakshm, who asked that her real name be kept anonymous out of fear of losing her job, must reach the municipality’s solid waste management office and mark her attendance with the other workers before 5:30 a.m.
On the banks of the Krishna River, the women hoist their brooms and rusty, metal dustpans, sweeping from end to end, gathering and collecting the trash in one place for the municipality vehicle to pick up.
“These days, used masks are strewn all over the place,” she says. “And we have to clean them all. There [are] supposed to be different people in protective gear for collecting [this kind] of trash, but they don’t come.”
Mahalakshmi must make her municipality-issued mask and sanitizer bottle last for an entire month.
“I have two masks that I wash everyday and reuse,” she says.
Malakshmi received her first COVID-19 vaccine jab in January soon after the launch of India’s nationwide vaccination drive. She’s still waiting on the second.
“Our supervisors tell us not to take the vaccine,” she says. “They tell us that the injection will kill us.”
After Andhra Pradesh’s government kicked off the COVID-19 vaccination drive by administering the first dose to a female sanitation worker, there were reports of a handful of post-vaccination deaths, presumably due to underlying health conditions. However, among some communities, those rumors were enough to spread widespread fear and distrust. Even still, Mahalakshmi says she will get the second jab when it becomes available.
“Our biggest fear is corona,” she says. “Quite a few [people] among the sanitation workers have had it. If I can have some protection, I’ll take it.”
In India, 90% of sanitation workers like Mahalakshmi don’t have health insurance, putting them at increased risk if they were to fall ill and lack access to health care.
Mahalakshmi worries about hunger, too. “I have to feed seven mouths,” she says. “All by myself. There’s no help.”
Her salary has been delayed for months because of the pandemic. She has a debt account with the local grocer where she procures rice and other food, repaying him when she has money.
“I’ll have to pull this heavy cart as long as I can, all by myself,” she says. “If I stop, everything will break down. There’s no help from anywhere. Not at work, not at home.”