For over 15 years, 42-year-old Devta has conducted community outreach programmes to create awareness among commercial sex workers on HIV and AIDS. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, these sessions have incorporated learnings of the last two decades with the current uncertainties brought by the virus of a different kind.
With social distancing not possible due to the nature of their work, sex workers are being told to ensure they wear a mask while avoiding touching their eyes, mouth, nose and face without sanitising their hands.
“In 2004, when I began working on the outreach programmes, many had little information about the spread of HIV. We would speak about prevention, the precautions that need to be taken. Though HIV and Covid-19 are starkly different, we have adopted many of the same methods of reaching out to the community,” Devta said.
This included going to the community members and asking them about the viruses and providing information about the steps they need to take to prevent getting infected.
“For instance, ‘testing positive’ has become common parlance with Covid-19. The stigma associated with this was much more with HIV. Both HIV and Covid-19 have no vaccines so far. Like with HIV, there is a certain disbelief about Covid-19, too — that they cannot get infected. It is easy to explain when you can draw similarities between the two,” Devta said.
She added that the bonds they have established with the community members for nearly two decades has now helped in the outreach for Covid-19.
During the lockdown, many sex workers were left with no means of earning. With easing of restrictions and some with support from NGOs, many managed to shift to other jobs, including selling vegetables or working as domestic helps. Others continued with their work, even having shifted to offering audio and video services.
Those working in the field said that due to misinformation and the nature of the work, women would initially spray sanitisers on their entire bodies just to feel safe.
Members of organisations like the community-led Aastha Parivaar, working on HIV prevention since 2009, said that a major takeaway from this has been that behaviour cannot be changed overnight, like making everyone wear a mask.
“For preventing HIV/STIs, women sex workers were educated on safe sex practices, condom use and regular screening. It is always a challenge to change behaviour and is not possible overnight, but consistent behaviour change have shown results and the number of cases have gone down. Social conditions, stigma and vulnerability initially made it difficult for them to change their behaviour. This time, the sessions were on maintaining hygiene and wearing masks,” said Seema Sayyed, manager with Aastha Parivaar.
She added that a multi-sectoral approach involving sex workers, government organisations, police, local governing bodies and neighbourhoods would help tackle both HIV and Covid-19. “Outreach could include mental health counselling, establishing peer support systems, buddy programmes in clusters with high incidence of Covid-19 positive cases,” Sayyed said.
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