Sex workers in India are speaking out against a study by academics from Yale School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School. The study, which recommends keeping red light areas shut after lockdown in five cities in the country to “reduce new COVID-19 cases by 72% and deaths by 63%”, has received strong criticism from sex workers’ collectives, activists, lawyers and decision makers for making scapegoats of sex workers and blaming them for the spread of COVID-19.
Critics of the study made themselves heard in a letter written to Harvard and Yale, demanding that the paper be retracted until it has been peer-reviewed and made publicly available to other academics and sex workers for critique.
“We strongly denounce this study for its lack of rigorous methodology and transparency, misleading assumptions about sex work, and egregious disregard for the rights of the urban poor in India. The recommendations of this study essentially invite the state to use its coercive powers – police raids and evictions – to victimise the most marginalised of slum dwellers in the name of public health,” reads the statement sent to Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, Yale School of Public Health and Yale Medical School.
Recent reports from Sonagachi, in Kolkata, estimate that over 10,000 sex workers have practically no work and are going hungry due to the current crisis. The study does not indicate how sex workers would support themselves if their primary source of livelihood were to be suddenly taken away.
“The authors have betrayed deep prejudice about sex work. They have no knowledge that targetted intervention supported by NACO has found that 70% of sex work is street based. Moreover, why can't our work be treated on par with informal sector. Factories are allowed to reopen, but the study says brothels must remain shut even though we are fare better educated about precautions and safety measure to follow during COVID-19 due to the extensive work done by our collectives,” said Kiran Deshmukh, president of the National Network of Sex Workers.
Among the signatories of the letter were J.V.R. Prasada Rao, former Health Secretary for the Government of India and former UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on AIDS; Sujatha Rao, former Health Secretary for the Government of India; Swarup Sarkar, former director of WHO/SEARO and the Global Fund Against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; and Siddharth Dube, former senior adviser to the Executive Director of UNAIDS. The Yale School of Public Health has agreed to investigate the study.