Krishna Das, a rag picker, was cleaning rags with bare hands at the Almas Cinema Hall area in Chattogram city on Thursday.
He did not have a mask, gloves or gumboots for his protection.
However, he was cleaning masks thrown by people along with other rags.
Like Krishna, 3,586 conservancy workers, including rag pickers, cleaners, sewer workers and scavengers, are constantly working to keep the city clean.
They dispose of the garbage at Chattogram City Corporation's dumping yards in Halishahar Anandabazar and Arefin Nagar.
However, they are doing so without following any personal protective measure. This happens while the six million dwellers of the city are staying home to protect themselves against coronavirus infection.
Around 2,000 workers collect garbage from door to door while others clean city roads and drain and pick rags from dumping yards.
Krishna said, "We have no vacation. We have to clean the city every day. We are also worried about being infected with the coronavirus but the city corporation did not give us anything except a mask."
This correspondent visited different areas of the city and found these workers were working without gloves, gumboots or masks whilst sweeping city streets, picking rags or cleaning drains.
Every day, six million city dwellers produce about 2,500 tonnes of waste in Chattogram. This includes around 11 to 15 tonnes of medical waste coming from 300 medical hospitals and labs.
Harijans shackled to unskilled work
A low-caste Hindu community, the Harijan, migrated to or were brought to East Bengal by the British rulers in the early 1900s to do menial jobs related mainly to cleaning.
Due to lack of personal protective measures in workplace, they face premature death and most of them die of lung and liver diseases, respiratory complications and cancer.
Their average life expectancy is 39 years compared to that of others in Bangladesh, which is 72 years.
To this day, they remain enslaved to menial cleaning jobs for their livelihoods.
There are about 8,000 Harijans in Chattogram, while there are over 1.2 million of them across the country.
Physicians and experts say the coronavirus has rendered them more vulnerable to infection as they have no personal protection.
Professor Dr Iftekhar Uddin Chowdhury, former vice-chancellor of Chattogram University and a researcher on the Harijan community, told The Business Standard, "As they are working under the city corporation, the latter must ensure their safety for the sake of the city dwellers."
The city corporation should provide them with hand sanitisers, handwash, masks and personal protective equipment, he said.
"The city corporation should also divide them in groups. If one group gets infected, it can put another group to work.
"Moreover, they may bear the virus. So, they should be under regular scanning," added Iftekhar.
Sarala Das, a garbage collector, said, "We have to go from door to door to collect garbage. But we do not know the door behind which the virus awaits us."
Dr Aniruddha Gosh, professor of Medicine Department at Chattogram Medical College Hospital, said conservancy workers suffer from various infections because of unsafe workplace.
He said working without the necessary safety equipment at this time will increase their risk of getting infected.
They also live in dirty and densely populated areas, Aniruddha said, adding that an infected person can spread the virus to many.
"The people who keep our city clean are always neglected. We should pay attention to their safety too," added the physician.
Chattogram City Corporation health department has asked the conservancy department to provide personal protective equipment to the conservancy workers.
But the latter said it could not provide the workers with enough protective gears due to insufficient budget.
"The garbage they are cleaning may be thrown away by a coronavirus infected person. And as they are exposing themselves to it while cleaning it without safety equipment, they risk infection," explained Dr Selim Akhter Chowdhury, chief health officer of Chattogram City Corporation.
"From our health department we have recommended to give them all safety equipment, including personal protective equipment," he said.
However, Shafiqul Mannan Siddique, chief conservancy officer at the Chattogram City Corporation, told The Business Standard the conservancy workers had been provided with some masks.
"We cannot give them other equipment like sanitisers and personal protective equipment right now because there is not enough budget," he said.
However, we are working on how we can give them all the protective equipment, added Shfiqul.