For LGBT+ people, the pandemic is far from over

by Jessica Stern | OutRight Action International
Thursday, 11 March 2021 09:22 GMT

A person wearing a protective face mask attends a demonstration for the rights of transgender people, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at Puerta del Sol square in Madrid, Spain, July 4, 2020. REUTERS/Juan Medina

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As many celebrate the prospect of a return to normal, LGBT+ communities are being left far worse off than before the pandemic

Jessica Stern is executive director of OutRight Action International.

March 11 marks the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring COVID-19 a global pandemic. A year on, news reports seem hopeful. In the US, where I live, President Joe Biden’s administration promises that every person will have access to a vaccine by the end of May. In parts of Europe, too, a return to some semblance of normalcy appears within reach. Yet, the news we hear from LGBT+ people around the world couldn't be more different. Our communities are not recovering. In fact, LGBT+ people appear to be worse off than they were a year ago.

All vulnerable communities are more deeply affected in times of crisis. In the US, Black and Latinx people continue to become infected and die from COVID-19  at much higher rates than white people. The United Nations reveals that millions more women have lost jobs in the pandemic and have had to bear more of the burden of caring for children and elderly family members.

For LGBT+ people, the same marginalization that we lived with before COVID-19 produced heightened crises during the pandemic, leading to higher rates of domestic violence, amplified challenges accessing healthcare, a devastation of livelihoods due to overrepresentation in informal sector jobs, and scapegoating for the crisis.

Compounding that is the fact that humanitarian responses often exclude LGBT+ people. Historically, they’ve used narrow definitions of family, anti-LGBT+ locations, or biased staff for emergency interventions. In Sri Lanka, for example, early in the pandemic, OutRight documented instances where food aid was distributed in police stations. Homosexuality is criminalized in Sri Lanka, so LGBT+ people could not access food aid without fearing arrest.

In the Philippines, aid was often distributed to family units. Lesbian couples told us of being turned away for not constituting a family. Similarly, unemployment benefits are often based on income. That means that if a person works in the informal economy, as too many LGBT+ people do, that isn’t accessible either.

Meanwhile, LGBT+ organizations are essential workers for their community, and they are struggling. They’ve been inundated with new demands because of COVID – having to adjust their work to provide resources for basic survival and advocating for vaccine access – on top of ongoing advocacy for their communities. All of this comes while economies are in crisis, meaning that charitable dollars decrease, and LGBT+ organizations scramble to make their budgets. Many groups have had to shutter their offices, leaving countless LGBT+ people without a lifeline.

Compounding the crisis LGBT+ people face further still is unequal access to vaccines.  In terms of doses per 100 residents, Israel has already administered 99, the UK, 35.6 and the US, 28.3. The contrast with less affluent nations is stark. Brazil, with one of the highest infection rates in the world, has administered 5.4 doses per 100 residents. Mexico and Bangladesh have administered just 2.4, and Egypt only 0.001. This means that for the foreseeable future, most people in the world will continue to live with the crisis of the past year, and since the global south has more of the world’s population and more of the world’s laws criminalizing homosexuality, the majority of LGBT+ people in the world will continue to be in crisis. 

OutRight launched a COVID emergency fund in April 2020 to support LGBT+ organizations on the frontlines, and because we are not seeing our communities recover, we have just released a new call for applications. Within days of the launch, we received applications telling an alarming story of communities in severe crisis worse than that a year ago. All savings have long been spent, leaving nothing left.

Anniversaries are a time for reflection. Now we know that a pandemic hurts every one of us, and it cannot be overcome unless everyone is included in the recovery effort. Anniversaries can also be a time to honor inter-dependence, a recognition that we’re stronger together.  At this moment in the pandemic, LGBT+ people, other marginalized communities, and people across the global south are being forgotten. Until everyone is included, LGBT+ people too, we will all be at risk.