Pandemic devastating to Dominican transgender sex workers

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Santo Domingo (AFP)

Since the novel coronavirus first hit the shores of the Dominican Republic in March, Luna Veras, a transgender sex worker, has struggled to put bread on the table. Between fear of Covid-19 and a nightly curfew, her business has dropped by 80 percent.

"I live by sex work. In this time of the Covid-19 pandemic, we trans sex workers are in crisis. The economy has stopped," said Veras, who lives in a poor neighborhood in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Caribbean country, where prostitution is legal so long as it is voluntary.

The nightly curfew imposed by Dominican authorities as they struggle to slow the spread of the disease has dramatically impacted the sex workers' lives.

There have so far been 97,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 1,801 related deaths in this country of a bit less than 11 million inhabitants, according to government figures.

The 47-year-old Veras is HIV-positive and is "panicked" at the idea of contracting the coronavirus, given the drastic effect it could have on her health.

Still, she has continued working, making herself up each day just as she did before the pandemic, with one difference: she now wears a protective mask over her nose and mouth, which quickly gets stained by her fuchsia lipstick.

The curfew has brought dramatic change. Not only has work dropped off sharply, she now makes appointments only by phone, not in person.

So Veras is now a long way from the 10,000 pesos (about $170) she earned each month before the pandemic. To get by, she now cleans houses.

- 'Shame' keeps clients away -

Yohana Espinoza, another transgender prostitute, is also HIV-positive. It is impossible for her to find a regular, above-board job, for she was "not declared at birth" and has no birth certificate or legal identity papers.

She doesn't know how to read or write. In her tiny room, under a corrugated tin roof, two fans circulate the torrid air of a Dominican summer. And clients are few.

Twenty-year-old Henely Flores agrees that the nightly curfew -- in effect from 7:00 pm to 5:00 am in Santo Domingo -- has had a major impact.

"One day I got changed and went out to work. But I realized that clients were not stopping because it was still daylight and they were ashamed," she said. Things were so bad she had to ask a friend to take her in because she had no place to live.

With their income plummeting, many sex workers have become dependent on help from charities and international organizations.

"It's a difficult situation; some people are barely surviving," said Christian Kingsley, who heads TRANSSA, which provides assistance for transgender people. "We don't have the means, but we have tried to help them with food and protective equipment against Covid-19 -- one less thing they have to spend money on."

So far, he said, his group has helped 600 people to register for a government program called "Quedate en casa" (Stay home), which has provided monthly grants of 5,000 pesos to help people buy food since the beginning of the pandemic.