Covid-19 lockdown puts trans community in a spot
Urmi Jadhav, 40, has been working for 18 years in the financial capital of the country, Mumbai. A community aid organiser for the transgender community, as well as a member of the troupe, Dancing Queens, which recently performed at a popular Delhi nightclub located in a five star hotel, Jadhav has no nest egg: neither a mutual fund portfolio or a medical insurance policy.
“For the past two years, I’ve worked as a consultant as and when projects come my way. So, my income has been erratic. I don’t have money for emergencies. Whatever I earn, I spend in essentials like rent, or food, or medicines.”
At present, Jadhav has enough money to pay this month’s rent. Her income for April was supposed to come from five dance shows that her troupe was slated to perform in Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai. All shows have been cancelled on account of the coronavirus global pandemic, and the national lockdown announced on March 24.
In an effort to prevent the spread of Sars-CoV-2, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday appealed to all citizens to stay inside their homes till April 14. Already, India has recorded 13 deaths and 649 cases; globally, a lockdown is being seen as the most effective way of breaking the chain of transmitting the virus.
Yet, for many members of the transgender community, the lockdown has specific implications on livelihood and access to medicines like Anti Retroviral Treatment (ART) for Persons living with the Human Immuno Virus (HIV)/Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) or PLHIVs, and those undergoing Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) required for gender transitioning. India is home to the world’s third largest population living with HIV, and according to UNAIDS, the prevalence in transgender communities is 3.1% compared to .26% among all adults. What’s more, given their immuno-compromised state, this makes the HIV+ trans community even more vulnerable to Covid-19.
Dr Ishwar Prasad Gilada, a consultant on HIV/AIDS based in Mumbai, said that the biggest problem being faced by PLHIVs is procurement of medicines from ART centres private clinics. “We cannot postpone their medicines. If they don’t take medicines properly, they become HIV drug-resistant, which means the same medicine won’t work for them.”
According to Gilada, who has been studying the virus since its outbreak in the 1980s, there are limited therapeutic options available to HIV, which was once a global pandemic killing millions around the world. Drug resistance would mean that mortality and morbidity associated with the disease will increase.
Though the lockdown is a necessary step, Gilada said that as a result of it, “supply of medicines may get derailed, mainly due to lack of transport as well as lack of labour / employees involved in the supply chain across different sectors.”
While it is advisable to keep a month’s supply of ART drugs, many cannot afford to, said Chandramukhi, 30, a Hyderabad-based trans rights activist. Part of that reason is that their livelihood has taken a hit due to the pandemic and the national lockdown. According to one study, more than 87% of transpersons are dependent on traditional forms of livelihood like ‘badhai’ — earning money by giving blessings during private celebrations — begging and sex work; all have come to a stop, community members said.
“There are over 52 transwomen who I am in touch with. Several of them are in need of their Anti Retroviral Treatment (ART) medicines. Besides ART medication, persons with HIV/Aids should have healthy food, especially protein. Many of the people I’ve spoken to don’t earn enough money to stock up on supplies. Some don’t even have rice left in their house,” said Chandramukhi.
Many are in need of medical care after having undergone gender affirmation surgery recently. “Doctors aren’t being allowed to travel to administer care. They need injections, medical gauze, cotton, and antibiotics, but none of it is reaching them right now,” she said.
Telangana declared a lockdown earlier this week with the chief minister K Chandrashekar Rao saying that shoot-at-sight orders may be given if people disobey the lockdown.
Soumya Gupta, a trans rights activist based in Delhi cited Kerala — which announced on Wednesday that it would provide free provision kits comprising rice, pulses, and cooking oil, among other things, to transpersons — as an instance of a government-run scheme that could benefit the community if rolled out nationally. Several members of the community on Wednesday also sent an appeal to the government to ensure that they are provided basic provisions, as their livelihood has taken a hit.
A 22-year-old transwoman based in Noida, who did not wish to divulge her identity, said while she earns money through sex work, she was attending a government-run skills development programme this past month in the hope that she would get a steady source of employment. However, her three-month long course was cut short because of the coronavirus pandemic. Her father is a daily wage worker, while her mother is a domestic worker.
“Both of them have been home for the past week, and money is running out,” she said.
Shivraj (who goes by his first name), a 22-year-old transman from Odisha, joined a skill development course meant specifically for members of the trans community run by the National Backward Classes Financial Development Corporation, an arm of the ministry of social justice and empowerment. The course aimed to impart training that would help the participants get jobs as retail sales associates. However, the one-and-a-half-month long course was cut short on March 20, following the pandemic. Of the 13 participants, eight are from out of town and cannot head back.
Shaman Gupta, co-chair at Tweet Foundation, a Delhi-based community organisation that aided the government in conducting the training, fears that with the economic slowdown imminent, most would not be able to get placements in companies.
“After the training, I was hoping I would get a job, and I would save money to transition. The job market is tough, and it’s not easy for a transman to get employment,” said Shivraj. “I’m living on hope.”