New Delhi: The narrow lanes and streets of the infamous red light area of Mumbai, which otherwise used to be flooded with people during evening and night hours, now remain deserted. Sex workers are now seen sitting outside and plucking each other’s grey hair as the small rooms they live in don’t allow for social distancing. While the unlocking in phases has started to bring life back to normalcy for others, it is not the case for sex workers. In Maharashtra, as part of “Mission begin again”, unlocking was started, to resume some economic activities, but for thousands of sex workers in South Mumbai’s Kamathipura—one of the biggest red-light areas of the country—the question that is uppermost on their minds is when they can begin their “economic activity” of earning a livelihood.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the crisis that has followed have opened a Pandora’s Box of problems for sex workers. In-person sex work is intimate by its very nature, and workers are at a heightened risk of contracting the virus if they keep working. But without work, sex workers struggle to survive. Thousands of sex workers in Mumbai, worst hit by the pandemic, are struggling for their daily livelihood. Till date, since the past more than two months, not a single brothel is open. Even as the lockdown partially lifts, sex trade operations are not allowed yet. “We have not got a single customer in the past more than two months and before this also, due to the corona scare, hardly one-two clients used to come. We live hand to mouth and currently when there is no earning, how will we feed ourselves? People who are providing us with ration kits and some packets of food are doing so as part of social service; otherwise, we would have died due to hunger and not corona,” said Gudiya who doesn’t know her age, but says “I am above 30”.

Covid-19 brings difficulty for them to make their ends meet as they depend on daily earnings and now there are no customers and they barely have any savings. Instead, they are under a load of debt now incurred for survival. Gudiya said, “We have to pay for this small room, rents range from Rs 100-250 for a day. While some room owners are good and haven’t taken rents, some have kept it as debt to be cleared after the pandemic subsides. With no income in hand currently, we have to borrow some Rs 50-100 daily or once in two days for survival.”

In these tough times, a few NGOs are helping them. Shankhar Mugalkhod, a social worker known as “Anna” in the area from Grace foundation who has been working here for more than 20 years, said: “We feed 1,700-1,800 people daily and have given door-to-door ration kits as well. Due to non-payment of room rents, many are kicked out; so we inform cops who come to save them. We have also sent more than 500 people to their hometown in Kolkata as there will be no work for them here for a few months more. How long can we keep providing them with help?”

As the state reopens, whenever they are allowed to work, they have to endanger their health to survive. “I know and understand it is risky, but other than starting our work, what other option do we have? Else, give us some other work to do, but I doubt if I will be able to do anything else,” said Savita, who has a four-year-old daughter and is ready to work even if it means putting her health at risk, as in the past 3-4 months, she has not been able to send any money to her ailing parents.

The pandemic has created a catastrophic health and economic crisis that has also highlighted the fragile existence of these workers who can’t practise social distancing as the small rooms they stay in barely have any space for social distancing.