An Oral History of the COVID-19 Crisis: 'During lockdown, migrant sex workers experienced the biggest share of mental stress'
This account is part of Firstpost’s Oral History Project of the COVID-19 Crisis in India. The Oral History Project aims to be an ongoing compendium of individual experiences of the pandemic, with a focus on one significant day in our respondents’ lives during this time.
Kiran Deshmukh is a sex worker from Sangli's Rajwada Chowk area and a national coordinator at NNSW.
On a Saturday, a colleague from SANGRAM and I were out providing rations and other essential items to women living in the red-light districts. From one house to the other, we were meeting with sex workers, taking notes of their requirements, checking their health conditions and providing assistance if necessary. Sometime during the afternoon hours, we reached Rekha’s (name changed) room.
Rekha opened the door and my colleague and I entered. We handed her the emergency ration kit. "How long will this last?" Rekha asked us. I told her that the situation outside was severe and that the entire world was under lockdown. "We have to stay put in our homes and maintain social distance at any cost. If not anything, we have to do it for at least the next three months. And, if by any chance a vaccine comes out tomorrow, we can get back to work immediately," I replied, also giving details about all the preventive measures.
"Three months? What will we eat? How will we survive?" Rekha's voice had both shock and despair. She later told us that she was feeling unwell and had been running a fever. “I get a high fever and it lasts for two-three hours, and later it all gets normal. Then I feel better,” she told us.
It was already late afternoon on Saturday and given the fact that the government treatment centre would be shut on Sunday, I assured Rekha that early Monday morning we would come and take her to a doctor. "Do let us know if you need anything else," I told her. We then left for the other houses in the locality. Almost all of us were in the same state of mind. We thought we should be able to support each other and help ourselves see the positive side of life.
The next day at around 7'o clock in the morning I received a call: Rekha had died by suicide. We immediately took her to the civil hospital; the police also arrived. We reached out to her family members in Karnataka over the phone and they asked us to send her mortal remains there.
That was our biggest concern: how do we send Rekha’s remains to Karnataka? All of this was during lockdown, everything was shut. That time a lot of people were using ambulances to flee to their native villages or towns. It was something the authorities were also keeping tabs on. So even if we managed to get an ambulance and took Rekha’s body over to her family, how do we manage our return journey? What if the police stops us and puts us behind bars? All these questions were making us feel extremely helpless during this moment of tragedy. But somehow we managed to get all the necessary permissions from the concerned authorities.
Later we got to know that for a long time Rekha was yearning to meet her lover. The possibility of not seeing him for an indefinite amount of time was something Rekha couldn't live with.
During the lockdown, the biggest share of mental stress was among the migrant sex workers who’d come from one state/region to another. When they couldn’t go home, weren’t able reach their children, parents and other family members, their mental health was highly disturbed. Usually, it is she who bears the entire family’s expenses — children’s education, home loans, medical bills for ailing parents etc. With no work, there was no money at hand; she couldn’t transfer funds to her family.
— As told to Suryasarathi Bhattacharya
Write to us with your COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown experiences for inclusion in the Oral History Project at firstname.lastname@example.org
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