At the end of February, the second case of COVID-19 was documented in an African country. Since then, the disease has spread to every region, resulting in nearly 32,000 confirmed cases and around 1,400 deaths.
Sex workers in Senegal, in western Africa, are struggling within the context of the pandemic, which has exposed existing inequalities and disproportionately affects people already criminalised, marginalised and living in financially precarious situations.
And Soppeku – a sex worker-led organisation working to challenge the legal and policy environment in Senegal – reported their experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on local sex workers in NSWP’s COVID-19 Impact Survey.
“With the curfew in Senegal, which starts from 8pm to 6am, the number of clients is very limited. With the state of emergency established, travel between regions is prohibited and, as a result, sex workers who work outside their region of origin in brothels are victims of raids and racketeering from the police.”
In addition to conducting raids on brothels, And Soppeku also reported that the Police are targeting areas known for street sex work. With no positive measures in place for sex workers from the government, sex workers are isolated, targeted, and without support. They face problems accessing essential supplies and must risk police intervention to make money to survive. And Soppeku also reported that sex workers have faced reduced access to HIV treatments, STI screening and treatment, and basic food and hygiene supplies.
“The government has set up an arrangement for the distribution of food and hygiene donations, but these are very minimal and there are not enough.”
To make up for this shortfall, And Soppeku have been distributing supplies to areas of the country.
“Our organization, with the support of the Equality Fund, undertook the distribution of food kits and hygiene kits for members of three regions of Senegal (Dakar, Thies, and Kaolack).”
In early April, two French doctors – Dr Jean-Paul Mira and Dr Camille Locht – spoke about possible coronavirus treatments in a live debate on TV channel LCI. In the debate, Dr Mira asked Dr Locht about the possibility of testing the coronavirus vaccine on Africans saying, "Shouldn't we be doing this study in Africa, where there are no masks, no treatments, no resuscitation?" Mira also added, "A bit like as it is done elsewhere for some studies on AIDS. In prostitutes, we try things because we know that they are highly exposed and that they do not protect themselves.”
The segment illustrated that the two doctors considered the bodies and health of Africans to be not as important as those in the Global North, and Dr Mira’s comments were rightly met with a backlash that included accusations of racism and colonialism. But what about the bodies of sex workers? Almost none of the coverage touched upon their mention in the piece, firmly placing sex workers – and the impact of the current crisis on their health and human rights – even further in the margins.
The rights and immediate needs of sex workers are not only being forgotten during this global pandemic, they are being actively abused and ignored. Experts such as Drs Mira and Locht dehumanise an already marginalised and vulnerable population as they condone using sex workers as guinea pigs. Their comments were aided by the media, which regularly sensationalises and condemns the sex worker community. These open attacks occur as governments turn their backs on the community and leave sex workers to suffer.
And Soppeku’s view, echoed by HIV/AIDS Research and Welfare Centre (HARC) in our focus on Bangladesh, is that sex workers must unite and find community resources to fight back and navigate the current crisis.