Ideas & Debate

Schools need safe face mask disposal protocols

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Learners run to back to class after break time at Star of Hope Primary School in Lunga Lunga, Nairobi. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NMG

Summary

  • Masks pose a dual risk — environmental and health — and must be handled as per the Environmental Management and Coordination Act (EMCA) and Ministry of Health (MoH) medical waste management protocols.
  • This will definitely be costly for a school as it involves obtaining infectious waste handlers, bin liners, disinfecting waste before disposal and waste segregation.
  • The government closed all learning institutions shortly after announcing Kenya’s first Covid-19 case in March.

As Kenya prepares for full reopening of schools in 2021 after closure due to Covid-19, sustainable medical waste disposal practices and infrastructure will be needed to avoid the risks of contamination from face masks to learners, teachers and other staff.

Before Covid-19 struck, Kenya was already reeling under the weight of its waste burden due to poor public attitudes and practices, lack of technology, inadequate financing and poor infrastructure.

According to Ministry of Environment and Forestry’s National Sustainable Waste management policy 2019, the country generates an estimated 22,000 tons of waste per day or eight million tonnes annually. Additional medical waste such as surgical masks will only exacerbate the situation.

DUAL RISK

Masks pose a dual risk — environmental and health — and must be handled as per the Environmental Management and Coordination Act (EMCA) and Ministry of Health (MoH) medical waste management protocols. This will definitely be costly for a school as it involves obtaining infectious waste handlers, bin liners, disinfecting waste before disposal and waste segregation.

The government closed all learning institutions shortly after announcing Kenya’s first Covid-19 case in March. Since then, the country has joined the rest of the world in grappling with normalising learning amid spiralling infections and deaths.

In the recent past, Kenya has experienced an unprecedented speed and scale in the upsurge of Covid-19 cases as the second wave of the pandemic sweeps across the country. T

o date, it has recorded more than 69,000 cases and 1,200 deaths. In the last one week alone, Kenya has reported about 4,900 new cases and numerous deaths, including over 20 healthcare workers, from the pandemic.

This worsening situation has prompted the Ministry of Health to ramp up its campaign for adherence to Covid-19 guidelines. However, the Ministry of Education has indicated that despite the spike in cases, schools will remain open for three classes recalled last month and preparations are underway for a full re-opening on January 4, 2021.

There is a stronger push to have people wear face masks and learners will be expected to have their own masks, whether reusable, or disposable. Regardless of which kind of masks, the volume of masks to be used in schools will be enormous.

According to UNESCO, there are about 25 million learners from pre-primary to tertiary level of education.

If all were to use only one disposable surgical face mask in a day, that will translate into over 125 million masks a week, contributing to the growing infectious waste as a result of Covid-19 pandemic. This, of course, does not take into account masks used by teachers and other support staff in schools.

UNSAFE DISPOSAL

Currently, there are millions of contaminated face masks likely to become infectious across the country. As the numbers increase, with the rising cases of Covid-19, unsafe disposal of face masks will soon become a health and environmental hazard. The effect on learners, where the most usage is expected once schools fully reopen, is unimaginable.

Despite the potential consequences, the government has not put in place elaborate guidelines for the disposal of face masks. The current situation is pathetic with masks littering every corner of the streets.

The situation in schools is likely to be even worse. Kenyan schools, especially those in the rural areas, do not have adequate capacity to manage solid waste. In most cases, learners are responsible for cleaning the compound, including picking of litter, often without any protective gear such as gloves, boots, and aprons.

As a matter of urgency, the Ministry of Health, in conjunction with the Ministry of Education, should not only come up with elaborate guidelines and safety measures for proper medical waste management in schools and for the public but also constantly monitor compliance and institutionalisation of policies. These include the disposal of face masks, tissue used for cough and sneezing and used cleaning materials.

Learners should be made aware of the potential risks, the infectious nature of these wastes and how they should be handled. Where possible, they should be segregated and procedurally handled.

WASTE INFRASTRUCTURE

Institutionalising sustainable practices, proper capacity building, knowledge transfer and basic waste infrastructure will ensure that learners are safe from infections that might come from mishandling of face masks.

A lasting solution, however, is to come up with an elaborate regulatory framework, at national and county levels, toward disposal of solid medical waste, not only those resulting from Covid-19.

Mbullo is a PhD candidate at Northwestern University, USA. Onunga is an educator