In 2021-22, Varta Trust partnered with Grindr for Equality, Los Angeles and SAATHII, Chennai to develop an online locator on queer friendly COVID-19 services in India. The locator is bilingual in Bengali and English and provides information about community based organizations (CBOs) and other NGOs providing COVID-19 services to queer people. This article is based on an analysis of data collected on the NGOs for the creation of the locator.
The analysis was written in Bengali by Susanta Pramanik, who led the data collection with support from Swati Das, Debjyoti Ghosh and Pawan Dhall. Excerpts from the analysis presented here were translated by Jia Mata and Pawan Dhall.
COVID-19 started making its presence felt in India from December 2019. Its effects slowly increased until, by March 2020, the devastation scaled up like no one had ever seen before. From as early as the end of 2019, many nations around the world had started imposing lockdowns to deal with the overwhelming effects of the virus, and we, in India, were in perpetual fear of the same happening here. That fear turned into reality on March 23, 2020, when a nationwide lockdown was declared and our fight to survive took on a whole new dimension.
In addition to the mental and physical health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, the major impact was in terms of the financial hardship for working class people. Except for a few ‘essential’ services, all other workplaces were closed, and the resultant effect was huge for the daily wagers who were unable to earn a living and their very survival became a challenge.
To make matters worse, on May 20, 2020, the Amphan cyclone devastated a large part of Bengal, causing untold damage to millions of people and properties. The double whammy of the situation because of COVID-19 and Amphan affected people across the socio-economic strata. But the communities that need a special mention are the queer communities.
Even at the best of times, people from the queer communities have to face stigma, discrimination and oppression from almost all levels and institutions of society, including family, friends and neighbours. Many queer people are also excluded from educational spaces, workplaces, and even legal assistance because of their marginalized gender and sexual identities. These problems were compounded because of the pandemic and cyclone.
A section of the queer communities earns its living from sex work, chhalla and badhai. These people were cut off from their livelihoods as a result of the lockdown and became desperate for food, other essential goods, and more. Though financial help from various organizations and personal donations were far lesser than needed, they did go a long way towards helping some of these people to survive. Something to mention here is that the government aid for the queer communities was negligible.
Role of Varta Trust during the crisis phase
Within a few days of the lockdown, several voluntary organizations jumped in with their limited resources to help people, and several individuals extended their helping hand to the needy. Varta was not far behind and reached out to people from the queer communities to provide dry ration, clothing and other assistance.
In addition, just like its existing online locator on queer friendly health and legal aid service providers, Varta planned on launching a queer friendly locator of COVID-19 service providers. The locator was developed through a research process (and launched on June 4, 2022).
Objectives of the research
The purpose of the research was to know what the needs of the queer communities were as identified from queer people by the CBOs / NGOs working with them during the pandemic, what services these agencies could provide to the queer communities, and what were the difficulties they faced in providing these services. The research also aimed to find out what these agencies’ plans were for helping queer people in the future.
A self-administered questionnaire was developed for the study, and a list of 120 CBOs / NGOs working with queer people in India was drawn up based on the personal contacts of the researchers and Google searches. Questionnaires were sent to each of the agencies on the list and 44 of them responded from 28 towns and cities located in 15 states and Union Territories (see table below).
Eventually, an online searchable database or locator was created based on the information provided by the agencies. After fact-checking the information, the locator structure was created in Bengali and English. The locator is active, and new information continues to be collected and added.
Learning from the research
Identification of what the queer communities needed during the pandemic: Data collected for creating the online locator reflected a wide range of needs identified by the 44 CBOs / NGOs who responded to the questionnaire sent to them. The following are some of the needs in order of how commonly they were identified by the agencies:
- Ration needs were identified by 80% (35) of the 44 agencies
- Mental health needs were identified by 57% (25) of the agencies
- General health / pharmaceutical needs were identified by 48% (21) of the agencies
- Need for masks and sanitizers was identified by 43% (19) of the agencies
- Livelihood and financial support needs were each identified by 36% (16) of the agencies
Around 25% of the agencies identified the need for COVID-19 vaccination support, while 14% identified COVID-19 testing and treatment needs. In relation to sexual health, HIV treatment needs were identified by 18% of the agencies, STI treatment needs by 11%, and condoms and other safer sex prevention material needs by 14% of the agencies.
Similarly, 23% of the agencies identified crisis support needs, 16% found the need for protection from abuse or violence, and close behind were emergency accommodation or shelter needs and house rental or repair support identified by 18% and 14% of the agencies, respectively. Phone recharge needs were identified by 16% of the agencies.
What emerged clearly was that the COVID-19 pandemic (and Amphan cyclone) impacted the most fundamental needs of the queer communities, like food, livelihood, financial support and mental health. Many of these needs can be considered as universal ones, but their implications can be quite different for queer people compared to the other social groups. Then again, needs like access to HIV treatment and protection from abuse or violence were more specific to different sections of the queer communities.
Catering to the needs identified: Broadly, the CBOs / NGOs were able to provide services in tandem with the needs identified. For example, 43% of the agencies provided livelihood support compared to 36% of the agencies identifying this an important need. But quite often the data on what services were provided most commonly by the agencies did not match the data on what needs were identified most commonly. For instance, as many as 90% (40) of the 44 agencies provided mental health support to the queer communities, compared to 57% of the agencies identifying this as an important need. Similarly, vaccination support for transgender persons was provided by 82% of the agencies compared to 25% of the agencies identifying this need, and 52% of the agencies provided gender affirmative care to transgender persons as against only 5% of the agencies identifying this need. But none of the agencies provided cash or financial support as against 36% of the agencies identifying this need.
Part of the reason for this ‘mismatch’ may lie in how the questionnaire to collect data for the online locator was designed. The question on identifying the needs was an open-ended one with multiple answers possible, while the one on services actually provided was a multiple-choice question with the possible (multiple) answer options already provided. The question on services provided was not an open-ended one from the point of view of designing the online locator, which works better for the ultimate user of the locator with standardized answer options that are not too large in number.
A second reason for the mismatch was likely related to what services were (or are) possible to provide for the agencies as against the needs identified. On this front, it was heartening to see the CBOs / NGOs prioritising services like provision of gender affirmative care. Sadly, these were not considered ‘essential’ enough by the central and state governments during the lockdown, which led to a severe shortage of hormone therapy availability and caused tremendous anguish and hardship to innumerable transgender persons.
Difficulties faced by service providers: The difficulties faced by the CBOs / NGOs while serving the queer communities included communication / transportation problems (reported by 50% of the 44 agencies), financial difficulties (48%), and shortage of dry ration for supplying to the people in need (23%). The agencies also experienced staffing hurdles (reported by 16% of the agencies), as well as management and project implementation problems in providing relief and other help on an unprecedented scale (11%). Other difficulties included trouble in convening or mobilizing queer people, fear of COVID-19 infection, lack of infrastructure, stigma from authority figures, harassment, and lack of awareness about and support for queer people among important stakeholders, including the general public.
Future plans of service providers: The questionnaire also asked the CBOs / NGOs their future plans for the queer communities, since there remains a possibility that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will continue for a long time. The responses included plans for livelihood support (reported by 39% of the 44 agencies), running shelter homes (23%), continuing to provide dry ration (20%), general health / medical interventions (16%), and continuing to provide lifelong learning and vocational training (14%).
Some of the related responses included health awareness campaigns; mental health services; access to COVID-19 vaccination, testing and treatment; food security (incuding community kitchens); house rental support; access to social security schemes and legal aid; education support; and helpline services.
At some point in the future, Varta Trust plans to engage with the CBOs / NGOs again to find out how much of the future plans communicated actually materialized over time.
Conclusion: Who needs to step up?
The question of livelihood (and associated issues like education and vocational training) seems to loom the largest, both in the impact of the pandemic and the future plans of the CBOs / NGOs. There seems to be a change in the thinking around livelihood because of the pandemic. For instance, the desire to reduce the dependence only on chhalla, badhai and sex work for many transgender women seems to have become stronger. In order to live a better life, they must have greater job security as also food and shelter security. To this end, the demand for development of professional skills seems to be gaining greater currency.
The mandate for ensuring that queer people live better lives cannot solely be that of the CBOs / NGOs. These agencies, even with their limited resources, continue to provide a variety of services throughout the year. But these fall far short of the need. In contrast, the donor agencies and government bodies have not played the major role they needed to during the pandemic, especially during the peak phases.
The attitude of both state and central governments towards the queer communities during the pandemic has been questionable. As has been said earlier, at the best of times, livelihood and food security for many queer communities is precarious, but when the pandemic hit, it became clear how much of a disaster it really is. The government of any country cannot be indifferent to any particular community, especially during a national or global emergency. But that is what seems to have happened. Steps that were taken were too little, too late.
COVID-19 is not about to just disappear from the world, and other such crises can also occur in the future. Governments, donors, NGOs and the queer communities themselves need to think of longer term plans that will reduce precarity. Otherwise more and more queer people (as also members of other marginalized communities) will struggle, and their very existence will come under threat.
About the main graphic: Graphic created for the online locator on queer friendly COVID-19 services in India. Graphic credit: Parvathy, Sputznik