Covid-19: The Inequality in Privilege

As the world delves deeper into the pandemic, the vulnerable community of sex workers are left without income and are at a higher risk of contracting the virus.

Isolation has been difficult for all of us. And although the challenges might be different, living in this new world only gets stranger by the day. While the whole world goes through puzzles, Tiger King, sourdough bread and whipped dalgona coffee frenzy, for many, such privileges are a luxury that they can no longer afford. In this unprecedented time where a lot of people have lost jobs and their income, few now fear eviction and starvation. One such vulnerable population is the sex workers.

As the UK rolled out its furlough scheme to help people retain jobs, sex workers were automatically barred from the support fund. Although the UK has over 72,000 sex workers, prostitution is still illegal in the country. Whereas in Canada, organisations against human trafficking have been denied funding in the wake of the pandemic. In multiple places, government assistance to sex workers and anti-trafficking organisations have been low and far in between and for some countries, there has been no assistance at all.

Brothels around the world are witnessing a reduction in customers or complete closure due to the ongoing pandemic. This has led to a loss of income and increased the possibility of homelessness and starvation among sex workers. In the months following lockdown, countries like India have fallen behind in providing resources to sex workers. It is particularly concerning as often these women in developing areas live in close quarters and derelict conditions along with several other members creating a hot spot for the virus to spread. In these situations, contact tracing has also become extremely difficult as well.

Anti-sex trafficking activist, Ruchira Gupta working in India found: “In some areas, with schools and businesses closed, as many as 11 people are living in a small room, with no fresh air and food. Savings are bleeding out and many had to even sell pieces of jewellery. Some are even contemplating suicide.” Virtually every business gaining from the sex-trade industry — including strip clubs, nail salons, massage parlours, escorting services and brothels — has shut down as per governments’ ban of non-essential contacts across the globe. Left without healthcare and economic assistance from the government in most countries, the workers are more susceptible to not only contract the virus but are also at a higher risk of being trafficked. Add to that sexual violence and abuse for not making enough money to cover nightly quotas.

“Isolation is not good for anybody. Even though the survivors can talk to their counsellors, the case manager, the support team and their mentor online or through phone or text, that reduction of human interaction is needed. It has emotional and psychological effects on all of us, especially those dealing with trauma.,” explains Hannah Arrowood, the founder of Present Age Ministries, a non-profit organization combating trafficking and sexual abuse.Lack of government assistance, a gap in trauma treatment and addiction support have led to most human trafficking rehabilitation centres, traumatologists, outreach supporters and mental health educators worrying about the already stretched resources.

Soho walkups and massage parlours remains closed since April | Image Credit: Kuheli Biswas

As lockdown commenced, every one had to go online, even the survivors of trafficking. “The young girls we are helping already live in a world that is so digitised and as we move online, the risk of online grooming and susceptibility to recruitment increases by a lot,” says Arrowood.

For an industry worth over $150 billion, traffickers never rest, even in times of a pandemic. Even before the lockdown across various countries, FAST estimates that about 1.7 billion people lacked safe financing and are extremely vulnerable to financial shocks. These vulnerable demographics’ need for a job to survive surpasses their concern of safety, making them an easy target for traffickers and loan sharks offering low-interest rates.

Dr. Aman Kumar, a research scholar on modern slavery and human trafficking from India recount: “A 14 years old child was sent to work in a restaurant. The trafficker approached the parents with a promise of monthly income. Both the parents were dependent on the money, which was regularly sent by the restaurant owner.” In situations like this, rescuers are often unable to intervene according to child labour laws in India, which allows children above the age of 14 to work. This makes it hard to identify a child as a victim of trafficking if the parents, the employers and the child themselves are not willing to admit foul play. Even though Dr. Kumar’s case occurred before the pandemic, the risk of extreme poverty and loss of jobs caused by the pandemic will only increase the risk of such labour trafficking in the coming months.

Due to the pandemic, a lot of NGOs are facing difficulties in implementing their strategies to help women that are planning to exit the sex industry. One such person is Tracy Eudy Minchin: “Because of the lockdowns, we are unable to go and interact with the women trying to exit the sex industry. And the problem is disruption can make us lose their attention and interest to move forward with a plan. We want to be the dominant positive point in these women’s lives and when we are not, it leaves an open door for all those other influences to come back.”

The times are challenging and the terms for survivors of trafficking and sex workers are worse. As lockdown continues, lack of face-to-face counseling services and support groups have aggravated the existing shortage of housing and substance abuse therapy. Even though countries are experiencing a drop in crime rate due to restrictions and heavy police presence on the streets, the same cannot be said of crimes such as trafficking and violence against people involved in the sex trade.

But, like everything else, there is a silver lining. As countries increased their cross-border cooperation to stop the spread of the virus among the general population, it became an effective measure to combat cross-country trafficking. As for sex workers, activists and supporters such as Gupta, Minchin and Arrowood are stepping forward every day to help people access the necessities safely.

First published on 15th May, 2020.

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