As The World Comes Together, India’s Transgender Community Fights COVID-19 Alone
1 April 2020 1:24 pm
We speak to the transgender community to understand how they are fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and how can the state be more inclusive in its response. Amnesty International India with the transgender community also released an appeal to Chief Ministers of States and UTs in India to take action to provide relief to the community. Read the appeal here.
Written by Nayantara Raja, Prerna Waghela and Fatema Diwan
On 26 March 2020, two days after the nationwide lockdown was announced to contain the spread of COVID-19, the Minister of Finance, Nirmala Sitharaman announced a stimulus package of close to INR 1.7 Lakh Crore (approx. USD 22 billion). The package included specific measures for vulnerable groups – those below poverty line, the disabled, widowed and older persons, daily-wage earners and farmers – but left out a targeted response for the 490,000 members (Census 2011) of the transgender community.
Except Kerala, which has announced relief kits for 1,000 transgender persons registered in the state, so far no other state or the central government scheme includes specific protection measures for the community in its COVID-19 response strategy.
Amnesty International India speaks to members of the transgender community to know how they are dealing with the crisis.
“Any life is life. When it comes to food, when it comes to 2-3 square meals a day, I don’t think it should matter who is male, female or transgender.” – Vyjayanti, Researcher and Rights activist
Transgender persons, most of whom are daily-wage earners feel just as stranded and helpless as migrant workers who are walking back home. The lockdown has made it impossible for them to continue their daily work of Basti Badhai* and left those who relied on begging in a worse situation. For most who are disowned by their biological families, going back home is also not an option. Within the transgender community, the panic does not only come from the threat of contracting COVID-19, but also from fear of inaccessibility of daily food, medicines, shelter and other essential services.
There are many transgender persons who have been able to challenge the cycle of institutional bias to pursue medicine, law and even politics. However, as a result of decades of structural discrimination, exclusion and violence, a majority of the community continues to depend on begging, offering blessings during traditional celebrations in exchange of alms and doing sex work to earn a living. After the lockdown, their work has come to a grinding halt along with their daily income.
Speaking to Amnesty International India, Vyjayanti, a trans-activist said, “The starvation has already started. There are trans-people who have been starving now for the past 2-3 days or whose food provisions will get over in another few days. In the cities, starvation has already begun. If it has not reached the villages, it will soon.”
For Salma Khan who runs the Kinner Ma Trust for transgender persons in Mumbai and delivers rations and basic amenities to those in need on the 4th of each month, the struggle is to reach people amidst the lockdown. “We don’t know how to reach out to help people, we don’t even know where to get ration supplies to distribute to them,” she says.
With no savings to their name, transgender individuals would have to find some way to survive this pandemic which may push them further to the margins. Vqueeram, who is a researcher at the Centre for Law and Policy Research in Bengaluru says,
“In cases of insufficient money, there are people who will have to continue to rely on sex work or begging on the streets in order to survive which means their situation does not allow them to stay in isolation.”
The lack of information by the state is causing further panic, as most of them do not know where their next meal will come from. “We need information on where can one go get food without getting beaten up on the street? Where can one get drinking water?” asks Vqueeram.
“The worry is, should transgender people even go to public hospitals, most of which are converted into quarantine zones and expose themselves to the virus? And will hospitals which are already under-staffed and over-worked prioritize giving Antiretroviral Therapy in the current situation?” – Rohan Mathews, Clinic Manager, Samarth Clinic, Bengaluru
Accessing medicines is a looming fear among the community amidst the present pandemic. Incidents of patients being unable to find transport to go to the hospital or being stopped by the police have already been reported. The community also worries that the transgender persons suffering from HIV may not be able to access the Antiretroviral Therapy or ART and hormone therapy. An already overburdened healthcare system may affect their access to essential medical services that sometimes involves a doctor to administer it and delaying sex-reassignment surgeries.
Add to that the fear that years of discrimination in the healthcare system has instilled in the community. Activists point at the need to create more inclusive spaces, like special testing centres or quarantine units that members from the transgender community would feel safe to access and use for self-isolation, in case of infection.
“A transgender person is more likely to ignore their symptoms than seek medical help due to the fear of being discriminated at a local hospital,” adds Rohan.
“This journey to fight out transphobia or cissexism has been a mixed experience. Certain community members, who can easily be counted on fingers, are able to live with positive experiences but the majority continues to experience bad behaviour, name calling, violence, and irrational fear.” – Prerna Waghale, Activist and Volunteer, Amnesty International India.
The transgender community has always borne the brunt of stigma and discrimination. The pandemic has further heightened the transphobia. It was recently reported from Hyderabad that hate posters were stuck on metro pillars warning that those who speak to transgender persons will catch COVID-19. This kind of hate-mongering and spread of fake information has led to housing complexes asking transgender persons to move out of their rented homes. It is also eerily similar to the oft-believed notion that linked transgender persons to the spread of HIV/AIDS.
The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act enacted in 2019 despite heavy criticism from the community has lined up further legal and medical barriers for transgender persons to access their identities. In contravention of the 2014 NALSA judgment by the Supreme Court of India and international human rights law, the highly flawed legislation does not allow transgender persons to self-identify themselves. Instead, it lays out a vague bureaucratic procedure to be followed for legal gender recognition.
Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju who is a medical student and trans-activist believes that the existing legal framework unjustly links accessing resources with one’s identity.
“Transgender people don’t have access to Aadhar cards, ration cards, PAN card or a lot of identity documents that might allow you to access basic facilities,” shares Trinetra.
It is not just identities, the legislation focuses on blood relations or court-mandated families completely ignoring the Hijra households where many transgender persons find refuge and shelter. This leaves them under lockdown in homes which may be abusive or do not respect their identities.
“The Act’s problematic provision of not recognising a chosen family and giving importance instead to one’s biological family makes transgender persons who may be confined to their homes amidst the lockdown even more vulnerable,” adds Trinetra.Credit: Rohan Mathews, Samarth Clinic
“The ability to find information on the internet or the ability to call a doctor to talk about your symptoms or access to masks is a luxury when it comes to the community,” – Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju, Medical Student and Activist.
While various non-governmental organisations are distributing masks and sanitizers to community members, there is a lack of information on its use, importance and measures that they can take to be safe from COVID-19. Rohan recommends that the state must use the activist or community networks to ensure information reaches the most vulnerable in the community in vernacular languages and in a way that they understand, instead of simply dumping information in a top-down manner.
“All the information and amenities that the community has is sourced from local activists. It is based on access to WhatsApp groups and translations that people are doing by sending voice notes in vernacular languages. All the work that the state should be doing is being done by friends and communities members. If you don’t have access to these WhatsApp groups, if you don’t have access to community members who are well informed you are going to suffer,” says VQueeram,
Meanwhile, Vyajanti is concerned about the applicability of the protective measures, which the government has recommended. She says, “Most transgender people like daily wage labourers may not have access to enough water to wash hands and wash clothes. Also, this principle of physical distancing is a luxury.”
This luxury is physically and financially impossible for millions of other marginalized groups too raising questions on the current government’s familiarity with India’s reality.
While, as always, the more privileged members of the community have stepped up to help those in distress, activists on the ground are asking for targeted interventions by the state. This includes calls for provision of basic food, medicines, masks etc, information at the grassroots on safety measures, access to inclusive healthcare facilities and personnel who are sensitized to transgender persons in order to ensure that their medical services are not hampered. Most importantly, they urge the government to reach out or at least take efforts to reach out to every single member of the community through community networks with relief and safety measures.
In Vqueeram’s words, “it is important to have access to resources in a dignified manner because dignity is as important as food”.
As we fight a global pandemic, we must prioritize communities that have faced historical discrimination in accessing services. We must understand that till every single one of us is safe, no one can truly be safe.
*Basti Badhai is a traditional source of livelihood among transgender and intersex community, wherein they give their blessings for any celebrations among families, such as births, marriages etc.
If you’d like to support the transgender community in these difficult times, consider donating to the following community-run fundraisers:
Featured image credit: PTI
Nayantara Raja is the Campaigner for Gender and Identity-based Violence, Prerna Waghela is a Transgender Activist and Volunteer and Fatema Diwan is the Communications Officer at Amnesty International India.