At Nsungwi market in Area 25, Lilongwe, Elida, a female sex worker, is at risk of contracting coronavirus because she works in crowded clubs and sleeps with multiple people from different backgrounds.
During the nocturnal visit, she wore a miniskirt, revealing blouse and high heels, but she was not wearing any face mask to protect herself and the people around her from coronavirus which has killed 152 of the country’s 4 714 confirmed cases.
When asked why she was not masking up, Elida said it all: “If I put on one, how will I find a client?
“Men prefer to see the full body, especially the face. With a face mask on, no one will wink at me.”
She was not the only sex worker without a mask to safeguard them from the virus which spreads fast in congested zones.
There were scores of them getting nods from men, most of whom were not wearing masks either.
In Malawi, the government has made masks mandatory, triggering the police to arrest those defying the new rules in the fight against the global coronavirus pandemic discovered in China last December.
A teen sex worker, who identified herself as Martha, is worried about the new dos and don’ts.
She reckons the mandatory face mask will disrupt her business chances.
Martha says: “Masking up is a bit of a disruption because it does not give our clients a full view.”
Recently, President Lazarus Chakwera ruled out the likelihood of imposing a nationwide lockdown, saying the strict stay-at-home measures would affect Malawians living hand-to-mouth.
However, he called for collective efforts—ashing hands with soap, watching one’s distance and wearing masks—to combat the coronavirus disease.
However, sex work, a nightly trade in Malawi, will further be affected as the new rules ban clubbing, only allowing pubs to sell takeaway beverages from 2pm to 8pm.
And sex workers like Elida and Martha are disproportionately at risk of catching and spreading the virus.
According to Ministry of Health statistics, local transmission accounts for 60 percent of the confirmed coronavirus cases.
This is why the government must embrace an all-inclusive response to Covid-19.
Even if bars will eventually close, sexually active men and women will stop at nothing in their pursuit of sexual pleasures on the streets or hidden spaces.
Healthcare activist George Jobe advises health workers to put their safety first. But he is also of the view that government must engage them through their leadership.
Hesays: “Our wish is that there should be sensitisation for people to appreciate that whether one is minding their duty or not, they cannot enjoy that duty when they die or when they get ill.
“In addition to that, there should be some consultations, including with the leadership of at-risk groups, because we have noted that commercial sex workers are organised and have leaders. So the leadership must be sensitised to the importance of keeping safe. The sex workers’ leadership must take the messages to its members.”
Minister of Health Khumbize Kandodo says the Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare will engage the sex workers to stay safe.
She says: “We have to make them understand why we are stressing the wearing of masks. There is a disease there. Covid-19 is killing people and everybody should value and protect their life.
“So, we will engage them. Fortunately, the Ministry of Gender already has structures which engage with the sex workers.”
Last Friday, Chiponda gazzeted new coronavirus regulations which require everyone to wear face masks. Failure to wear a mask attracts a K10 000 fine.
The precautions also restrict the running of bars, only permitting people to buy a few drinks to be consumed at home.
Some sex workers say that the new regulations will push them out of business.
However, Chiponda says government does not have better options than protecting the nation.
She said: “For now let’s observe these measures. They are hard. They will bite us emotionally, physically and economically.
“In one way or another, each one of us will get affected, but we have an obligation to protect everyone.”