Effect of COVID-19 On Sex Workers

This blog is inscribed by Darshika Rughani.


COVID does not differentiate between rich and poor, no doubt it’s destroying everyone. It has affected almost every section of the society but the most effected section was a marginalized section of the society. Also, we should not forget about the sex workers during this almost invisible pandemic. There are thousands of sex workers living in different cities with nowhere to go. The organization of sex workers have been understood as an agreement between two consenting adults for sexual services. The loss of their income has plunged them into disquiet and deprivation. According to a survey by UNAids, in 2016 India had 657,800 sex workers (approximately)[1] however unofficial figures place it at a higher number, most of them are daily earners and are experiencing hardship and can barely feed themselves or their families.

They are facing enormous problems during this lockdown.

No Social Distancing

The first problem is of social distancing which is the new norm, as the place where sex workers usually live are jam-packed areas where social distancing is not possible. They usually operate in cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata. Mumbai has the largest brothel-based sex industry, with over 15,000 male, female, and transgendered sex workers,[2] especially located in Asia’s largest red-light area Kamathipura. There are around 5000registered sex workers in Delhi[3] and with Kolkata having 65000 workers especially in Sonagachhi area[4]spread over 50 red lights area. Knowing the common modes of transmission of this disease is through respiratory secretions, engaging in any type of sexual activity may increase the chances and every sexual activity involves close contact, therefore, it not possible and also not advisable to any sex workers to work during this pandemic.

Hygiene Issues

The second major problem is the hygiene issues they are facing, sex workers are always vulnerable when it comes to hygiene, as they live in places with no proper access to running water. They barely have kitchens usually depends on vendors for food and as many as 10-20 people share a bathroom, due to which they are more prone to getting affected by Covid-19.

Bani Das, the co-founder of Kranti, an organisation that works with the children of sex workers from Kamathipura, stated that sex workers have no access to necessities such as food, sanitizers and soap.[5]

Moreover, when this lockdown is over, they have to get back to working in the same profession knowing how risk and dangerous this is, just to survive, therefore they should be provided with a minimum amount for their basic needs.

Social Stigma

The third problem which is not new is the social stigma attached to this profession. They are hardly recognized and it creates stereotypes and causes sex workers not to be seen as individuals are our judged by those outside the industry sex worker lives in the shadows of a society, does not officially exist for them and are mostly rejected by their friends and families. Many face high levels of marginalization and social exclusion. Firstly, the sex workers have not received any assistance since the lockdown, from the government,[6] also to avail any aid they need ration cards or Jan Dhan accounts and they possess neither. The government recently announced Rs. 500 to women for the next 3 months under PradhanMantri Jan DhanYojana (PMJDY). However, as already stated they do not have a bank account or Jan Dhan account.[7]Secondly, no one has a right to judge one’s profession, one doesn’t what made them get into this profession at the first place, maybe a family problem, financial issues, unpaid loan, house rent, maintenance costs etc.

No Business – No Customers – No Money

In the midst of a pandemic, we all are supposed to adhere to physical distancing policies and avoid close contact and though in most of the professions, work can be done from home this work is an activity of close and physical contact, with a high risk of transmitting the virus. It a contact job, with no business they are hardly left with money to survive. A girl named Bhanu Priya, a sex worker managed to earn Rs 5,000 a month and with 2 months of lockdown, she is now at the end of her tether left with no savings.[8]

There are some, sex workers still working during this pandemic knowing how dangerous it is, only to feed themselves their families, some of them are using technology to make money and run their livelihood. Some clients have been using this pandemic to bargain with the sex workers to demand risker services or to lower down the prices, such as sex without a condom, with the same amount of money.

Also, as per the report of Yale School of Medicine, the death toll of Covid-19 increase in India will reduce by 63 per cent post lockdown just by closing the red-light areas,[9] therefore the problem they are facing is not temporary it might prevail for some time and their future is at risk, one of the sex worker named Laxmi Mane keeps gnawing on the fact that even after all this is over, clients will worry about whom they should come in contact with and would be difficult to get clients.[10]

High At Risk

The main challenge they face is lack of access to substantial health care services, they already possess preconditions and are most vulnerable to Covid-19. The sex workers are 13 times more at risk of having HIV in comparison to general population[11] an estimated 1.6% of female sex workers in India were living with HIV.[12] According to the report of UNAIDS data 2018, there were 88,000 people newly infected with HIV in 2017.[13]Though there is no proof of HIV linked with Covid-19 but increased risk of underlying health conditions increases the risk of severe illness. If they get infected by a virus they have less chance to survive due to lack of immune system and underlying health conditions. 

Mental Problem

Sex workers have mental health problem not only because of this situation but due to many factors like exposure to abuse, violence, health issues, social stigma, non-acceptance by families and friends, some may be into this profession by free consent, but some are not, they are forced by their dishonest employer or dire need of money or their financial circumstances that made them opt this profession, which is completely different from actively choosing sex work. These circumstances are bound to leave an impact on one’s mental health leading to anxiety and depression and suicides.


There is an urgent need to protect this section of the society which is the most vulnerable one among all, with countries having different policies in response to Covid-19; the one thing which would remain same is the physical distancing policy until a vaccine is available for the same. As in the long run, it would be difficult for them to work without following the guidelines, they can make use of technology, can try sex positions which minimize the risk of transmitting disease, can opt for non-conventional intimacy, sex chats etc. And currently, it is very important to talk and discuss sex workers, they need authorities to support more than anyone, not just in the midst of a pandemic but also in the long run we need to have proper legislation to protect them from atrocities, provide them with better working conditions and easy access to health services.

[1]HemaRamaprasad, ‘They are starving: women in India’s sex industry struggle for survival’ (The Guardian, 29 April 2020) <https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/apr/29/they-are-starving-women-in-indias-sex-industry-struggle-for-survival>

[2] Lindsay Gezinski, Sharvari Karandikar, ‘Exploring the Needs of Sex Workers In Kamathipura, Mumbai, India’ (Research Gate, January 2012)  <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/268106814_Exploring_the_Needs_of_Sex_Workers_In_Kamathipura_Mumbai_India>

[3] PTI, ‘Lockdown: Over 60% of sex workers in Delhi return to their home states’ (The Hindu, 17 May 2020) <https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Delhi/lockdown-over-60-of-sex-workers-in-delhi-return-to-their-home-states/article31606490.ece>

[4]Snigdhendu Bhattacharya &Joydeep Thakur, ‘Kolkata sex workers: Real threat lies after the lockdown is lifted’ (Hindustan Times, 13 April 2020) <https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/kolkata-sex-workers-real-threat-lies-after-the-lockdown-is-lifted/story-04hma6KgoCjPZrGXHjDN7O.html>

[5] Ananya Singh, ‘Sex Workers struggle in Lockdown’ (The Citizen, 22 April 2020) <https://www.thecitizen.in/index.php/en/NewsDetail/index/7/18638/Sex-Workers-Struggle-in-Lockdown>

[6] Kapil Kajal, ‘Sex Workers, High-Risk For COVID-19, Seek Government Help’ (Indian Spend, 17 April 2020) <https://www.indiaspend.com/sex-workers-high-risk-for-covid-19-seek-government-help/> accessed 24 May 2020

[7] Ananya Singh, ‘Sex Workers struggle in Lockdown’ (The Citizen, 22 April 2020) <https://www.thecitizen.in/index.php/en/NewsDetail/index/7/18638/Sex-Workers-Struggle-in-Lockdown>

[8] Rakhi Bose, ‘Death Will Come Faster: Without Ration Cards, AP Sex Workers Wait for Govt Aid amid Lockdown’ (News 18, 28 April 2020) <https://www.news18.com/news/buzz/death-will-come-faster-without-ration-cards-ap-sex-workers-wait-for-govt-aid-amid-lockdown-2594599.html>

[9] PTI, ‘India can avoid 72% of projected COVID cases by closing red light areas: Report’ (Times of India, 16 May 2020) <https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/india-can-avoid-72-of-projected-covid-cases-by-closing-red-light-areas-report/articleshow/75772687.cms>

[10] Jagriti Chandra, ‘Lockdown: Sex workers anxious over the months ahead’ (The Hindu, 13 April 2020) <https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/lockdown-sex-workers-anxious-over-the-months-ahead/article31332714.ece>

[11] Avert, ‘Sex workers, HIV and AIDS’ (Avert, 10 October 2019) <https://www.avert.org/professionals/hiv-social-issues/key-affected-populations/sex-workers>

[12] Avert, ‘HIV and AIDS in India’ (Avert, 28 January 2020) <https://www.avert.org/professionals/hiv-around-world/asia-pacific/india#footnote10_12tgwf5>

[13] UN Aids, ‘UN Aids data 2018’ (UN Aids) <https://www.unaids.org/sites/default/files/media_asset/unaids-data-2018_en.pdf>

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