The outbreak of global pandemic COVID-19 has disrupted our lives in multiple ways and continues to expose challenges beyond healthcare. It has created several socio-economic challenges, deepening pre-existing inequalities, and has been exacerbating the vulnerabilities in social, political, and economic, and legal systems.
The implementation of lockdown measures and policies designed to mitigate socio-economic consequences has disproportionate and discriminatory impacts on marginalized groups, including the transgender community.
Pakistan’s COVID-19 lockdown and restrictive measures have left transgender people at higher risk of hunger and poverty since they work predominantly in informal economies and make their living by begging on the street, sex work, or dancing. They are not socially privileged and well educated to use virtual tools to take benefit from the digital economy.
Apart from the loss of jobs, the lockdown has brought severe social and political implications for transgender persons. According to the National Committee on the Implementation of Pakistan Transgender Persons’ Protection of Rights Act (2018); 100% of trans-persons in Pakistan are experiencing severe impacts on their livelihoods and access to basic needs amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The trans community which was already living a miserable life with access to no or limited economic opportunities and facing social discrimination, the COVID-19 pandemic worsen their situation. Besides, facing a food shortage, they also experienced anxiety and depression without having any support for their health well-being during COVID-19.
Interaction with the transgender community reflects that access to healthcare services was not their only challenge. The lack of social protection and exclusion from government and non-government relief schemes has also increased their financial woes. In some instances, they were evacuated from rented houses as they are unable to pay rents and forced to live in temporary shelters or at their Guru’s Dera wherein sharing a single space largely exposes them to the virus contraction.
Government and non-government stakeholders need to take into account the impact of COVID-19 on marginalized groups such as transgender persons while designing, implementing, and evaluating the measures to mitigate the negative impact of the pandemic on poor strata of the country. It is worth mention here that though the rights of the transgender community have been recognized under 2018, their basic needs have been neglected in the government response to COVID-19.
Across the world including Pakistan, individuals living with HIV are having greater difficulty accessing lifesaving medications either due to the shutdown of health facilities or they were turned into testing and treatment sites for the virus, forcing many to become vulnerable to the infection of coronavirus.
It is necessary to pursue all means – including conducting research, collecting evidence-based data on impacts, public policy, and ensuring access to justice mechanisms – to ensure that this public health emergency will neither exacerbate existing misconceptions, prejudices, inequalities, or structural barriers nor lead to increased violence and discrimination against persons with diverse gender identities. To mitigate the negative impact of lockdown and social distancing on poor people, the government should take a holistic and inclusive approach to address their needs. It must engage with transgender persons, organizations, and communities in the design, implementation, and evaluation of the measures adopted to respond to the pandemic.