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Unmasking the true face of discrimination against trans in Asia amidst the pandemic and rethinking the states responses to the COVID-19 situations

By: Nhuun Yodmuang, Trans Activist and the Trans Representative at the ILGA Asia Board 

It has been more than a year already since the COVID-19 crisis hit us globally. The surge of death and infection have been still going on, the economy from the global to household level keeps falling due to the travel restriction shutting and slowing down the economic activities while most of the governments worldwide have remained struggling to cope with the situation.

COVID-19 pandemic has also unmasked the real face of inequality. The impact of the pandemic is more severe for some of the marginalized groups of the societies such as trans communities in Asia.s. However, the government in Asia has often perceived that COVID-19 crisis is gender-neutral, and there is the belief that there is no need for specific measures for trans, because some socioeconomic measures are inclusive, and trans people can already access them.

To tackle the point. It can be also argued that the adverse impact of the pandemic to trans is only the tip of the iceberg, and its root cause is the systemic and institutionalized discrimination against trans people in the form of health care and other socioeconomic systems entirely.

Multi-layers of discrimination against trans people in Asia

From the survey research conducted by Asia Pacific Transgender Network in 2020, the trans respondents across Asia reported the loss of jobs and the main sources of their income, the inability toaccess necessities and health services compatible to them, and the absence of government supports during the COVID-19 situation. However, while these mentioned issues are seemingly generic to many others, I argued that its impact on the issues is more suffering and complicated to them.

For access to health care, while everyone should be able to access the basic health services, respondents in APTN research reported several unique issues faced by trans people during the pandemic such as the lack of access to trans-sensitized and specific health care, HIV testing, ARV, PrEP, hormones, as well as mental health services. There is also a report by a Thai media that trans women exposed to the COVID-19 were assigned to the male section in the field hospital. Moreover, the access to better services for trans that are normally made available in the private hospital and the community-based organization, are also limited during this time. It was because the movement restriction measure and  the lack of income that have stopped them from accessing the service at CBOs and private hospitals.

These issues mentioned by the respondents are not that different compared to the time before COVID-19, but coupled with the pandemic, the issues become more visible. Therefore, the disproportionate impacts to trans people during the pandemic is not only the question to the temporary responses of the state, but current health systems in Asia.

In general, the system has been created using the approach of binarism. Public health care, especially sexual and reproductive health care, is often organized by gender, either male or female. The trans clients are assigned by the sex at birth, often mistreated by the health care staffs, as well as rejected services. Further, transgender is barely recognized in the system, and resulted in the absence of trans specific and competent health care. The only way for trans people to access health care which is compatible with trans is through the private health care system being made available in some countries in Asia, and often with expensive cost.

I believe that such health system is a form systemic and institutionalized discrimination. The basic reason is cis men and women have the access to health service compatible for them without further payment, but trans cannot. It is also due to the historic normalization of the binary and discriminatory health care systems especially by policy makers and medical professionals. Moreover, some states, for example Thailand, tend to not provide trans health care, but rather privatize it. Such perception is not gender neutral but full of gendered bias. I believe this is linked to the perception of trans health care, such as gender affirming surgery and hormonal treatment, as expensive care, instead of basic needs. The perception is common among the policy makers, health care professionals and public in Thailand.

For the access to other necessities state supports, it is reported that there is a lack of outreach to the trans community by the government and support offered. Many trans people have had to rely on assistance from others in the trans or wider LGBTI communities, for example, trans activists came together to provide basic awareness around hygiene and sanitization, distributed sanitizers, immunity boosters and masks all over the region..

Again, this issue is also the consequence of systematic and institutionalized discrimination against trans people in general. There has been a lack of legal gender recognition of trans people in law and data of trans population, and a small number of data collection and research was conducted in the Asia region, while the disaggregated data between men and women are made available. As a result, there is the tendency that the governments are unable to reach out to the trans communities and give proper intervention or do not reach out at all.

Economic disparity between trans and others

Moreover, while I believe that it is the state responsibility to ensure the access to health care and necessities for trans people, such access is also depending on the access to income and employment, as we need to buy the basic needs such as food, housing, or good health in the capitalist world. Employment is also very important because it is the way to gain money. Without money, we cannot access the necessities.

As such, to see the issues related the access to health care and necessities clearly, we need take to account the situation of discrimination against Asian trans people in employment that happens every day. The situation is more severe compared to cisgender people and pushes trans people to the further vulnerable position amidst the COVID-19.

Since before the COVID-19, discrimination has pushed a large amount of trans people in our community to work in the informal sectors where the income is often less and not expectable. The employer’s benefits and worker protection measures are barely implemented in such sectors. Some of them choose to migrate and work outside home countries where they have limited access to social security and welfare.

The situation causes a more drastic impact of COVID-19 to trans people. While people working in the formal sectors got noticed at least one month prior to the termination of their contract, several trans people working the informal sectors lost their jobs without notice. It means the sudden loss of income which affects the access to health care and other necessities. 

The situation the sex workers community in Thailand is also a good example as many trans people are the part of community. Some of transgenders were pushed to enter the sex work career due to the discrimination against trans in employment. During the pandemic, they have been unemployed and lost their income as a consequence of lockdown. Moreover, sex work is still decriminalised in Thailand, and sex workers areis not eligible to receive certain state socioeconomic supports.

Disproportionate gendered impact of the travel and movement restriction measure 

The last issue I want to talk about here is that the lockdown and movement restriction measures normally used by many states in Asia to address the issues in the time of conflict and disaster. However, its appropriateness, proportionality and ground on patriarchy and militarism are questionable when responding to the COVID-19. Instead of using the military and confining people, why does not the government emphasize the capacity of health services or support on the access to necessity.

I believe also that the lockdown and travel restriction measure is not compatible to trans people. it has provided a disproportionate impact to trans communities than the others. In general, it is known that police and militants are often committed to the discrimination and violence against trans people. Trans women in many Asian countries are often threatened, arbitrarily arrested with the false accusation. Sometimes, the violence became physical.  The lockdown and travel restriction enforced by police and military institutions might be a result of expansion of the violence against trans people. For example, three LGBT people in the Philippines got stopped and arrested by volunteers in the village of Pandacaqui, in Pampanga province due to the breach of curfew. A village official accused them of looking for illicit sex and punished them using the embarrassing and humiliating means such as ordering them to kiss, dance, and do push-ups on live video broadcast on social media.

Rethinking the responses to COVID-19 and trans related issues

Taken all to account, it is important to rethink the current responses to COVID-19. Instead of emphasizing on the lockdown, police and military, the government should use the gender lens when responding to the pandemic. Trans people should be able to access the health care and necessities without extra costs during the pandemic and beyond. The affirmative action programme should also be created to address specific issues of trans. Moreover, the recovery measure should not only emphasize on the economy, but also address the gendered impact of the COVID-19, and the access to necessary social outcomes with recognition of trans citizens. 

Moreover, I truly believe that the scrutiny must not touch upon the surface, but also the structure or system behind the injustice. The human rights and social justice for trans people is not about being included in the existing structure or system, but the  strong and radical demand of the trans community for further recognition of and  the reform of structure and system. Therefore,  the entire health care system needed to be reformed where the trans competent and specific health care should be recognized as basic and made available without financial burden for trans people. There should be more work on the redistribution of wealth and income to ensure equal access to the necessities and important social outcomes for trans people such as reform of taxation or a strong social welfare system. 

Reference 

Trans Resilience Report – Stories of Hope, Pain, and Survival from the Trans Movement During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Health Policy Project, Asia Pacific Transgender Network, United Nations Development Programme. (2015). Blueprint for the Provision of Comprehensive Care for Trans People and Trans Communities. Washington, DC: Futures Group, Health Policy Project.

United Nation Development Programme, Asia Pacific Transgender Network. (2017). Legal Gender Recognition: A Multi-Country Legal and Policy Review in Asia. Bangkok: United Nation Development Programme, Asia Pacific Transgender Network

Winter, S., Davis-McCabe, C., Russell, C., Wilde, D., Chu, T.H., Suparak, P. and Wong, J. (2018). Denied Work: An audit of employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity in Asia. Bangkok: Asia Pacific Transgender Network and United Nations Development Programme

Janyam, S., Phuengsamran, D., Pangnongyang, J., Saripra, W., Jitwattanapataya, L., Songsamphan, C., Benjarattanaporn, P., Gopinath, D. (2020). Protecting sex workers in Thailand during the COVID-19 pandemic: opportunities to build back better. New Delhi: WHO South-East Asia J Public Health. 

Amnesty International (2020, November 20). Governments have failed to protect trans people from murder – and from COVID-19 https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/11/governments-have-failed-to-protect-trans-people-from-murder-and-from-covid19/

Thoreson, R. (2020, April 8) Philippines Uses Humiliation as COVID Curfew Punishment. Human Rights Watch https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/08/philippines-uses-humiliation-covid-curfew-punishment

Reid, G. (2021, February 24) Global Trends in LGBT Rights During the Covid-19 Pandemic. Human Rights Watch https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/02/24/global-trends-lgbt-rights-during-covid-19-pandemic

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