A study by Academicians from Yale School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School
Closing red light areas could save sex workers lives
PUNE: A model built by experts projects there could be 4,795 cumulative cases, 688 hospitalizations, and 162 deaths in the Budhwar Peth Red Light Area over the next one year if it reopens. The red light area just reopened last week. The model was developed by experts from Harvard Medical School and Yale Medical School. Further, the model projects that many of these cases and deaths could be prevented by the peak of the epidemic by keeping the red light area closed.
The model projects that customers infected by sex workers can spread the infection across the city causing a surge in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Pune could face over 39 times more hospitalizations and 52 times more deaths in the first 120 days after Budhwar Peth reopens post lockdown. This surge in hospitalizations could push Pune over peak medical capacity sooner. Fewer sick people would be able to receive treatment causing an increase in preventable deaths. More information on the health risk caused by the Budhwar Peth Red Light Area can be found at www.CodeRedCOVID.org.
The sex workers in Budhwar Peth are currently using masks to prevent infection. They think this will stop the disease from spreading while they engage in sex acts. Regarding the red light area opening, Pune Municipal Corporation assistant health chief Dr. Sanjeev Wavare said, “If one of the persons involved in sexual activity is a potential carrier of coronavirus, there is always a danger of the other person contracting it. Medical professionals treating COVID-19 patients are using PPE kits and still, some of them have gotten infected. This makes it clear that merely using a mask cannot prevent the danger of transmission.”
Smarajit Jana, a doctor and chief advisor of Bengal’s largest NGO working with sex workers, Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), said “It would be of great danger if the sex workers are allowed to operate as soon as the lockdown is lifted. Due to their nature of work and the congested way in which they live, one single case can infect a hundred”.
Dr. Sahayakan, a member of Code Red Coalition, a global coalition of doctors and researchers that is advising governments on how to prevent COVID-19 spread said, “None of the protection measures like distancing, masks, or sanitizing can effectively stop COVID-19 transmission during sex work. Sex work cannot be safely practiced in red light areas in India given their nature. It can result in many cases and deaths in sex workers and citizens”.
Maharashtra’s red-light areas will be some of the worst affected hotspots if reopened. Mumbai’s Kamathipura, Grant Road, and Faulkland Road Red Light Area can face 3,494 cases, 486 hospitalizations, and 114 deaths. Nagpur’s Itwari Chowk 1,667 cases, 236 hospitalizations, and 56 deaths.
Prominent politicians in Germany called for brothels to close permanently and wrote letters to the premiers of all German states stating, “It should be obvious that prostitutes could become epidemiological ‘super spreaders’ — sexual activities are, as a rule, not compatible with social distancing measures”. The German lawmakers stated, “Re-opening the brothels will not help these women…Instead, they need apprenticeships, training or work in a secure job.”
Commenting on the report, co-author, Dr. Sudhakar Nuti, Harvard Medical School, said “The Indian government has implemented smart and effective measures to flatten the curve, but it is unlikely for the pandemic to be resolved until there is a vaccine. It is therefore important that the red light area in Pune remains closed until a vaccine is developed and widely distributed to protect sex workers and the population at large.” Government restrictions on this part of the informal economy have not been outlined in COVID-19 directives, but asex worker in Mumbai was quoted in a media story stating “There will be no business in Kamathipura for at least next two years. We can only return when there’s a COVID-19 vaccine.”
The study recommends that sex workers need opportunities to gain skills that provide employment in lower-risk jobs. Recent media reports have shown that some sex workers have begun exploring alternative employment options. In Andhra Pradesh, a collective has asked for an exit strategy for sex workers including “transitional housing, bank loans, and alternate employment”. The efforts to close Pune’s red-light area and help sex workers find lower-risk jobs would save many lives. The recent reopening of the red light area presents a major health risk to citizens and sex workers.
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