How Covid-19 affects South Africa’s sex workers

With nothing in the way of government support, sex workers, among the first to lose their income because of the virus, are forced to rely on the generosity of others to eat.

It was something of a scramble, but Eugene van Rooyen had to get it done. On a late Thursday morning, with only hours to go before the country went into lockdown, Van Rooyen drove across the city of Cape Town – Delft, Kenilworth, Observatory, Salt River, District Six and a few more in-between – delivering some relief to the destitute. But, he says, “always giving preference to sex workers”.

Van Rooyen, who is the Western Cape area manager for the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat), says: “Because we are aware that all homeless people will be hit hard by the coronavirus, we handed out vouchers to homeless people in general – but always gave preference to people [who] are sex workers.”

Pooling resources with trans rights organisation Gender Dynamix, the organisations raised enough money for R200 Spar shopping vouchers. “We decided to use the budget we would ordinarily have used on providing educational workshops and bought food vouchers with that entire budget,” Van Rooyen explains. 

“Our helpline has been receiving calls from panic-stricken people from all walks of life who are sex workers but are being affected in different ways,” he says. “You know, there are people who haven’t got money to pay their rent. There are people who don’t have money to buy food for their children. There are people [who] are sick. But there are also those who have joined up with whatever initiatives are going on in their community and joined up as volunteers. So everyone is being affected in different ways, and some are just more empowered than others. But the homeless people, for example, are in such a panic because they are wandering around the CBD, which is completely deserted. They don’t know what’s going to happen to them.” 

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Under the Nelson Mandela Bridge in District Six, Van Rooyen handed out the much-needed food vouchers to a group of homeless transgender sex workers. “You know, they are really scared. The area under the bridge is normally so packed with people – there are taxis; there are informal traders. It’s usually pandemonium and chaos. But there’s nothing now. It’s deserted. There are only a few shacks there. And when I got there, people were hiding away in their shacks. They wouldn’t even come out to speak to me. And I know them very well. They know me very well.”

One of them is Wabzu, a soft-spoken 31-year-old trans woman. Originally from Elsies River on the Cape Flats, Wabzu has been a sex worker for “about 10 years now”. 

“This thing did really affect me,” she says. “Clients don’t come out at all because of the corona. So it is really hard to get clients. I didn’t get a client since information about the virus [hitting South Africa] came out. I went out to work last night – me and another trans sister of mine – and we never could get a client. Until this morning. Not one client. So it’s difficult … From 8pm last night to 2am this morning and nothing. And it’s not usually like that. I don’t have any money at the moment. Nothing. It’s terrible. I don’t have food. But I was there by my sister last night and at least she had some food she could give me. We are helping each other out like that.”

Sex workers across South Africa left without any income due to the outbreak of the virus locally have little choice but to depend on the generosity of others to survive, given that there is no government assistance coming their way. 

Missing from the conversation 

In his address to the county, during which the nationwide lockdown was announced, President Cyril Ramaphosa called it “a decisive measure to save millions of South Africans from infection and save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people”.

South Africans were urged to stay home during the three-week lockdown, non-essential businesses to close and only essential workers to continue working. 

In a joint statement, Sweat and Sisonke, a sex workers movement, expressed concern that “this drastic decision comes with many uncertainties for unskilled workers in the country, including sex workers”.

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“The president in his speech on Monday has vowed to ‘prioritise the lives and livelihoods of our people above all else, and will use all of the measures that are within our power to protect them from the economic consequences of this pandemic’. [We] have noted with concern how sex workers are missing from the general conversations about support for workers throughout the pandemic and lockdown … Sex workers among other vulnerable workers remain the most marginalised of all workers, whose work is not recognised as work in South Africa. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, sex workers have been the first group of workers to be affected financially by the spread of the virus. The loss of income due to the coronavirus outbreak has meant loss of shelter, inability to access food, healthcare, medications and other basic necessities for sex workers and their dependents,” the statement read. 

The organisations also called for sex workers to be included in the president’s proposal for a special dispensation for companies that are in distress because of Covid-19, through which employees would receive wage payment through the Temporary Employee Relief Scheme, which will enable companies to pay employees directly during this period and avoid retrenchment.

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“Sex work is currently criminalised in South Africa and sex workers are considered criminals – not workers. And as the hardest-hit group of workers by the global pandemic, they will most likely not qualify for the Temporary Employee Relief Scheme,” the statement read as it called on the government to “make urgent provision to the ‘Temporary Employee Relief Scheme’ to include sex workers … as their livelihood has been disrupted”.

Media outlets nationally, however, took to proclaiming that, through the statement, “sex workers are calling on President Cyril Ramaphosa to include them as an essential service” – an untruth that Van Rooyen is visibly angry about.

“The statement was twisted around completely in the mainstream media. That is not at all what we were saying. Maybe someone thought it was funny to twist it around in this way and this was just passed on without people checking their facts? So everyone is now thinking this is a real thing that sex workers are demanding,” he says.

Food parcels for survival

According to a report conducted by Sweat, South Africa has about 158 000 sex workers, most of them women. A 2013 study published in the South African Medical Journal found that female sex workers were responsible for supporting “a median of four adult and/or child dependants”. A 2017 study about sex workers in Soweto found that only 13.2% of female sex workers did not have children, 32.2% had one child, 33.5% had two children and 21.1% had three or more children. 

Nomda Qwesha is a 35-year-old mother of two. Qwesha says the money she has been making as a sex worker for the past 20 years, is “not enough, but we can live on it”. 

Unable to work since the outbreak of the virus locally, Qwesha’s meagre income stream has, however, run dry.   

“There is no food,” she says from the rented room in East London she shares with her daughter. “Instead, I am making debt. I am borrowing money from people just to survive. It’s little bits. Because I am taking R50, R100 from people that are willing to help me out. It makes me feel bad. More especially for my daughter looking at me crying, asking me to put food on the table while I know that there is nowhere that I can get it. It was better when the schools were open, because at school they were eating. But now they cannot eat because there is no money. By month end, I have to pay rent but there is nowhere I can get the money, because I have not worked for the past eight days now. Because of corona. So me and my child we are facing a difficult choice now because we cannot eat; we cannot pay rent. We don’t know what is going to happen when the landlord is looking for her money.”

26 March 2020: Eugene van Rooyen, who works with SWEAT, the sex workers education advocacy task force, hands out food parcels to homeless sex workers in Woodstock.
26 March 2020: Eugene van Rooyen, who works with Sweat, the sex workers education advocacy task force, hands out food parcels to homeless sex workers in Woodstock.

Supporting the call for government assistance, Qwesha says: “We want them to supply us with food parcels for us to survive, instead of us taking risks and going to work. Because we also want to obey what the president is asking of us to not go outside and be safe. But we cannot… because this is affecting our wallets, you know? The more we are not getting help, the more it is going to tempt us to go out and do our quick money.” 

Erica Penfold is an independent consultant with the Centre for HIV/Aids Prevention Studies. Penfold says, “There’s a whole bunch of things that nobody has considered by putting sex workers out of work.

“Depending on how heavily policed the area is in which they work, it is either going to drive them underground or put them completely out of work. So those who are out of work will encounter severe problems related to poverty. Those that are driven underground will have a lot more to contend with because they are likely opening themselves up to more gender-based violence as they will have even less protection.”

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Despite the temptation to continue working in order to provide for her family, Qwesha is well aware of the risks the virus poses to her and her fellow sex workers. “This thing, eish,” she sighs. “I just want my colleagues to take this virus seriously. I want to see them alive. They mustn’t take risks. They must just look after themselves. God is going to be with us.”

Under the bridge in District Six, Tanya, a 42-year-old trans woman has just received her food voucher. At a loss for words at this turn of events, Tanya – who has been a sex worker for 25 years – speaks in short sentences, each one trailing off towards the end. 

“We are devastated… We don’t know where we are going to go to… What’s going to happen? There’s so many things going through my mind. So many things,” she says, abruptly ending the conversation. 

“They are just scared,” says Van Rooyen. “They are really just shit scared. They have the same needs as anybody else, you know. But this situation has really made it so much worse for them. So much worse.” 

*In the hopes of bringing relief to sex workers nationally, Sweat and Sisonke have created a solidarity fundraiser for sex worker allies

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