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The pandemic, as with other health crises, is exposing existing inequalities and disproportionately affecting people already criminalized, marginalized and living in precarious health and economic situations, often outside social protection mechanisms. As sex workers and their clients self-isolate, sex workers are finding themselves unprotected, increasingly vulnerable and unable to provide for themselves and their families.
In Ecuador, the Colectivo Flor De Azalea the Association of Women Sex Workers has highlighted the sudden lack of support and access to basic services that sex workers face. We take to the streets with great fear and we are afraid of being violated.
We do not have money for food, rent, medicine; health services are closed. As sex workers report interruptions to condom supplies owing to the pandemic, sex workers living with HIV say they are losing access to essential medicines as well. For prevention commodities, it is hard to reach them. With sex work criminalized in almost every country, sex workers are also more vulnerable to punitive measures linked to the enforcement of COVID regulations. Increased policing can expose sex workers to more harassment and violence, and in several countries has already led to home raids, compulsory COVID testing and the arrest and threatened deportation of migrant sex workers.
For those who are driven to the streets by homelessness, as has become the case for many brothel and migrant sex workers, the lack of support means little safety or means to follow through on government requirements. The criminalization of sex work in most countries also poses particular challenges for accessing government support. Even in countries where sex work is legalized to some degree, many sex workers are finding that the system of benefits extended to workers in the formal sector does not include them.
This is the case in Germany, for example, where sex workers highlight the barriers to accessing support for anyone living outside of the system. As the global crisis deepens, sex workers are increasingly faced with the difficult choice of isolation with no income or support or working at a risk to their own health and safety.