Discrimination, Debt and Depression: Delhi’s Transgender people through COVID-19

    HealthCOVID-19Discrimination, Debt and Depression: Delhi’s Transgender people through COVID-19
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    Discrimination, Debt and Depression: Delhi’s Transgender people through COVID-19

    A sense of trepidation hung wordlessly in the air as volunteers milled around corridors when Aarohan’s doors reopened for staff, volunteers and members of the transgender community. There remained the sense that this existence was frail, severely damaged even, by everything that had preceded it.

    Vaibhav Raghunandan

    Baking under the October sun, the top floor of the Aarohan office in North-West Delhi is the site for a voluntary medical check-up. Two doctors, masked and gloved, sit at a small table packed with medicines. The city and its people were still recovering from the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    The health check-up offered by the NGO helps many on hormone medication ad educate and those in the sex industry and alleviate disease and infection. The camp in October follows the last one in the month of March 2021 since the lockdown that came with the second wave of COVID-19. So, it was much needed.

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    The health check-up also complements a legal assistance service Aarohan offers to the area’s transgender people.

    The lawyer, who volunteers with the NGO to provide free legal advice to those that need it sits at a slightly separated table. She is surrounded by young girls, all of them laughing and joking around, a sense of frivolity in the air.

    “It is like this today because we are all meeting after a long time,” one of the girls says, before cheekily venturing, “Ek kaam karo – take some pictures of us.”


    Mayuri, 23, jokes and laughs awaiting her turn to go to the doctor’s table. They discuss some rashes she’s been experiencing on her face, and determine that it’s probably because of some insect bite suffered in the days prior. “It’s best to be safe,” she says.

    “It was… unexpectedly tough and very scarring,” she says, detailing the troubles the pandemic caused.

    Mayuri’s father runs a small shop under their modest house in Mangolpuri, which was completely shut down during the pandemic. In addition to attending the shop Mayuri also worked as a makeup artist at weddings. “But, once the pandemic hit home, the work… just went away. We took on crushing debt,” she mourns.

    All around, Mayuri saw families collapse under the strain of trying to survive. Her family too borrowed money from local lenders and contractors just to survive.

    “People didn’t have enough to eat. All our income sources dried up. It was just a terrible time.” To make matters worse, stuck at home with no access to her friends from the transgender community and none to share her pain and experiences with, Mayuri felt left in a vulnerable and lonely space – one she is still struggling to come to terms with.

    She says, “Staying at home, stuck in a room, looking out of a window, samajh aya, ek chidiye ko pinjre mei kaisa lagta hoga (Understood what a caged bird feels like).”

    Government support insufficient

    A sense of trepidation hung wordlessly in the air as everyone mingled in the corridors when Aarohan’s doors reopened for staff, volunteers and members of the transgender community. There remained the sense that this existence was frail, severely damaged even, by everything that had preceded it.

    The change was discernible. Pushpa, the programme coordinator and counsellor who had been diagnosed with cancer just prior to the pandemic had undergone chemotherapy and radiation therapy and experienced a decrease in immunity (and all its associated risks) at a time when everyone was locked up, masked up, trying to stay safe.

    Yet, throughout the pandemic, despite the strife, Pushpa found ways to stay in touch with members of the community who relied on the NGO, and the safe space it provided — a place they congregated not just to discuss their struggles but also to celebrate their joys.

    “Many of these girls have been forced out of their families, live alone, and are often stigmatised in society in ways we cannot even imagine,” she says. “Imagine the loneliness you felt, sitting at home, unable to meet your support structure. Now, multiply that by a thousand.”

    As aid, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment approved a one-time aid transfer of Rs. 1,500 for the transgender community during the pandemic in 2020. Then, the same in 2021. While the scheme may have been progressive — official records say they spent Rs. 98.5 lakh to benefit close to 7,000 transgender persons across the country — the amount was insufficient.

    Delhi Transgender rights sexual health Beauty Oxfam India

    Vaccines misinformation

    During the second wave Aarohan helped distribute dry rations, and safety and hygiene kits to 100 transgender people with support from Oxfam India’s Mission Sanjeevani programme. The programme was helpful, but also highlighted how much inequality remained.

    Garima, says that a lack of information on how to tackle the virus, in addition to the stigma inflicted by society (“they behave like touching us will infect them with something or the other”) meant even those who managed to save money, and had the means, couldn’t access basic services.

    Garima who is a volunteer at Aarohan and is also a transgender person says that technology helped, though with its limits, especially because it provided the people anonymity. Yet, being a double-edged sword that it is, technology was also tooled to propagate misinformation. For instance, transgender people were not very certain about the vaccine. In addition, a dearth of government advocacy, information and measures that were more inclusive (rather than based on scare tactics and belligerent sloganeering) contributed to a rise in people relying on social media to learn about what the vaccine meant.

    Alina, 31, a programme co-ordinator at Aarohan says that in the early days, members of the transgender community almost point blank refused to take the vaccine having heard how it affects organs, causes chemical imbalances and eventual death among those who took it.

    “It took a lot of effort on our part to convince them,” she says. “Firstly, we took it ourselves, made videos of the whole process, and asked others who had voluntarily done so to make videos to educate others too.”

    “We held camps, outreach programmes, basically told people that it was a measure to protect them rather than subjugate them,” Alina explains.


    The sense of alienation from society compounded their fears. “The pandemic took away any work that members of the community were engaged in,” she says. “It caused a deep panic and mentally devastated many people. Those who earned their money by going to weddings and birth ceremonies completely lost out. Sex workers were coerced into providing service upon guarantee of some goods and aid, but most often they were cheated.”

    Alina points to other, more practical issues with the government support too. “They gave rations and foodstuff to cook. But for those without money had not access to fuel. They gave cash transfers, but there were few places stocked to buy things from…”

    The government also set up helplines for persons seeking counselling. The government also wrote clear directives to vaccination centres to not discriminate. But members of the community testify that the government’s well-intentioned directives did not really work.

    “It has been so many years since the Supreme Court recognised transgender people as a third gender in the country but actually there is no realisation of this on the ground at all,” Alina says.

    “If I go to a hospital, they will look at my name and categorise me as a woman. They may look at me and categorise me as a man. They haven’t informed themselves at all. There were supposed to be three types of public toilets right? How many do you actually see in this city, the capital of this country?”


    In addition to such deep rooted prejudices, even businesses and jobs for transgender persons have been hard to come by in recent times. Many of the girls visiting Aarohan who were self-employed or undertook freelance work as make-up artists at beauty parlours, or were sex workers or costume designers lost their work.

    The money in the market has dried up, Alina says. A lack of work, the driving motivation, has caused deep despair.

    Take for instance the story of Sakshi, 23. Sakshi ran away from her family in Nangloi when she was still in her teens, determined to find her way in the city by herself. While the relationship healed over the years, going back home was, in many ways, worse than staying alone at a space she called her own.

    “I don’t mind the mask, the lockdown, and all of that comes with it,” Sakshi says. “Even in lockdown I was able to talk to my friends, stay in touch, seek and give help. The problem has been, and continues to be earning money. If I can’t pay my rent, then I won’t have a place to stay. Ration toh mil raha hai, but rehne ki jagah nahi ho toh… kya fayda (what use is the ration if there isn’t a place to stay)?”

    Vaibhav Raghunandan is a photographer, journalist and designer.  This story has been written as part of an assignment for Oxfam India, New Delhi.


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