In most countries, governments are mobilizing to provide workers with emergency packages to endure the pandemic. But although worthy policies have been put in place, there are still many people who are sidelined when it comes to basic rights during COVID-19. These are not necessarily people in the “shadows” of society, but rather those whose existence is not totally acknowledge by the State. Therefore, they are left without rights or protections, even when they are engaging in key activities to keep everyone else safe and healthy.
Here are the main groups left out of COVID-19 emergency support:
People, mostly women, in the sex trade
There are many legal frameworks to address prostitution, but whether we are talking about countries where prostitution is completely legal or countries where it is completely illegal, the truth is that most people in the sex trade are in such vulnerable situations that COVID-19 is ruining their lives.
Many countries where prostitution is legal, such as Germany and The Netherlands, decided to shut down brothels entirely during the lockdown without providing people in the sex trade with any other support. Although a minority of people in the sex trade could apply for emergency support given to independent workers, most were not registered as such. Plus, for many migrants, the brothels were not only their “workplace” but also their accommodation, so some were left homeless.
In Europe, most people in the sex trade are women and girls, from either Eastern Europe or the Global South, usually with irregular status. Therefore, COVID-19 has rendered a vulnerable population even more vulnerable and governments have not been able to properly address the needs of these women. Instead, in places like Germany, some States have even started penalizing them for being out in the streets looking for clients. Not only are these women risking infection, they are also disrespecting lockdown regulations and can therefore be fined.
In many countries, the informal economy – made up of diverse groups of workers, such as scavengers, domestic workers and street vendors – is how a significant part of the population makes their living. However, these kinds of workers are not registered and they don’t pay taxes on their income (usually quite limited as well). Since the lockdown started, informal workers have been busy assisting with care work, collecting trash, sowing and selling masks, etc. But one of the reasons why they have not stopped working is because most governments do not recognize their existence, therefore they were not covered by emergency support packages.
Considering the key role of informal workers in most economies, it’s a disgrace to ignore their specific needs. But unfortunately, many have even been more persecuted and harassed during the pandemic as potential disseminators of the virus. Others have continued to endure risky situations for their health and wellbeing to make sure they can continue to make a living, even if it means endangering themselves. Informal workers have perfected the art of hustling over the years and COVID-19 has not destroyed their energy, but it will cause a big dent on their already precarious financial stability.
Migrants have already been identified several types as one of the key vulnerable groups during the pandemic, but the ones really at risk are undocumented migrants. These are the migrants who do not have the necessary legal requirements to work or live in a given country, therefore they have to pretend they do not exist. As such, they are obviously left out of any official government support and many have to depend on charities or NGOs.
Undocumented migrants are sometimes blamed for everything in Europe and the United States, but they play a big role in the economy, especially in labor-intensive sectors such as agriculture. Some European countries are already thinking about granting temporary residency permits to undocumented migrants for the summer, just so they can come help pick the fruits and vegetables that make up a significant part of European exports.
Still, many are still being forced to endure situations of extreme exploitation to remain in their countries of destination. Having risked sometimes everything to reach a particular country or city, undocumented migrants are staying put, but the threat of a looming economic crisis can ruin their chances of building a new life outside of their home countries.
Statelessness is mostly an invisible problem. It can’t be visually detected and it has no physical or mental implications. But it can have a devastating impact on the lives of people who have no country to call their own, no identification, no passport and, therefore, little to no chance of moving across borders legally.
Stateless people are in a worse position than undocumented migrants because they do not have even countries of origin. A few were born already in refugee camps or other places controlled by the international community, amidst conflicts that spread for years. Statelessness impacts millions of people across the world, including in Europe, but it is rarely talked about and most stateless people do not have access to any legal rights or protections – they are permanently in an irregular situation, totally incompatible with the bureaucratic welfare system.
Exclusion endangers everyone
What all of these groups have in common is exclusion. They are marginalized from mainstream society and many people are members of multiple vulnerable groups at once – for example, stateless people and undocumented migrants may only work in the informal sector to survive, and many women in the sex trade are undocumented migrants themselves.
The virus can infect anyone with deadly consequences, but not all lives are treated with the same worth and dignity by governments. Instead, the existence of many people was purposely ignored or sidelined, leaving millions at risk. Although these policies of exclusion may seem to egoistically benefit the rest of society, they actually allow the virus to spread even further, infecting more people and endangering all of us.
The motto of the COVID-19 response should be leave no one behind – sadly, that’s exactly what we did.