‘By no means confronted something like this’: Bengaluru intercourse staff battle in COVID-19 2nd wave
Sex workers in Bengaluru say they were harder hit by the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, although the lockdown is shorter.
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Aamna *, a sex worker from Bengaluru, stares at the rapidly running out ration in her house. Despite some help from NGOs, she says she is struggling to make ends meet. “I am diabetic and have two school children. We have expenses including my children’s education, medication, and house rent. With the lockdown, even the meager amount I earned is gone. An NGO gave us ration and medication, but how long can we survive on the limited ration? ”She asks.
The second wave of the severe COVID-19 pandemic hit Bengaluru and affected the livelihoods of many. The Karnataka government announced a lockdown on April 27th, which has now been extended to June 21st with some easing for some counties including the city of Bengaluru from June 14th. who have seen their income dry up to zero almost overnight. Although NGOs like Sadhana Mahila Sangha have reached out to help distribute dry ration packages, those involved in sex work still have other expenses that are difficult to pay for.
Another city-based sex worker, Revathi *, adds that it was difficult for her to pay the rent because she was out of work. “I am also involved in the relief work with Sadhana Mahila Sangha and every time I have visited the women, they tell them how difficult it is to get even two square meters of meals without an income. “Even if we get a dry ration, how are we supposed to cook without access to ovens and gas bottles?” say the women, ”says Revathi.
“I was taken to a Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) hospital, admitted for 14 days and given medication, but since returning home I have not received any calls from them asking about my health. I was also not told how to take care of myself after I returned home, ”Aamna remembers the time when she tested positive for the novel coronavirus in the second wave.
Shagufta * says that in nearly a decade of sex work, she has never seen anything so sad. The lockdown on the second wave was shorter, but the effects it had on us were worse than the first lockdown, she notes. Shagufta, also a trans woman, says the second wave forced many in her community to exhaust the few savings they had.
“Even during the first lockdown we didn’t have as much trouble as we do now. The second lockdown, albeit shorter, had a negative impact on us as we were just starting to make limited money. The lockdown struck again and left us in the lurch. All of this happened at the beginning of the year when we all had commitments to meet. Our electricity, water and other bills still have to be paid, ”she says.
Shagufta adds that trans women typically don’t have many options other than sex work or begging because the state government has no provision for their education or employment opportunities. Meanwhile, Aamna pointed out that many of them also have no formal education and therefore rarely get other jobs.
Mary *, a former sex worker, said she tried to help the sex workers who live around her. A trans woman herself, she says that many women in her community only have two professions – either begging or sex work. With the lockdown, many have difficulty eating two square meals. In addition, their access to health care has been further restricted. She adds, “Two women had a fever and jaundice. We had to walk to almost 15 different hospitals as many were flooded with COVID-19 patients. Although none of us got infected here, the fear remains in the community. “
The Solidarity Foundation – a Bengaluru-based foundation – has made efforts to provide COVID-19 relief to the sexual and gender minorities, including sex workers, in the southern Indian states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu. Pushpa, a freelance journalist and social activist for the foundation, pointed out that members of the gender and sexual minorities are further aloof from society and that many come from rural or semi-urban areas. They also said that the loss of livelihoods was due not only to a lack of physical but also to virtual space, as many did not have access to the internet.
Madhu Bhushan, an activist who worked with and provided aid to the sex worker community, said she received some government aid during the first wave of the pandemic. However, during the second wave, the community did not receive any. “Not only does the community need food aid, it also needs medical help. In the first wave, by order of the court, the government turned to the sex workers through the department for women’s and child development. This year, the same efforts have not been made, nor have any organizations been contacted to help sex workers expand aid packages. Although the government has funds, it has not reached out, ”said Bhushan.
In April 2020, the Karnataka Supreme Court ordered the state government to put in place a mechanism that would help deliver either cooked meals or dry rations to vulnerable parts, including sex workers. However, it later emerged that the relief efforts did not reach the sex workers. According to one report, many women had received no government assistance because many were unaware of the aid programs. In addition, ambiguities were found with government agencies regarding the instruction to extend the assistance. The reluctance of people to identify as sex workers on the basis of social stigmatization and discrimination also led to poor implementation of the aid measures.
“Many are reluctant to refer to themselves as sex workers, which prevents them from getting help. The problem would be solved if the government turned to the organizations that work with sex workers for help,” says Madhu. She adds that if things are not weighed down or stigmatized, things will look good for the community.
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