DemocracyWatch: African sex workers hit hard by lockdown laws

All around the world, the most marginalised groups have been hit hardest by lockdown laws and their enforcement.

9 June 2020, 1.54pm
Members of the African Sex Workers Alliance
African Sex Workers Alliance, Facebook.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, Ugandan sex worker Lillian Namiiro worked on the Tanzanian border, where she also educated her fellow sex workers and connected her community to the national HIV response. 

She reminded government workers to send antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) to nearby health centres. She checked whether sex workers needed drug refills, and gathered them for health talks about HIV tests, pre-exposure drugs (PrEP) or ARVs. 

But with the COVID-19 crisis, “All that ended. The sex workers who want drugs can’t get them,” Namiiro says. When she called the government health workers to ask for drugs, she was told to wait until COVID-19 was over.

Uganda’s ban on public gatherings ruled out health talks for sex workers. When transport was prohibited, except for cargo trucks, Namiiro knew that the health outreach teams could no longer get to her community. While some of these restrictions are now easing, bans on public transport and gatherings remain. 

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Countries across Africa have rolled out similar measures, causing major health system disruptions. People are afraid or unable to visit hospitals for regular care such as antenatal services, childbirth and immunisations. 

openDemocracy has learnt from 24 interviews across five countries that the most disrupted HIV-related services are those meant to prevent new infections, especially among populations considered most at risk of HIV – including sex workers.

You can read the rest of my colleagues’ investigation into the impact of lockdown on the HIV epidemic across Africa here, and at 5pm UK time/4pm GMT on Thursday you can join our weekly live discussion, which this week will look at whether lockdown in Africa has been worth it.

This is just one example of how the pandemic is impacting on human rights, democracy and civil liberties around the world. Read our weekly update below for many more.

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Kazakhstan A warning from health minister Yelzhan Birtanov that people taking part in planned demonstrations risked arrest prompted activists to accuse the government of using the pandemic to crack down on free expression.

Kyrgyzstan Parliamentary elections scheduled for October may be postponed due to the virus.

India Almost 200 migrant workers died in road accidents in the first two months of the nationwide coronavirus lockdown.

India The scale of India's child labour problem was revealed as thousands of trafficked children were sent back home after factories closed.

India/Kashmir Authorities cited coronavirus in refusing to return the bodies of rebel fighters to their families.

Sri Lanka The president has established a task force of current and former military chiefs, some accused of war crimes, to “discipline” the nation as parliament remained suspended because of the pandemic.

China The Chinese government systematically relocated Uighur people to work in low-wage factory jobs for global corporations such as Nike, Adidas and Uniqlo as part of post-pandemic recovery plans.

Australia Aboriginal communities, who have been disproportionately affected by the virus in the Northern Territory, accused police of intimidation in their enforcement of lockdown measures.

Middle East/North Africa

Iraq Iraqi Kurdish security forces assaulted at least four journalists and detained two others who were covering protests against coronavirus restrictions.

Lebanon Ethiopian migrant workers sought sanctuary at their embassy in Beirut after losing their jobs because of the pandemic.

Syria An anti-regime protest in government-held territory continued for a second day as the pandemic compounded an economic crisis triggered by years-long civil war.

Morocco More than 500 Moroccans remained stuck outside two Spanish enclaves three months after their government closed the borders. 


Kenya Police action has been directly linked to the killings of fifteen people since the government imposed a curfew in March, according to a regulatory report. Around 200 people marched through Nairobi protesting against the increase in police violence.

Uganda The government stopped sending HIV medication to sex workers during the pandemic, an openDemocracy investigation found.

Somalia The combination of coronavirus, flooding and a locust infestation was increasing the threat to Somalis from human traffickers, experts warned.

Democratic Republic of the Congo The pandemic led the International Criminal Court to delay sending a task force to the Ituri region to investigate reports of attacks on civilians.

Sierra Leone The opposition APC party accused President Julius Maada Bio of exploiting the crisis to further weaken democractic checks and balances.

Ethiopia Parliamentary elections scheduled for August were delayed “until the pandemic is over”. 

Malawi The European Union withdrew funds for delayed elections, saying it was diverting the money to fight the pandemic.

Rwanda Fifty-one people were detained while gathering to pray, in violation of social distancing rules.


Armenia Several media outlets published the leaked names and birth dates of the 132 people who had died from the virus in what a health ministry spokesman called “a breach of human rights”.

Azerbaijan Three members of the opposition Popular Front Party were reportedly arrested a second time during since the pandemic began for ‘quarantine violations’.

Spain Twenty-six families of coronavirus victims brought a lawsuit against the Madrid regional government after documents suggested care home residents with underlying medical conditions had been triaged to prevent their transfer to hospital.

Turkey Three prominent members of the Turkish opposition were arrested and their immunity waived without parliamentary approval in what opposition politicians described as a "civil coup".

United Kingdom An analysis by campaign group Bail for Immigration Detainees of 42 bail cases during the pandemic found the Home Office’s decision-making “callous, unnecessary and contrary to public health advice and instructions”.

France A large-scale protest against police violence went ahead despite being officially banned because of lockdown restrictions.


Brazil The government ordered the health ministry to remove months of coronavirus data from an official website.

Brazil Thousands of people defied lockdown to demonstrate against the government's handling of the pandemic.

Brazil The Committee to Protect Journalists called on the government to add freedom of speech safeguards to a ‘fake news’ bill.

Peru At least twenty journalists have died of coronavirus since the onset of the pandemic, often after reporting on the pandemic without protective equipment, the Committee to Protect Journalists said.

Ecuador A journalist was attacked by a relative with alleged ties to local government after publishing a report critical of authorities’ response to the pandemic. 

Ecuador A stick of dynamite exploded outside an independent TV station’s office in what staff believed was retaliation for a series of reports about state-run hospitals allegedly buying coronavirus protection gear at inflated prices.

Climate and environment

Global emissions Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen strongly to a new peak this year, despite the impact of the coronavirus crisis.

Carbon credits The postponement of the next UN climate summit to November 2021 because of coronavirus was leaving projects to curb greenhouse emissions in developing countries in limbo, investors said.

Germany The government's economic stimulus included increased taxes for vehicles with higher emissions and did not include a scrapping subsidy for combustion-engine vehicles despite pressure from the car lobby.

EU Some of Europe’s most polluting companies were among recipients of coronavirus bailout money, research found.

UK Airlines, carmakers and oilfield engineers benefited by billions from the government’s economic rescue plans, despite ministers’ assurances on a green recovery from the coronavirus crisis.

UK A study of the higher rates of coronavirus deaths among minority ethnic groups was criticised for disregarding air pollution.

South Korea Economic recovery plans announced by the government did not directly address President Moon Jae-in’s pledge to reach net-zero emissions or to end coal financing, activists said.

Good news

New Zealand The health ministry declared the country coronavirus-free.

Nepal Coronavirus restrictions caused a reduction in pollution and created a favourable environment for birds.

UK Under pressure from openDemocracy, the government released details of NHS coronavirus deals including data-sharing contracts with Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Faculty and Palantir.

Armenia The US embassy announced that it would stop funding a website promoting misinformation about coronavirus following an openDemocracy investigation.

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