COVID-19 Op-ed

How COVID-19 might disproportionately affect the LGBTIQ community in ASEAN

Written by admin

Cornelius Hanung

Hanung is a human rights defender from Indonesia
and currently working with the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development
(FORUM-ASIA). Views are strictly his own

The term “Novel Corona Virus” has haunted Southeast Asian
peoples from all walks of life since the beginning of 2020. Up until now, it
has infected more than 7000 people and caused 230 deaths across the Southeast
Asia region as documented by and the number keeps ongoing (Dezan Shira
& Associates, 2020). With no coordinated response from the Association
of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to curb the proliferation of the
infection, ASEAN member states have implemented their own emergency measures,
varied from social and physical distancing, restriction of movement, and
partial or total lockdown.At first glance, this measure might be beneficial
for the majority of the ASEAN people. However, this might exacerbate
pre-existing vulnerabilities of marginalised communities, particularly people
with diverse sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex
characteristics (SOGIESC), whose needs have already been often neglected by
the States even under ordinary circumstances.Prior to the novel corona virus
of 2019 (COVID-19), people with diverse SOGIESC, popularised by the media as
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and Queer (LGBTIQ), have
already been facing discrimination and violence stemming from conservative
patriarchal, religious, as well as hetero- and cis-normative values imposed
by society in the region. These values, along with growing extreme
fundamentalism and populism within the ASEAN member states, are translated
into repressive laws and practices that excluding many of LGBTIQ community
from having equal opportunity to get their basic needs such as education and
employment (ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, 2017).Throughout many industries in ASEAN,
many LGBTIQ individuals have to rely on jobs in the informal sector and gig
economy; a type of job that usually comes on a short-term temporary basis
with daily or weekly wages. When many public and private entities announced
the work-from-home policy to prevent viral infections,
 these workers have been severely impacted the most. Individuals,
particularly those whose lives depend on daily wages, have suddenly lost the
ability to sustain their lives. A rapid assessment made by an LGBTIQ
coalition in Indonesia revealed that about 640 transwomen, especially those
working in the beauty, arts, sex workers and other services industries, had
to succumb to a life without earning, and a lived experience of hunger and
desperation to fend for their daily needs.In terms of personal safety and
security, there is a high potential of domestic violence (physical and
mental) that may occur against individuals living in unaccepting and abusive
households during the self-quarantine / lockdown period. LGBTIQ individuals
affected by Covid-19 have been scrambling to pay their rent and are left with
no other choice but to move back with their parents or other family members,
who, as in many cases in Asia can, be very unsupportive and LGBTIQ-phobic.
There is a definite power imbalance in this situation, adding to the
pre-existing conservative views and bias on their SOGIESC. Many accounts have
reported that rejection, discrimination and violence experienced by LGBTIQ
individuals are very often coming from their closed and extended family
members. (Nguyen, T. Q, 2015; Poore, 20016; O’ Connell, 2015; Kirnandita,
2019).The same risks may also be true to those living with their partners. A
study conducted by the UN Women during 2019 – 2020 has revealed an alarming
fact on the increase of prevalence of domestic violence conducted by intimate
sexual or non-sexual partner against women, including LBQ women. Amidst the
COVID-19 situation, being quarantined or lock-downed together with their
abuser may turn into a nightmare for a vulnerable partner.Another challenge
involves LGBTIQ persons living with HIV/AIDS. Pathologically, people living
with HIV/AIDS have already compromised immune system, which make them more
vulnerable to COVID-19 infections. However, with the high prevalence of
stigma and discrimination even from the healthcare providers, due to lack of
sensitivity and understanding on the issues, many people are reluctant
to seek medical care except in situations that feel urgent. A recent rapid
assessment conducted by the author in Indonesia revealed a disturbing reality
in which people were asked about their HIV status in a non-private and
non-confidential setting during the COVID-19 assessment in emergency
facilities ran by local hospitals. This caused great inconvenience especially
for those who are living with HIV/AIDS. Consulting their health problem then
can be more problematic since it will possibly impose a degrading label on
these vulnerable persons: infected with HIV and COVID-19.The struggle to
combat and end the proliferation of COVID-19 pandemic has become universal.
But the aforementioned examples have illustrated how the measures that have
been taken so far by ASEAN member states are creating specific and dangerous
challenges for marginalised and vulnerable communities. To address this
devastating reality, ASEAN member states must adopt an inclusive perspective
on gender and sexuality, especially in times of emergencies and humanitarian
calamities, such as Covid-19. Without proper intervention from the States and
ASEAN, existing measures, that already curtail rights and freedoms, might
create even more harm to the life of the LGBTIQ community, adding to the
pre-existing difficulties due to growing extreme fundamentalism and populism,
severe stigma and discrimination, risk of criminalisation, without
protection. There might not be a one-solution-fits-for-all measure, but
States and ASEAN must uphold the human rights and dignity of all people
regardless of any basis.References:Dezan Shira &
Associates, 2020. The Coronavirus in Asia and ASEAN – Live Updates by
Country. ASEAN Briefing, 29 March. Available at:
ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, 2017. Rainbow in Context: The Rainbow in Context. An
Overview of the Situation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual,. Transgender, Intersex,
and Queer (LGBTIQ) Persons in Southeast Asia, . Available at:
O’ Connell, T. 2015. Cambodians’ Attitudes Toward LGBT Surveyed.
The Cambodian Daily, 15 December. Available at:
Nguyen, T, Q. et al. 2015. Negative Family Treatment of Sexual Minority Women
and Transmen in Vietnam: Latent Classes and Their Predictors, . Available at
Kirnandita, Patresia. 2015. Coming Out Itu Tak Mudah: Ketika Anak LGBT
Terbuka kepada Keluarga., 13 March. Available
Poore, G. 2016. Hitting Close to Home: Homophobia and Transphobia in Asia =
Family Violence, The Huffpost . Available at
UN Women, 2019. Progress of the World’s Women 2019 – 2020: Families in a
changing World, . Available at

About the author