The impact of stigma on Indian transgender people during Covid-19

By August 28, 2020 Learning, Newsroom, Regional

Gautam Yadav, India
2017 HIV HERO Awardee

My name is Gautam Yadav and I identify myself as a gay person who is living “positively” with HIV in India.

I strive for the cause of human rights for LGBTQ and PLHIV community across the globe, representing the community voices and key concerns at various international forums.

I am a former board member of UNAIDS Youth Advisory Forum for Asia Pacific, a key correspondent for International HIV/AIDS Alliance, a steering committee member of Young People Living with HIV (Y+), a board member of Youth Lead as well as a core working group member and country focal point for Youth Voices Count.

Currently, I am working with The Humsafar Trust as a NOREC International Fellow and am currently in Kathmandu, Nepal with Blue Diamond Society as a steering committee member of MPACT.

I was also part of The Swedish Institute’s Youth Connectors of the Future Programme which took place in February 2017. That same year I also won a Hero Award—as an HIV activist—handed out by APCOM for my work in the Asia Pacific region. Further more, I facilitated sessions on differentiated service delivery (DSD) models at the International AIDS Society (AIS) in Paris in 2017, and participated in the Global Workshop on DSD for key populations in Cape Town—another IAS conference which took place in January 2018. At the 2018 AIDS Conference in Amsterdam, I took on a role as a plenary speaker.

What was life like before COVID-19 hit your country/home, and service availability for young people in terms of HIV, and LGBTIQ?

Before COVID-19 the service for PLHIV community related to ART treatment was smooth and ‘normal’ as people used to visit the ART center to obtain their medication and take HIV testing. Given the current travel restrictions and lockdowns, the public transport is non active.

Similarly LGBTQ members were visiting CBOs for weekly workshops, counseling services, coming for HIV and STI/STD testing and were following regular routines. Now young people are more vulnerable to get HIV/STI and other infections. On top of that there are limitations regarding access to healthcare services in public hospitals or community clinics.

With the effect of COVID-19 outbreak, how did you respond to this? Can you detail the evolving service needs of young people during lockdown, and how community groups are able to address the issues?

As I mentioned earlier things were pretty normal before the COVID-19, but after the COVID-19 outbreak several marginalised communities got affected and are facing lots of challenges to deal with this during the pandemic. The LGBTQ community is one of them, especially transgender people and sex workers who are badly affected and impacted by this.

In India, transgender people and Hijra are the most affected by social distancing measures as they do not have any source of income or financial support, since they mostly depend on begging and sex work.

Most of them have lost their jobs and are left with no choice. Due to their loss, community members are at risk because of increasing hunger and poverty.

Community based organisations—like The Humsafar Trust—is working on relief work since March 2020, in order to provide assistance to vulnerable LGBTQ+ individuals. Our support consists of providing ration support, financial aid, food and other essential needs, medical support and HIV medicine delivery etc.

Our priority at present, is to address the needs of our community and ensure that support is provided to the communities on the ground that are vulnerable and are at a greater risk of transmitting the virus.

What were the issues that young people in your country/back home experienced during this time? What are the gaps in terms of addressing the issue?

There are many challenges which community members are facing during the pandemic and few of them are very critical. Most of the measures introduced by the government, are focusing on women, senior citizens, and differently able and unable to address the needs of LGBTQ+ individuals. Due to a lack of strong and social support, the community members are more vulnerable to experience poor mental health issues. Therefor it is important to reach out to them and provide support. A key issue that needs to be addressed is PLHIV positives who are facing a lack of access to health care services regarding their health complaints, and procurement regarding regular Anti-HIV medications (ART). Some of the key issues are mentioned below.Lack of livelihood opportunities and loss of jobs.

  1. Access to treatment for everyone and regular follow ups in hospitals.
  2. Lack of financial and mental health support to elderly people—especially those who are staying alone. A sudden increase in access to mental health services.

How have you, staff, and volunteers working for NGOs been able to stay safe from COVID-19?

The only way of keeping everyone safe is social distancing. Also taking proper precautions and following the guidelines from the Ministry of Health and WHO are advisable. Being one of the oldest community care centres, we have slowly started clinic services and operations with limited capacities.

As your country comes out of the lockdown, what services will young people in your country continue to require, and what would you cease, and what would you add?

The immediate need would be availability of the vaccine for communities. Many of us are waiting to get back to our daily lives and jobs, but at the same time we also need to work on awareness campaigns and inform the young people about the involved risks. We can focus on awareness and sensibility sessions regarding our ongoing program, as well as distribution of IEC related to COVID-19.

How has COVID-19 outbreak changed the way that you/your organisation and other NGOs will be working in the future?

Particularly for us it was challenging. We are working on health and on human rights for the LGBTQ communities; and we are implementing a prevention project. Suddenly with COVID-19 taking a priority, we had to focus more on the current situation and address the needs of the communities during the crisis. We do not have expertise in relief work, but now we have a COVID relief initiative—#humsafarfightscovid19—for LGBTQ communities which are currently supporting around 8000+ members in India. Many of our ground activities have shifted to a virtual platform.

In the coming years we are focusing more on the virtual spaces and reimagining the support structures and activities for the communities. The two main areas where our work will be focusing on is mental health support and secondary, an awareness campaign.

What are the worries from your community about the ‘new normal’?

One of the worries regarding the new normal for the community, will be the high risk involved in physical intimacy and trying to make the community understand the practice of safe sex, adding extra precautions. The new normal also includes using mask and sanitisers on a daily basis which is going to be a difficult task to adjust to.

Are there any positive lessons learnt from the effects of COVID-19?

During COVID-19 we have realised that there is a need of community support beyond the regular program which has increased the scope of future needs, and can be part of future initiates and programs.

Anything else you wish to add, please?

In the new “normal” communities are continuing to face stigmatisation and discrimination in various spaces, including healthcare.

There are a few cases from Delhi where trans persons faced discrimination and stigmatisation while accessing services. There was one case where the doctor refused to give a trans woman prescription for a COVID-19 test in a government hospital. Also, one of the private lab staff members ran away when he realised that the patient is a transgender woman. The patient had to reschedule her appointment regarding a sample collection.

One trans woman from Mumbai was kept in a male ward when she was admitted to the hospital for her treatment. There was another rumour spreading in Bangalore which mentioned that transgenders and Hijra are “main carriers” of the COVID-19 virus.

The trans community in Bangalore faces a lot of stigmatisation and ignorance from society. These are just a few examples that clearly state that the stigma around gender identity still exists and local governments have clearly failed to take measures in addressing these challenges.

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