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FEATURE STORY May 15, 2020

Stigma is not quarantined: The impact of COVID-19 on the LGBTI community


Physical distancing doesn’t have to mean social distancing. Despite limitations, May 17th is a good occasion to fight discrimination and generate new opportunities for the LGBTI people.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people are among the most marginalized individuals and groups in Latin America. The coronavirus (COVID-19) is having devastating impacts on the delivery of services and the ability of already marginalized people to access them.

On May 17, 2020, the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (IDAHOTB) will take place, unlike ever before, during lockdown throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. As a day to visualize long-standing discrimination against the LGBTI community, it is even more important this year, as COVID-19 ravages the world and unleashes old and new prejudices against historically excluded minorities, who also risk taking the brunt of the health and socioeconomic consequences of the pandemic.

This risk is not new. LGBTI people have been blamed before for disasters, both manmade and natural, and the COVID-19 pandemic has not been the exception. Early evidence and reports show a dramatic increase in homophobic and transphobic rhetoric and attacks.

As governments look for ways to deal with the economic and political consequences of the pandemic, ignoring LGBTI people could have considerable costs, not just to the individuals concerned but also for countries as a whole. No economy can achieve its full potential without ensuring the full and equal participation of all its people.


Although there is no evidence that LGBTI people are more likely to contract or transmit COVID-19, a number of factors suggest that they might be at higher risk from its biomedical and socioeconomic consequences.

There are historic barriers in these groups’ access to quality health services, which need to be factored in when designing public policies aimed at COVID-19.

Barriers are even greater for some specific groups, such as the transgender community, who are strongly stigmatized and often excluded from the formal job market. Over 80 percent of trans women in Argentina work or have worked as sex workers, for example, and now see their ability to access even the most basic goods limited by the strict lockdown measures.

"Since the lockdown measures have been imposed, we have managed approximately 3,000 food packages for LGBTI people across the country and we are receiving consultations for threats of eviction in family hotels where many trans people live. We have also received information about situations of police abuse, showing a structural inequality for the trans population", reveals Alba Rueda, National Undersecretary of Diversity Policies in Argentina.

As the health system focuses on putting an end to the coronavirus, other key services for the LGBTI community, such as mental health and sexual counselling, become harder to access. In many countries, HIV testing has also been suspended; hence trans women, who have historically had a higher prevalence of HIV, are unable to access vital medical care.

“At the regional level, transgender people have problems like getting the right documentation, which makes impossible for them to access government subsidies or grants. This situation gets worse nowadays, with the shutdown of public offices. Moreover, transgender people are also more likely to suffer police harassment and institutionalized discrimination,” says Germán Freire, World Bank Social Development Specialist.

Breaking the silence in Latin America

IDAHOTB is more than a campaign. It is a moment when thousands of ideas and initiatives converge around a single vision: freedom and equality for all sexual and gender minorities. With schools, universities and community centers closed across the region, advocacy for LGBTQ people is now even more urgent, to show that every voice matters.

A major barrier for realizing this vision is the lack of data. Throughout the region, robust, quantitative data on differential development experiences and outcomes for LGBTI people is extremely thin, if it exists at all. Data gaps jeopardize the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the countries’ commitment to “leave no one behind” in the effort to end poverty and inequality.

The good news is that some countries have made progress in promoting inclusion, and the COVID-19 pandemic arrives at a time of higher awareness. In Argentina, the newly created Ministry of Women, Genders and Diversity is now focusing on gathering quality data on women and LGBTI groups. Together with the World Bank, the Argentine government is looking for strategies to address rising gender-based violence and the socioeconomic impacts of COVID 19 on the LGBTI population.

Having updated and reliable data can help countries better understand and develop more inclusive policies, which can be particularly helpful during a crisis. "In Argentina, the gender identity law made it possible to change the ID, access integral health services and receive a dignified treatment. But people's records continue to be binary; integrating the right to identity into administrative records is a broader challenge that involves opening up models of diverse citizenship," says Alba Rueda.

COVID-19 is a threat but also presents an opportunity. The pandemic has exposed the weaknesses of the region, both in medical and socioeconomic terms. It also brings dramatically to the fore that building back to where we were is not enough, as that leaves us all vulnerable to the next crisis. We have to build back into stronger, more sustainable, and more inclusive societies.  And for that we have to come together and commit to eradicating all forms of homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia from our societies.