MANASH PRATIM DUTTA writes how the transgender community was stymied by the corona challenge.
Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, health became a serious concern for every single person. And health-related rules and regulations became an integral part of our daily life once the Health Department took immediate measures to combat the virus. The general public now seems confident in its ability to fight the disease.
However, the situation with the transgender community in Assam is different. They not only remain alienated from society, but they are also deprived of access to adequate health services. In the time of corona their daily lives became that much more critical.
It is sufficient to cite just one example to illustrate this glaring reality. It is the story of Mantu Ram Das, a transgender resident of Bongaigaon district of lower Assam. Before the beginning of the pandemic, Mantu, along with her husband, used to live in Mumbai, where she worked in an NGO and her husband earned his living by working as a carpenter.
After imposition of the nationwide lockdown, the couple returned by train to their native village in June 2020. After routine health check-ups, health workers first sent the couple to home quarantine. However, people of her village raised objections over the decision of the health officials. Ultimately, they had to be shifted to a nearby quarantine centre.
The situation Mantu faced at the quarantine centre unmasked the callous attitude of the government regarding providing health facilities to the transgender people in the time of pandemic.
According to Mantu, after reaching the quarantine centre, the health workers allotted her a bed in the male ward. She immediately approached the senior health officials and urged them to arrange separate arrangements, as it was not possible for her to stay in either a male or a female ward in the quarantine centre. Initially no one responded, but after repeated appeals, she was shifted to the female ward.
After the issue was raised by Mantu, the State Health Department decided to make special arrangements for transgender people in specific quarantine centres.
Meanwhile, a section of transgender people of the State said that due to lack of proper arrangements at the COVID care centres they avoided going for a COVID-19 test. As a result, there is no specific data available on the number of transgender persons succumbing to COVID-19 in the State till date. During an investigation carried out by this writer, it was found that no positive COVID-19 case from the transgender community has been reported in the State till date. It may be because they did not contract the virus or because they stayed away from going through with the test.
Meanwhile, a section of leading transgender persons from the State have stated that the HIV positive transgender people had a very tough time during the lockdown. Notably, Assam has a sizeable number of HIV positive transgender people, especially those who are involved in sex work. Fortunately, with the beginning of the lockdown, the Assam State AIDS Control Society arranged home delivery of medicines through some NGOs for them.
Again, it is noteworthy that due to social alienation, the transgender people of Assam, in most cases, opt for private hospitals, especially small clinics, rather than government hospitals, although it is a costly affair.
Confirming this, the Assam State Policy for Transgender people states that this section of people is often excluded from public health services. Many of them cannot afford specialised treatment and counselling that they require and consequently, they fall prey to diseases and mental health issues.
A section of senior doctors from Guwahati said that not only during the lockdown period but in other times too, accessing health services is a challenge for the community, as there is a lack of awareness about them among the health workers and doctors and as a result, most transgenders even today lag behind in availing proper health facilities.
One exception to accessing private healthcare was the Psychiatry Department of Gauhati Medical College and Hospital. This department continued the treatment of transgender people even during the lockdown. The psychiatrists here extended online counselling and other treatment to transgender people during the lockdown. Notably, most transgender people visit the psychiatry department of the hospital before going through a sex reassignment surgery.
But in case of other diseases, transgender people of Assam think twice before visiting crowded hospitals as there is the chance of facing any kind of untoward incident. The pandemic and lockdown only exacerbated the stigma and discrimination they faced.
(The study was carried out under the Zubaan-Sasakawa Peace Foundation Grant for Journalists from the Northeast.)