COVID-19 threatens both the lives and livelihoods of sex workers yet governments look the other way. A new publication seeks to help sex workers get their attention.

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COVID’s many threats to sex workers

Last January we released an expert discussion online about how to effectively argue for the decriminalisation of sex work. Spanning multiple continents and disparate legal and policy environments, our contributors gave insights into the best strategies for ensuring that people who sell sex are protected; evaluated the increasingly widespread ‘Nordic’ model; and explained some of the ways that they defend sex workers’ interests in hostile and patronising state and civil society environments. In doing so, they reminded us again and again that sex workers are fighting for their lives and that decriminalisation is absolutely mandatory to increase safety. They also reminded us that organising and advocacy does not start, or end, with decriminalisation.

The world changed in the weeks that followed. In January, sex workers in Asia were reporting the impact of Coronavirus on their work. Client numbers were down, threats to their personal health and safety were ever-present, and their mobility was increasingly restricted. Asian massage workers in North America, Europe, and Australia lost much of their customer base to widespread xenophobia. The lockdowns that followed around the world sent many migrant sex workers home or forced them to endure a pandemic as undocumented migrants without a social safety net. The new regimes of quarantine have been mobilised against migrant sex workers to further police and contain their mobility. As social distancing and stay-at-home imperatives have spread across the world, sex workers have collectively experienced grave economic precarity due to loss of work. For many sex workers the situation is now desperate, and many are choosing to return to work despite the risk to their personal health.

Despite the heightened vulnerability that sex workers face under COVID-19, the vast majority of government economic relief efforts exclude sex workers on the grounds that sex work is criminalised and illegitimate. As a result, sex workers’ organisations around the world have not only set up mutual help and solidarity systems but renewed their calls for decriminalisation with an unprecedented sense of urgency. Their response is a rallying cry that must be heard.

The COVID-19 pandemic brutally demonstrates what happens to marginalised and excluded people when things start to go wrong. They die. This is why policymakers and advocates should reconsider the merits of decriminalisation, and we hope this blueprint helps continue these vital discussions in light of the urgency of this moment.