Sex workers lack food for taking HIV drugs and are targeted by police during COVID-19

Source (institute/publication)

AP News has published a report on the impact of food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic on sex workers living with HIV. Speaking with sex workers and organisations from Rwanda and Zimbabwe, the article highlights the multiple ways that the current crisis is affecting those who do not have access to government support schemes.

Studies have shown that food insecurity is a barrier to taking the [HIV] drugs daily and can decrease their efficacy, affecting not only sex workers but anyone where food — or the money to buy it — is scarce.

Among sex workers in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, “most who are living hand-to-mouth have been lamenting that it’s making it difficult to adhere to treatment,” said Talent Jumo, director of the Katswe Sistahood, an organization for sexual and reproductive health.

That’s a danger as many sex workers around the world are excluded from countries’ social protection programs during the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and elsewhere wrote in a new commentary for The Lancet.

“Sex workers are among the most marginalized groups,” they wrote, adding that “it is crucial that disruption to health services does not further reduce access to HIV treatment.”

This news is particuarly concerning after reports that people living with HIV are more than twice as likely to die with COVID-19. 

Sex workers are not only being excluded from government support, endangering their health and wellbeing, but they are also being actively targeted by local authorities and police. UNAIDS released a statement in June on the targeting of sex workers in Cameroon during the pandemic.

Denise Ngatchou, Executive Director of Horizons Femmes, a nongovernmental organization that helps vulnerable women, said she was shocked to see how sex workers suddenly became a target.

“Police arrested and held women, disclosing zero information,” she said. “We felt powerless because the government had the upper hand with all the COVID-19 measures.”

“Easing laws against sex work and ending arbitrary arrests of sex workers would really make an impact,” she said.

In early April, NSWP and UNAIDS released a joint statement on the particular hardships and concerns facing sex workers globally. The statement called for countries to ensure the respect, protection and fulfilment of sex workers’ human rights, but since then there is little evidence to suggest that governments are ensuring that this happens.