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Sex workers and the pandemic


Person standing under a red umbrella, the symbol for sex workers

The devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on South Africa’s economy have created emergencies for many sectors around the country. Hardest hit by the pandemic are sex workers – already one of the most stigmatized and discriminated-against communities in South Africa. The pandemic has exacerbated existing vulnerabilities faced by sex workers and with lockdown restrictions, it has been more difficult than ever for sex workers to operate with their workspaces having been closed and heavily regulated by law enforcement.

In a quest to find out about how the pandemic has impacted the sex worker community, NACOSA spoke with a sex worker who is part of our Global Fund programme. Alutha (not his real name) is a sex worker and peer educator from Gqeberha, who has lost half of his income due to the effects of the lockdown regulations.


“Life as a sex worker during the pandemic has been financially and emotionally devastating as the regulations do not allow for us as the community to work.”

“The financial situation that has been caused by the virus has affected our families tremendously as we had to make a lot of changes within our homes to make ends meet in order to survive.”

The COVID-19 lockdown in South Africa has had a tremendous impact on the income of the sex worker community: “We disconnected from our clients for some time because of the safety regulations that came with the pandemic, we are paranoid a lot because we fear for our safety too, we are in a constant state of confusion as we sometimes struggle to differentiate between a normal flu and COVID-19, and this resulted to a lot of emotional stress that has been caused by the enormous deaths of our regular clients.”


Alutha said that they would like the government to decriminalise sex work so that they can work under normal, accepted and safe conditions as sex workers. The criminalization of sex work results in the abuse, rape and harassment of sex workers by the community, clients and even the police. “We request for health workers to be trained to work with us better because we get discriminated against when trying to access health services as the community.”

Despite these challenges, Alutha and his fellow sex workers are doing what they can to keep safe: “We emphasize as a community that for those who are at the right age should register and go get the vaccine, to keep healthy hygiene – sanitize constantly, take note of their body changes in case one contracts the virus and to ask their clients to follow all the rules alike.”

The pandemic has further exacerbated the vulnerabilities of sex workers – compounded by the stigma and discrimination sex workers experience due to the criminalization of sex work. If South Africa is a nation that advocates for human rights, then giving sex workers the right to practice in safer conditions and including them in support interventions in emergencies, like food parcels and grants, should be a priority.

By Zingisa Mase, Communications Officer