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How COVID-19 responses are endangering trans people in Latin America

‘It’s really a very difficult thing. And many trans women have been on the verge of suicide.’

A security guard blocking Allisson Blanco's access to a supermarket
A security guard blocking Allisson Blanco's access to a supermarket on 20 April in Panama City's Bella Vista township. (Allisson Blanco and Kylee Pedersen/TNH)

For Allisson Blanco, a transgender woman in Panama, the threat of COVID-19 is not the only danger on her mind when she leaves the house. 

In the two months since the start of the coronavirus spread within the region, a handful of Latin American countries, including Panama and Colombia, have implemented “pico y género” policies that call for men and women to shop on alternating days for basic necessities. 

For Blanco, that has meant regular confrontations with security guards who she says have tried to block her from entering her grocery store in Panama City. 

“It’s really a very difficult thing. And many trans women have been on the verge of suicide,” Blanco told The New Humanitarian by phone. 

Since lockdown measures were implemented in the wake of COVID-19, LGBTI groups around the world have reported spikes in levels of harassment and violence. Some have also reported that, due to clinic closures, there has been a lack of access to counselling and other health services, sometimes leading to interruptions to hormone treatments or to HIV medication

Peru implemented a similar “pico y género” policy for eight days in April before scrapping it after finding women’s days more congested than men’s days.

While the mayor’s office in the Colombian capital of Bogotá initially deemed the measure a “total success” and downplayed the reports of discrimination, the policy was lifted on 11 May in most cities. The Ombudsman’s Office acknowledged on Monday that the policy replicated existing stereotypes and discrimination. 

But in Panama, where there have been more than 9,726 COVID-19 cases and 279 deaths, the measure has remained in place even as the country has started to lift other restrictions. 

Blanco, who volunteers for the New Men and Women’s Association of Panama – a group representing LGBTI rights – said the impact on the trans community has been devastating, with several people having contacted her group at certain points, saying: “I want to die”. 

“I can't stand being locked up anymore, and, when I go out, being discriminated against or fined,” said Blanco. “And how can I pay a fine if I'm not working?’” 

Even in Bogotá, where the government called on police to respect people’s gender identity from the start, reports have emerged of transgender people being denied entry to supermarkets, harassed for documentation, even stabbed.

In Panama, where cases of detention, fines, and sexual harassment by police have been reported, authorities recently ordered law enforcement agents to avoid discriminating against trans people while COVID-19 restrictions are in place.

Allisson's experience at a grocery store in Panama

Have a look at Allisson’s experience at one supermarket.

‘Mental distress’

When Blanco fled Nicaragua in 2018 to seek refugee status in Panama, she was hoping for a reprieve from the death threats and physical and sexual violence she said she experienced at the hands of the Nicaraguan police in retaliation for her activism. 

“It’s really difficult,” she explained, her voice cracking as she described the stigma she faces on a daily basis because of the associatons of transgender women with sex work and HIV. 

While the “pico y género” measure was intended to reduce the amount of people on the streets, the trans community sees it as a policy of oppression. 

There are no precise figures for trans people in Panama or Colombia, but a 2015 survey estimated there were more than 3,000 in Bogotá. A 2018 study in Panama put the number of trans women at around 3,100.

Since the “pico y género” policies began – in Bogotá on 13 April, and in Panama on 1 April – NGOs have documented 20 cases of discrimination in Bogotá, and 47 (only 27 formally filed reports) in Panama.

“This is a measure that ultimately generates emotional, psychological, and mental distress in the trans population.”

The Panama figures were provided by Venus Tejada, founder and president of the Panamanian Association of Trans People, and those from Bogotá by Daniela Maldonado, founder and director of the city’s Trans Community Network. Both Tejada and Maldonado told TNH that scores of crimes and alleged abuses go unreported out of fear, or due to the widespread belief that the perpetrators will never be held accountable. 

“This is a measure that ultimately generates emotional, psychological, and mental distress in the trans population,” said Maldonado, noting that the restrictions have increased risks for trans people, who are already vulnerable due to their lack of formal employment opportunities and their exclusion, often, from family support networks. 

Tejada said the effects have been particularly profound in Panama, where trans citizens cannot legally change their gender. She added that the trans community has also been put at added risk by the lockdown restrictions as more than 37 percent are HIV positive and some clinics have had to close. Some people, she said, have also been turned away from hospitals. 

“In the long term, we are going to see much more people with AIDS, and that they are infecting other people,” Tejada told TNH.

For non-binary people, the policy has turned every trip to the grocery store into not only an identity crisis but a risk of encountering violence. In Colombia, Jess Castaño Cuadro, for example, said they avoid streets with too many officers, and consider trade-offs in deciding which day to go out. 

“I panic that if there is a group of men who identify me as a woman, they might want to rape me... or beat me to teach me that I am not a man,” they told TNH before “pico y género” was lifted in Bogotá. “All of those things are running around my head as possibilities on the days when I'm going out.”

Tejada said the organisation’s appeals to the Panamanian health minister and first lady have gone unanswered. Panama’s health minister and director of public health had not responded to TNH requests for comment by the time of publication.

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