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Yale to probe controversial study on sex workers

Long wait: Women from a red light area in Mumbai queuing up to collect free rations last week. | Photo Credit: Vivek Bendre
Jagriti Chandra NEW DELHI 09 July 2020 22:08 IST
Updated: 11 July 2020 13:06 IST

Activists slam it for misleading assumptions about sex work.

The Yale School of Public Health has agreed to investigate a controversial study which could result in “abuse of sex workers’ rights in India”. The move follows an outcry from sex workers’ collectives, activists, lawyers and decision makers who demanded complete retraction of the study, which recommended keeping red light areas shut after lockdown in five cities in the country to “reduce new COVID-19 cases by 72% and deaths by 63%”.

Lockdown: Over 60% of sex workers in Delhi return to their home states

“We are investigating best options now. Thank you for your sharing your concerns of potential harm so clearly. Either I or a representative of Yale University will be in contact as to our action plan,” the Dean of Yale School of Public Health, Sten H. Vermund, wrote in response to a statement endorsed by 140 public health experts, activists, lawyers, NGOs, and sex workers.

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‘Lack of transparency’

“We strongly denounce this study for its lack of rigorous methodology and transparency, misleading assumptions about sex work, and egregious disregard for the rights of the urban poor in India. The recommendations of this study essentially invite the state to use its coercive powers – police raids and evictions – to victimise the most marginalised of slum dwellers in the name of public health,” read the statement sent to Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, Yale School of Public Health and Yale Medical School on July 7 and elicited a response the same day.

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Among the signatories were J.V.R. Prasada Rao, former Health Secretary for the Government of India and former UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on AIDS; Sujatha Rao, former Health Secretary for the Government of India; Swarup Sarkar, former director of WHO/SEARO and the Global Fund Against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; and Siddharth Dube, former senior adviser to the Executive Director of UNAIDS.

Gender rights activists such as Vrinda Grover, Suneeta Dhar and Sangeeta Rege and collectives at the forefront of the struggle for sex workers’ rights signed the statement.

The report was published online in May, but is not yet peer-reviewed.

The report was co-authored by Prof. Jeffery Townsend, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Yale University, Prof. Alison Galvani, Director, Center for Infectious Disease Modelling & Analysis, Yale University, and Dr. Sudhakar Nuti, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

It was accompanied by a disclaimer online that such studies “should not be relied upon without context to guide clinical practice or health-related behaviour and should not be reported in news media as established information without consulting multiple experts in the field.” Yet, in a statement shared with journalists, the authors claimed that the findings were shared with the Government of India and various State governments “along with a recommendation to continue closure of red-light areas (RLAs) beyond full nation-wide reopening as it can reduce the number of cases by 72% in a period of 45 days and delay the peak of COVID-19 cases by 17 days.”

“The model does not explain whether differential transmission probabilities were considered for close contacts that happen during sexual encounters and other 'not so close' contacts. Also, the model seems to have not taken into account the preventive and testing- quarantine measures  being taken by sex workers. The sex workers are a small subpopulation at higher risk of acquiring infection. It is likely that the epidemic will reach ‘herd immunity’ levels more quickly in this group. The model does not elaborate on this aspect,” Ritu Parchure, Epidemiologist with Prayas, an NGO based in Pune.

The statement also questioned the estimates of the number of sex workers in India used in the study and pointed out that by focusing on brothels the study belies any understanding about the current realities of sex work in India, which primarily "takes place on highways, railways, construction sites, bus stations, farmlands, lodges, and residential homes," as brothels have been forced to shut down over the past two to three decades due to police crackdowns.

“The authors have betrayed deep prejudice about sex work. They have no knowledge that targetted intervention supported by NACO has found that 70% of sex work is street based. Moreover, why can't our work be treated on par with informal sector. Factories are allowed to reopen, but the study says brothels must remain shut even though we are fare better educated about precautions and safety measure to follow during COVID-19 due to the extensive work done by our collectives,” said Kiran Deshmukh, president, National Network of Sex Workers.

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