Hanoi trash collectors brave streets as coronavirus curbs human traffic

By Duong Hien Nga   March 13, 2020 | 04:52 pm PT
Removing garbage from locked-down Truc Bach Street, Hue felt her blood freeze knowing the risk she was taking.

Le Thi Hue, 29, struggled to recall if she had been to house No.125, home of Vietnam’s 17th Covid-19 patient.

During eight years working on Truc Bach street, she had never felt as ‘unlucky’ as now. "Sister, the epidemic has arrived in Truc Bach," Hue told her supervisor in a phone call. At the other end of the line, Pham Thi Xim, 37, deputy leader of Urban Environment Company Team 1, broke out in a sweat.

Since March 7, 2020, Pham Thi Xim has worked outside the isoloted Truc Bach Street. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Nga.

Pham Thi Xim has worked right outside isolated Truc Bach Street since March 7, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Nga.

Xim could not sleep after local authorities confirmed the capital’s first Covid-19 infection on March 6. In over 15 years working as a street cleaner on Truc Bach Street in Ba Dinh district, she knows every resident, newborn baby and caregiver in the area.

However, Xim could not recall if she had come in contact with "patient 17" and whether or not she was carrying the virus.

Thinking about her scared colleagues, her children and husband, a delivery man in Hanoi’s Dong Xuan Market, Xim grew increasingly worried.

Leaving her home on Yen Vien Street, Gia Lam District, at 4 a.m. on Saturday, she traveled 11 kilometers to work. "Though my heart refused to go, my feet obliged."

At work, Xim doubled up on her mask, uniform and gloves, making sure to add an extra layer of each.

The isolated street had never been as bustling, she recalled, with residents rushing to nearby Chau Long Market to stockpile supplies.

On Cua Bac Street, 100 meters from Truc Bach, several pho restaurants were discarding their soup, meant for supposed weekend customers.

Xim, not wanting to miss out, told her husband to bulk up on instant noodles while her brother, traveling from northern Thai Binh Province and picking up her children, brought along 5 chickens, 3 kilograms of pork, 20 kilograms of rice and abundant supply of vegetables. 

At 9 a.m., she was called on to lead a team of medical waste workers into the isolated area.

Near a checkpoint at the entrance to the street, food was being distributed while medical staff checked the body temperatures of each resident.

Joining the team distributing waste bags, sanitizing powder and spray, a touched Xim was also given sanitizer and food. "I give you this bottle so you can be safer while working," a local officer told Xim.

Xim’s 17 member team works three shifts per day. Previously, their greatest fear was collecting used syringes at public parks and bus stops. Now, the novel coronavirus proved a more formidable threat.

"The night shift included 12 staff, but five asked to stay at home on March 7 due to fear," Xim recalled.

Cleaner on Truc Bach Street received more protective equipment on March 9, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Phan Duong.

Truc Bach cleaners are handed protective gear on March 9, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Phan Duong.

A day later, company representatives and local medical staff informed the team about the effects of Covid-19 and necessary counter measures.

Swathed in protective clothing, while given sanitizer and mouthwash, each member had their body temperatures checked before and after every shift.

"None of us had contact with 'patient 17'," said team leader Le Minh Thinh, adding they were all aware of how the virus is transmitted and of how to protect themselves.

Knowing they faced only a minor risk of infection, Thinh still asked to be tested to put her teammates at ease.

Xim never lets her guard down. On March 10, she went to bed with a fresh face mask after telling her husband to sleep in another room.

Hanh (L) and her colleagues push the garbage trolley out of an underground garage. Photo by VnExpress/Hai Hien.

Hanh (L) and her colleagues collect garbage from an underground parking lot. Photo by VnExpress/Hai Hien.

Meanwhile, other cleaners also face risks though not working in a confined area.

Wearing two masks, Nguyen Thi Quyen, 53, held her breath while pushing a garbage trolley out from an underground garage with the help of two colleagues.

Before the Lunar New Year break (from January 23-29), Quyen worked in an outdoor area. When Covid-19 broke out in Vietnam, some of her colleagues quit while she was relocated to an underground facility.

On her first day, Quyen threw up right after opening the underground waste bin. A farmer for over three decades, she never imagined leaving her village to become a street cleaner.

The African swine fever virus laid waste to her farm, causing Quyen damages of VND100 million ($4,300) and forcing her into a job as a cleaner in Xuan Phuong Ward of Nam Tu Liem District.

She has adopted several measures to protect herself from the coronavirus.

Quyen now dons one medical and one cloth mask simultaneously. She also bought a pair of cloth gloves to wear over her rubber outers. She washes her clothes carefully with hot water and dries them thoroughly each day.

"We were told to clean our hands regularly and avoid touching our faces. We wear gloves and bring sanitizer to work," Quyen explained her lack of fear.

Hanh, 48, is more careful. She uses sanitizer every 15 minutes and hardly takes off her masks.

Working at a residential building over six months, Hanh is another newcomer to underground life.

Her first several days were a nightmare. Sometimes, while cleaning out a waste bin, people would throw garbage right onto her head. She had to eventually throw her jacket away because of the smell.

To combat the Covid-19, Hanh wears two masks and sprays the sanitizer on her clothes before each shift "to kill all the viruses."

"I recently attended a wedding party with a mask, and everyone stared at me as if I was an alien," she recalled, adding she is not embarrassed to protect herself.

"In the age of epidemics, we have to protect ourselves if we want to survive. This counts for others as well as," the cleaner declared.

Vietnam has recorded 31 new novel coronavirus patients in the last five days, bringing the total to 47, 16 of whom were discharged weeks ago. 

The Covid-19 outbreak has thus far spread to 137 countries and territories around the world, killing more than 5,400 people.

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