For a country with relatively low COVID-19 cases per capita for the majority of 2020, Cambodia did not have to worry too much about the medical waste that came from its hospitals. However, proper disposal of medical waste has become a challenge for the country since its sharp increase in COVID-19 cases this year – with cases seating at 30,094 as of June 1. The surge in cases has put immense pressure on medical waste management disposal facilities, especially in Phnom Penh.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the need for adequate infrastructure or sufficiently advanced technologies for waste management and recycling medical waste management. The three medical waste facilities in Phnom Penh handles all the medical waste from hospitals and healthcare centres within the city. With rising daily COVID-19 cases, there is a need to ensure that medical waste is not contaminating the environment and causing the spread of other diseases in the future.

Some waste cannot go to landfills or to energy plants because they require much higher temperatures to destroy pathogens that may have contaminated the materials. But what happens when there is an increase in medical waste that the facility can handle? This is the dilemma of the landfill site in Phnom Penh’s Dangkor district. With only two incinerators, the facility is struggling under the heavy load of medical waste dropped daily.

According to a recent interview with Nguon Sokheng and his team that manages the site, the amount of medical waste has climbed from 2 tons to 20 tons per day, a rise due to increasing daily COVID-19 cases from hospitals and health centres across the city. Concerns about protective gear, the tedious work involved, and the lack of available workers have been raised as significant hurdles. It is therefore important that these workers are supported and that they have access to the necessary equipment to ensure the proper management of medical waste.

In fostering its commitment to Cambodia, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), with the support of the Chinese Government, has launched a comprehensive response in addressing infectious medical waste in Phnom Penh and has committed to providing medical waste management equipment to workers working in the three medical waste management facilities around the city. Under the project, Sokheng and his team will have access to equipment such as PPE’s, washing machines, steam sterilizers, and reusable containers, to mention a few. This response will bring some relief to workers in this field as they work tirelessly in ensuring the safety of everyone and the environment.

The new initiative is expected to lay the foundation for a sustainable medical waste management system not only under COVID-19 conditions but also beyond. “This project comes at a critical time for Cambodia. Ensuring the country’s urban centers can safely and effectively handle the treatment of medical waste during the pandemic is a key part of continued efforts to control the spread of the virus and its impact on Cambodia and its people,” said Nick Beresford, UNDP’s Resident Representative. UNDP aims to introduce a sustainable and secure medical waste management approach, as well as advance capabilities of stakeholders in the medical waste management system to better respond to the rising amounts of hazardous medical waste during crises.

Written by: Jemimah Ogundele, International Intern at UNDP Cambodia's Communications Unit

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