“After COVID-19 kicked in, it has been too difficult to get customers,” says Teddy Francis John, a sex worker from Zanzibar. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, she has faced increased difficulties to earn an income to provide for herself and her two children.
“Everything has become tough and I had to start a small business of selling alcohol—local brew,” she says. The business also helps her meet new clients, as they come to her for drinks and are less vigilant about social distancing guidelines.
Ms John used to live and work in Zanzibar town, but to better earn an income and avoid paying rent, she decided to move to a more rural area. Here, she says, she can more easily find new customers for her local brew.
Rehema Peter is facing a similar situation, just on the other side of the ocean on Tanzania Mainland. She lives in the crowded suburb of Temeke in Dar es Salaam and works as a sex worker and volunteers as a peer counsellor for people living with HIV and for people who use drugs.
Her clients were regulars who used to come to her house, or she would visit those she could trust in their homes. But when COVID-19 broke out, they stopped coming.
“Coronavirus made life very hard. Payment at work used to be little and when COVID-19 came it reinforced the situation. On the side of my partners [clients], they stopped visiting and calling me. The very few who used to visit me often, I called them, but they said they have no money because of COVID-19, as some stopped going to their jobs,” says Ms Peter.
At her job as a peer counsellor she was offered fewer shifts, meaning a lower income. Because she is a former drug user, she has received some support through the Tanzania Network for People who Use Drugs (TaNPUD), which has been supported by UNAIDS to distribute food and hygiene items to people who currently use drugs and people in recovery.
“I just try to be calm and find other means [of income]. I’m searching for additional organizations that can help or support me anyhow. I also try to prepare soap and oil from the knowledge that TaNPUD gave me and I sell it,” says Ms Peter.
Both Ms Peter and Ms John are living with HIV and are on HIV treatment. Due to the advocacy and assistance of UNAIDS and other partners of the Tanzanian government, disruptions to HIV services have been minimal in the country. This is felt by both women.
“During this time, it has become difficult to get services in government health facilities; unless you go to a private hospital where you must have cash. However, there is no problem at all in getting HIV-related services, including my treatment,” says Ms John.
Ms Peter say she can now get three months multi-month dispensing of antiretroviral treatment—even up to six months—since the healthcare staff do not want congestion in the clinics. This has helped both women in adhering to their treatment.
Both Ms Peter and Ms John have experienced an in increase in the stigma and social exclusion they also face as sex workers and as women living with HIV during the COVID-19 outbreak.
“As some people know that I am living with HIV, they tease me. They say ‘prepare yourself for death. People like you never heal. You must prepare for your final journey’” recounts Ms Peter. She has faced discrimination in the community, but her family stands by her.
Ms John also faced increased gossip and mocking of her because of her work.
“People in my surrounding communities started mocking me and others. They gossiped as to how I would earn a living as there are not going to be customers because of the COVID-19 outbreak.” Says Francis John
Despite the COVID-19 outbreak being declared over in Tanzania and despite their continued efforts to find other means of livelihood, earning an income is still hard for the two women, due to continued social distancing regulations.
“[It] has been very difficult to provide this service and this harmed us economically. I know COVID-19 has affected the whole world but it has affected sex workers more because of the nature of our services; it involves proximity,” says Ms John.