The coronavirus pandemic is bringing out the worst and the best among human beings, governments and other social institutions. This article could well have been a litany of complaints about how queer people in India are no strangers to viruses of the HIV kind, or social distancing inspired by viruses of the ‘stigma’ variety. But such a piece wouldn’t have helped matters.

Some people (irrespective of their gender and sexuality) are never likely to shed their biases against queer or other marginalized groups; whereas there are others, however small in number, who need to be applauded for their willingness to reach out beyond boundaries (ironically like the coronavirus itself). We might as well give a quiet, heartfelt applause for the second lot!

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This audio roundup will be work-in-progress for quite some time to come. We will keep posting audio reports filed by queer citizen journalists being trained by Varta Trust, as well as other contributors to this webzine. This series of podcasts is meant not just to inform but also to share experiences, resources and skills.

If you find this post useful, please be generous in sharing it further far and wide with those who may be benefitted. This is the first time we have attempted such an exercise. We will appreciate your patience and inputs to make improvements. You are also welcome to volunteer with us in this endeavour!

Pawan Dhall

Pawan Dhall. Photo credit: Sudipa Chakraborty

Kolkata, March 31, 2020: One of the immediate impacts of the countrywide lockdown to check the spread of coronavirus has been on antiretroviral therapy (ART) access for people living with HIV (PLHIV). The ART medication needs to be taken daily and lifelong to ensure viral suppression among PLHIV and help them remain healthy.

Listen to this report by Pawan Dhall on what is being done to help Mahesh, a young gay man, with unbroken access to the ART lifeline. He is a student from Kolkata currently homebound in North Bengal. Identity markers have been camouflaged as the individual needs to keep his sexual orientation and HIV status confidential. The report has been filed after receiving verbal consent from Mahesh. Update! April 4, 2020: In the afternoon today, Mahesh managed to access his monthly quota of ART with the help of a network of PLHIV that functions in the same district as his village. Find out here how this came about with some courage and a bit of good luck. There’s also a musical treat in this update – a snippet from Le Chale, one of my favourite songs from the unforgettable My Brother Nikhil (2005).

Shivalal Gautam

Shivalal Gautam. Photo credit: Rith Das

Guwahati, April 1, 2020: For many queer persons in Assam, particularly trans and gender non-conforming individuals, the lockdown has made matters worse in unique ways. Listen to this dispatch from Guwahati-based queer activist Shivalal Gautam on the mental and sexual health impact for queer persons. Being homebound often means being vulnerable to even more domestic violence from family members who don’t approve of their gender identity, choice of clothes or their friendships and relationships. Trans persons who have been in the process of gender transition are not able to access gender affirmative care services as these have not been classified as ‘essential’ by the central or state governments. Should this concern be the subject of a campaign to draw the government’s attention?

Joyita Mondal

Joyita Mondal. Photo credit: Anonymous

Islampur, April 2, 2020: Today’s podcast is from transgender social worker Joyita Mondal from Islampur in the Uttar Dinajpur district of West Bengal. She talks about how she helped a queer couple access ART last week. Riju, a trans woman, and Bikram, her partner, are both HIV positive (names changed). They have been in a relationship since 13 years, and live together in Islampur. But the fear of social stigma compels them to access their monthly quota of ART medication from the North Bengal Medical College 70 km away in Siliguri. Joyita worked hard to acquire permissions for travel during the lockdown and hired a car to accompany the couple to Siliguri. She helped them get medicines to last each of them three months. And just in time for they had only a day’s medicine left when they contacted Joyita. Riju and Bikram gave verbal consent to this report being filed.

This daytime photograph shows a police officer in khaki uniform and wearing a mask handing over a packet of food items to a woman in Sonarpur, South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. A few other individuals standing around look on. The locality seen in the photograph seems to be part of a semi-urban area. The photograph was shot on April 2, 2020. Photo credit: Anonymous

West Bengal Police distributing free ration to residents of Sonarpur on April 2, 2020. Photo credit: Anonymous

Kolkata, April 5, 2020: This podcast by Pawan Dhall is an interview with social activist Sudha Jha, who works on HIV and other public health issues with the Kolkata office of SAATHII. Sudha recently helped a married couple Maya and Shyamu (names changed) and their two young children access health services and free ration of food and other provisions. The couple lives in Sonarpur, which is located to the south of Kolkata. Both Maya and Shyamu are HIV positive and because of the lockdown have been unable to access ART medication from the M. R. Bangur Hospital, which caters to PLHIV from Sonarpur and other places in the South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. Shyamu, employed as a popcorn vendor by a trader in the local retail market and the only earning member of the family, has been unable to go out to work, and the couple has been running short of food as well.

Sudha Jha

Sudha Jha. Photo credit: Anonymous

When the interviewer came to know about the couple from his mother’s attendant, also a resident of Sonarpur, he alerted Sudha. She in turn tapped into her professional network of outreach workers, NGOs and student volunteers in Sonarpur and neighbouring Baruipur, who made sure that Maya and Shyamu didn’t have to step out either for the ART medicines or ration. It also came to light that many neighbours of Maya and Shyamu were in the same plight as them. Sudha contacted the police in Baruipur and Sonarpur, who urgently made arrangements for around 15 families to receive free ration.

This illustration is a sketch that represents Maya and Shyamu’s plans to sustain themselves financially. It shows a woman selling vegetables in a semi-urban market place. She is seated cross-legged under the shade of a tree with a spread of vegetables around her on a tarpaulin sheet, and a couple of buyers picking through the produce. Everyone is wearing a mask on their face. A couple of street dogs laze close by, while more people can be seen some distance away standing in an arched entrance to the market building. The graphic has been provided a computer-aided soft-edged border which draws attention to the woman vegetable vendor, the central character of the sketch. Artwork credit: Ranjay Sarkar

Artwork credit: Ranjay Sarkar

Appeal for support: Maya requests an amount of Rs.8,000 for buying weighing scales, a push cart and some vegetables so that she and Shyamu can start vending vegetables in the local market and in their neighbourhood, and sustain themselves and their children during the lockdown period. They feel they should be self-employed as they’re not sure if Shyamu will get back his earlier work. If you want to help, please contact us here urgently. We will provide you details of Maya’s bank account for transfer of funds. We will guide Maya in providing you details of how the money is spent, should you need them.

Donation utilization update! June 6, 2020: Sudha Jha and Pawan Dhall visited Maya and Shyamu at their residence in Sonarpur to provide them and another family with dry ration and other provisions. Earlier, the couple’s appeal for support put out on Varta Trust’s Facebook page was successful in raising the target donation amount of Rs.8,000 from five individual donors. The funds were transferred to Maya’s bank account, not used in a long time but fortunately operational. During their visit Sudha and Pawan learnt that weighing scales had been unavailable in the market because of the lockdown. However, Maya and Shyamu had managed to invest in a second hand push cart, cooking equipment and semi-prepared food items to revive Shaymu’s earlier work of vending popcorn, muri and roasted peanuts (see photo panel below). Some of the funds had helped pay also a month’s house rent.

Initially, the couple had started selling vegetables as well in the neighbouring localities. Demand was poor because of the lockdown, but even that stopped when their area was declared a coronavirus containment zone. The Amphan super cyclone made matters worse, though they were lucky that a jamun tree behind their house didn’t come crashing down on their tiled roof. Moreover, the lockdown forced the closure of a nearby wholesale market and accessing vegetables from places like Sealdah became impossible because of prohibitive transport costs.

This is a panel of five photographs that shows scenes from Maya and Shyamu’s semi-pucca house in Sonarpur. In the largest photograph on the bottom left, the couple’s older daughter, a four-year-old school-goer, proudly shows off one of her exercise books. The pages are filled with alphabets and other scribbles. The little one is seated on the ground as she holds aloft the exercise book with one hand towards the camera. A part of her face peers from behind the book. Her mother, partially visible, is seated next to her. Other books and a school bag are spread out on the floor. The floor covering seems to have been fashioned out of packaging material for the popular brand of m&m’s button shaped chocolates. The surrounding photos show several small packets of roasted popcorn in a sack kept on the floor, non-roasted peanuts in a large tied-up plastic bag, roasting equipment (large cauldron and ladle), and a second hand push cart purchased by the couple for their vending trade. The push cart is in the courtyard outside the couple’s house, and is covered with an assortment of clothes and bags laid out for drying in the sun. Photo credits: Pawan Dhall

At Maya and Shyamu’s semi-pucca dwelling in Sonarpur: Their older daughter shows off her handiwork (left bottom); surrounding photos show packets of semi-prepared food items, roasting equipment, and a second hand push cart purchased by the couple for their vending trade. Photo credits: Pawan Dhall

Currently, with a slight easing of the lockdown, vending popcorn, muri and peanuts in the neighbouring localities fetches the couple just about enough money to reinvest the basic capital into their trade and use some of the gains for meeting daily survival needs. They’re thinking of adding corn on the cob to their wares but this will require additional capital (including money for transportation). They’re also looking for continued dry ration support so that they can save money to buy milk, eggs and oats for their two daughters (one four years old, the other nine months) and meet health care needs. The older daughter, a school-going toddler, needs books and pencils for her studies. If you want to help, please urgently contact us here.

Maya and Shyamu are hopeful of running their trade in a better manner once the lockdown’s relaxed. But they may have to continue with mobile vending because space isn’t likely to be available in the local retail market. The couple explained that not only will the shopkeepers object to vendors crowding the space around their establishments, the vendors will also have to grease political palms to find a suitable spot for their operations. In addition, the social distancing norms will make space scarcer and dearer.

Pradosh Dash

Pradosh Dash. Photo credit: Pradosh Dash

Bhubaneswar, April 6, 2020: Who would’ve thought that the coronavirus pandemic would inspire a young gay man to take the first step towards fulfilling his dreams? Pradosh Dash sent us this short personal story. Here’s wishing him the very best in his mission to use digital media to talk about LGBTIQA rights, male sexual abuse, menstruation and many more such issues often brushed under the carpet. He would love to hear from you at pradosh911@gmail.com.

Bana

Bana. Photo credit: Bana

Bhubaneswar, April 11, 2020: In this podcast, health worker Bana talks about the situation of lesbians, bisexual women and trans masculine persons (LBT in short) in the state of Odisha. Bana works with these communities across several districts of the state. Similar to an earlier report filed by Shivalal Gautam on the plight of queer communities in Assam, Bana’s report underscores the importance of addressing the mental health and survival needs of LBT communities in Odisha during the lockdown, and in particular the gender affirmative care needs of trans persons.

Joyita Mondal

Joyita Mondal

Islampur, April 17, 2020: Transgender social worker Joyita Mondal is back with a brief narration of how support was provided to Neha (name changed), a trans woman in Jalpaiguri town in North Bengal. Neha used to earn money through the traditional occupation of chhalla (seeking alms) on trains and pay for her house rent and meals from these earnings. But there are no trains running during the lockdown, and Neha has been struggling to make ends meet. The support provided to her last week will eventually run out. Joyita urges you to extend more support to Neha and many others like her. And a word of encouragement to Joyita too – her chirpy voice in the podcast successfully hides fatigue borne out of non-stop coordination of relief for trans persons day in and day out!

Shivalal Gautam

Shivalal Gautam

Guwahati, April 25, 2020: Shivalal Gautam reports on the harrowing experience of an HIV positive man living just outside Guwahati, near an army camp. Even in usual circumstances security near the army camp is strict. In the current situation, movement of people into and out of the area has been completely stopped. The individual concerned needed to receive his monthly quota of ART medication from a government health worker, who had all necessary identity documentation to show that she was home delivering an essential service. Yet, she and the HIV positive man were at their wits’ end before they could convince the army personnel to let the health worker meet and pass on the medicines to the man. More tellingly, they had to lie about the nature of the medicines because of the fear of stigma that still persists around HIV, especially outside urban areas. The man is not open about his HIV status and did not want to be ‘marked’, especially by army personnel in his neighbourhood.

What to make out of the government assurance that essential services won’t be stopped during the lockdown? Where have we reached after more than 30 years of battling the HIV epidemic? Networks of HIV positive people have been advising their members in rural areas to get e-Passes made with help from the Gram Panchayats. But have they factored in the strong stigma that may still prevail around HIV in rural areas and among Gram Panchayat functionaries? Must one compromise on every other health concern for the sake of preventing coronavirus infection? Shivalal asks some searching questions in his second podcast.

More updates to follow!

Please send your inputs and comments one-on-one here or publicly at the end of this article – Editor.