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‘Lucky to still have a job’: Hanoi sanitation workers brave the outdoors to keep city clean

Thursday, April 09, 2020, 20:47 GMT+7
‘Lucky to still have a job’: Hanoi sanitation workers brave the outdoors to keep city clean
A female sanitation worker puts garbage into her trolleys on a street in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Nam Tran / Tuoi Tre

While most Hanoians have been staying home amidst the government’s national social distancing policy enacted to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), working from home is simply not an option for the capital’s sanitation workers who brave long-hours outdoors in order to keep the city clean.

Nguyen Thi Ngoan, a 40-year-old sanitation worker in Hanoi, finishes her night shift in the city center each morning at dawn before preparing to drive her old motorbike 20 kilometers through the capital’s bleak weather to her home in the suburbs.

“I don’t feel cold,” Ngoan said as she maneuvered the metal garbage trolleys into place along the side of the road.

For Ngoan, the mandatory social distancing and stay-at-home recommendations from the government are safety measures that she does not have the luxury of practicing.

After all, garbage does not stop piling up just because of a virus.  

“I wear two face masks, two pairs of gloves, and disinfect my hands regularly,” she said, explaining that her pre-pandemic shifts had required her to wear just one pair of disposable gloves inside another pair of rubber gloves per shift.

Currently, she has switched to changing three pairs of rubber gloves in a single night shift.

“Of course, I’m worried [about] working night shifts while my young child [at home], especially during the epidemic, but I have to work,” she said.

Though the amount of trash Ngoan collects each shift seems to have dwindled since the COVID-19 broke out in the capital city, the risks of infection from improperly discarded face masks and other materials constantly keep her on edge. 

To mitigate the risk, she leaves her gloves outside when she gets home and resists the urge to hold her child until she has taken a shower.

Nguyen Thi Ngoan, a sanitation worker in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Nam Tran / Tuoi Tre

Nguyen Thi Ngoan, a sanitation worker in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Nam Tran / Tuoi Tre

One of Ngoan’s colleagues, Pham Thi Bach, explained that much of her free time is taken up by calls from her family members asking if she stays healthy despite her work.

“If everyone chooses easy jobs, who will do the hard ones?” the 53-year-old woman said. “If we’re all scared [of the disease] and stay home, who will pick up the trash?”

“I have done this job for years, and I guess this epidemic will only last for months, so I just have to grin and bear it,” she added. 

Bach, who has been collecting trash for 15 years, has accepted the health risks of her profession, even those added by the COVID-19 epidemic.

“I would feel guilty if I stayed home and let my colleagues do the job for me,” she said.

Pham Thi Bach, a sanitation worker works while wearing two face masks at the same time on a street in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Nam Tran / Tuoi Tre

Pham Thi Bach, a sanitation worker, works while wearing two face masks at the same time on a street in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Nam Tran / Tuoi Tre

Meanwhile, Tran Thi Huong, 39, a trash collector who has spent 10 years working for the Hanoi Urban Environment Company, said the epidemic has not stopped her from starting her years-long tradition of beginning her shift earlier than required.

According to Huong, her company has equipped her and her fellow workers with face masks, gloves, and disinfectant, while requesting that workers disinfect their hands right after they finish one trolley and before they begin filling another.

“It’s a dirty job, but we keep telling one another to appreciate it because many people are losing their jobs due to the pandemic,” Huong said. “We’re lucky to still have it.”

To focus on her job and protect her family, Huong has sent her two children back to their hometown in the northern province of Nam Dinh to stay with their grandparents.

During the currently mandated 14-day social distancing period, Huong’s company has been paying each worker a cash bonus of VND100,000 (US$4.24) per day to keep them motivated.

“People stay home to ‘hide’ from the disease, but we still have to go to work,” she said.

Tran Thi Huong, a sanitation worker from the Hanoi Urban Environment Company, sweeps the street in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Nam Tran / Tuoi Tre

Tran Thi Huong, a sanitation worker from the Hanoi Urban Environment Company, sweeps the street in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Nam Tran / Tuoi Tre

On April 1, Vietnam began nationwide implementation of social distancing that is set to last until April 15, following a directive given by Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.

Stores and entertainment establishments have been closed while citizens have been asked to stay home except for absolutely necessary reasons such as trips for food, medicine, and emergency care.

The country has so far reported 251 cases of novel coronavirus infection, with 126 having recovered.

No death related to the disease has been recorded in the country.

A female sanitation worker in Hanoi, Vietnam prepares herself with protection gadgets before starting her working shift. Photo: Nam Tran / Tuoi Tre

A female sanitation worker in Hanoi, Vietnam prepares herself with protective gear before starting her working shift. Photo: Nam Tran / Tuoi Tre

A female sanitation worker puts garbage into her trolleys on a street in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Nam Tran / Tuoi Tre

A female sanitation worker puts garbage into her trolleys on a street in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Nam Tran / Tuoi Tre

Tran Thi Huong, a sanitation worker from the Hanoi Urban Environment Companyworksg with her mask and gloves on in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Nam Tran / Tuoi Tre

Tran Thi Huong, a sanitation worker from the Hanoi Urban Environment Company, works with her mask and gloves on in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Nam Tran / Tuoi Tre

A female sanitation worker puts garbage into her trolleys on a street in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Nam Tran/ Tuoi Tre

A female sanitation worker puts garbage into her trolleys on a street in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Nam Tran / Tuoi Tre

A female sanitation worker handles trolleys full of garbage on a street in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Nam Tran / Tuoi Tre

A female sanitation worker handles trolleys full of garbage on a street in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Nam Tran / Tuoi Tre

Pham Thi Bach, a sanitation worker in Hanoi, Vietnam, equips herself with a medical face mask inside a cloth mask while working. Photo: Nam Tran / Tuoi Tre

Pham Thi Bach, a sanitation worker in Hanoi, Vietnam, equips herself with a medical face mask inside a cloth mask while working. Photo: Nam Tran / Tuoi Tre

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