|Overview : |
The COVID-19 crisis poses substantial and various threats to individuals and the health system in Thailand. The COVID-19 crisis also threatens quality of life, especially of the most marginalized communities in terms of access to health care. In Thailand, sex workers form one of the communities who has been seriously affected by the pandemic.
Sex workers were already facing multiple forms of discrimination, policing, and punishment in their daily lives before the outbreak of COVID-19. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, globally, sex workers report increased discrimination, harassment, and punitive crackdowns resulting in violence, the raiding of their homes, compulsory COVID-19 testing, arrests, and threatened deportation of migrant sex workers.[i] Many sex workers have suffered compromised health due to poverty, criminalization of their profession, multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and stigma. Also, in Thailand, the coronavirus outbreak has hit them hard. Since their work is criminalized in Thailand, sex workers were not included in some of the social protection measures put in place to mitigate the effects of COVID-19–such as the cash handout provided by the government to workers in the informal sector. Criminalization of sex work has also resulted in structural problems of harassment by law enforcement agencies with a combination of compliance and fear. During the crisis, they are left behind. Many sex workers lack access to information about COVID-19 prevention and supplies as the criminalization of sex work and high levels of stigma hinder sex workers from participating in some community-level health information initiatives. Additionally, migrant sex workers (both regular and irregular) face further challenges in accessing information and essential services, as well as the risk of arrest and deportation due to their lack of legal documents.
After the first COVID-19 case in Thailand was confirmed on 13 January 2020, the Government of Thailand was prompted to launch social and economic measures to mitigate the effects on the general population. This led to the government putting in place lockdown measures to counter the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). However, sex workers were one of the vulnerable groups who were unable to access state support. Since commercial sex is illegal in Thailand, sex workers are excluded from many of the schemes in the Social Security System and are therefore largely left to fend for themselves. As an example, in a survey conducted by UNAIDS in April and May 2020, 72% of the respondents reported that they were not eligible to apply for government assistance due to the illegal status of their occupation. Many of them were breadwinners of their families and the lockdown put them in a situation where they were not able to make ends meet. Sex workers who are migrants or stateless (predominantly from Thailand’s ethnic minority groups) are formally undocumented; therefore, they lack access to government support and risk being arrested because of their illegal status in the country.[ii] The pandemic has heavily disrupted the country's economy, of which tourism is a significant sector. The Royal Thai government ordered the closure of entertainment venues in the country in March, which has affected an estimate of145,000 sex workers living in Thailand[iii]. The outbreak has had a severe socioeconomic impact on sex workers' lives, further exacerbated by the lack of social protection measures.
Sex workers in Thailand face a serious loss of income and have become increasingly vulnerable due to the restrictive measures put in place to respond to the coronavirus pandemic according to the findings from the community-repaid assessment with support from the UNAIDS. These findings fed into the United Nations country team's socio-economic impact assessment and informed the development of recommendations for immediate actions to support the sex workers' access to health and quality of life during COVID-19.[iv]
In respond to this circumstance, UNDP recently supported two studies to conduct training needs assessment of the male, female, and LGBTI sex workers who are Thai citizens, stateless people, and non-Thai (migrants). The studies identified key barriers for sex workers to access training, apart from stigma and discrimination. It also identified main areas that the Thai government should occupy to enable the economic empowerment of sex workers, including but not limited to vocational and skills training. This will help them to participate in the labor market that includes career coaching or job-matching, etc.
[i] UNAIDS, Sex workers must not be left behind in the response to COVD-19, 8 April 2020
[ii] WHO Thailand, Protecting sex workers in Thailand during the COVID-19 pandemic: opportunities to build back better, http://www.who-seajph.org/article.asp?issn=2224-3151;year=2020;volume=9;issue=2;spage=100;epage=103;aulast=Janyam;type=3
[iii] UNAIDS Thailand, Feature Story https://www.unaids.org/en/resources/presscentre/featurestories/2020/june/20200601_thailand, 1 June 2020
[iv] UNAIDS Thailand, https://www.unaids.org/en/20200507_Thai_sex_workers
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