Scroll Top

Listening in today…

man riding boat during daytime

Writing this article has been hard. I’d like to say it was written with deft ease and expertise, but it wasn’t. The subject is one that each person reading this (or not), has deeply personal experiences of, experiences they probably wish to forget.

Yet, this wide, disparate and heterogeneous lived experience is the greatest source of expertise from the COVID years. In this great repository of the human collective consciousness and exposure lies a wealth of tacit knowledge of COVID-19 that is independent of the subject expert. In fact, it needs collation, an aware derivation of explicit knowledge, one that can then be readily usable, re-purposed into application and practices going forward.

Today it seems that subject experts continue to spin out reports and data, analysis, recommendations, scientific and policy papers. It is said, and often true, that forgetting is good for healing and recovery.

So we forget. Because the world needs to heal. In both spheres of experience, the pandemic and sexuality. But is it natural to forget and then risk repeating or multiplying the mistakes and the griefs of – not even the past – but the thing that is still here? In the shadows? Some of us learnt not to stick our fingers into fire or swim in the sea during high tide because mistakes and griefs are remembered, overcome, and lessons integrated into our life skills, practices and changes we make.

Three years ago, in May 2021, the In Plainspeak interview section carried an article I wrote. It was called Listening In. The theme of that issue was Data and Sexuality. Data, in a world reeling with impossible unknowns. Sexuality at a time when distress and death were unwanted, intimate companions. A key observation made at the very beginning was, “What we do not find, in an ordinary first level scan, is data and flow of exchanges reflecting the impact and effect of COVID-19 on gender, sexuality and rights.” The article ended with a question, that is worth considering today: “What are the implications and the impact of all of this on gender, sexuality and rights, for the ordinary, or not-so-ordinary, relationships, intimacies, identities and daily interactions in our lives?”

Do we have answers today in the kitchens, living rooms and hospital OPDs? When gatherings in the town and village celebrate chacha’s daughter’s wedding, will they remember that washing hands, sanitisers and physical distancing are still a good thing? 

There’s a silence

“But are we still a pandemic? No one seems to know for sure” says the author of this article published in March this year, in Time magazine. Somewhere further along we read, “Lots of people stopped paying attention long before COVID-19’s four-year anniversary, and ‘the pandemic is over for them’ regardless of how much experts debate the right vocabulary to use, Osterholm says.” (Osterholm is Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.) Also in the article, “Contrast that with the daily lives of people who remain especially vulnerable to the disease – including those who are elderly, immunocompromised, or coping with Long COVID – and it can feel like we’re living in separate timelines.”

Who are some of the people “especially vulnerable to the disease” apart from the “elderly, immunocompromised, or coping with Long COVID”? The authors of this paper say, “People who identify as sexual and gender minorities (SGM) experienced disproportionate economic and mental health issues related to COVID-19 when compared to the general population”, and that “social isolation led to anxiety, stress, and fear in the SGM community during COVID-19.”

Those who live with these identities, and with the complex injustices and inequities that emerge from intersecting identities, that may include age, disability, race, class and caste, probably don’t consider anxiety, stress and fear to be very particular to COVID-19. Though other populations may have felt so. Then the real missing piece is here, what did some populations experience more than others? What are the meaningful changes being made, across health, safety, company policy, public services, education, infrastructure, outreach and support systems, that are based on the tacit and the explicit knowledge emerging from this ground?

Then, here in India, are we post-pandemic? Media reports indicate so and use this language, for reporting on a variety of subjects, including aviation, stocks & investments, and – wait for this – pre-marital background checks by detective agencies! Apparently, “Attributing the seismic boom in pre-marital enquiries to the increasing popularity of dating apps and social media advertising since before the pandemic, Banerjee said that 20 years ago they would get only 8-10 cases during peak season. Now, they get 150 to 200.” (Banerjee is Gopal Banerjee, who runs the Eye Witness Detective Agency in Kolkata.)

We talk about the pandemic and the impact, but the conversations are unreal, or at least, they seem to remain restricted. Will there be a seismic boom in detecting family violence toward a family member who identifies as queer, non-binary, and is forced by a public health disaster to a choice between no place to stay and return to the family house? Or even a family member who had a runaway marriage, defied traditions, and is raising children with a partner who dies? We do read the odd piece of news that says “couples run away to the city to get away from their families”. How did that go for them during the pandemic?

In her interview for this issue of In Plainspeak, Dr. Suchitra Dalvie, begins by saying, “I think for me, the biggest, fascinating, and slightly alarming observation is how quickly we have forgotten, that we went through a global pandemic, unprecedented in scale, which caused a lot of deaths. And we have just moved on as if it never happened!”

We’ve forgotten that we all lived through a time when commerce fell to its knees and compassion forced its way into our language, occasionally our hearts, led by loss and panic that few, if any, escaped.

The unique experience of you

There are so many different locations for, and ways of, experiencing this world.

  • A medical researcher in a lab, who has had access to education, social capital, and resources of all kinds, due to a possible combination of personal skills, abilities, hard work, opportunities, support, may see a virus under a microscope and know it exists. Will they call home and say they’re not coming back, they’ve been exposed and will return when it’s safe?
  • A migrant construction worker on the 9th floor working with concrete, taking a break to feed the baby, has likely had less access to many things despite a possible combination of personal skills, abilities, hard work, perhaps some opportunities, and support. They will go home to a shanty, where they live shoulder to shoulder with 25 or 50 other construction workers, their families, their children, going to school, market, traveling by bus. Then they will be packed into trucks, trains and camps and create unreliable reverse migration statistics for mandatory reports.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic revealed in every space, in a way impossible to ignore for human, sentient beings, that family, community, society, politics and business must shift focus to safety, equity and justice with mindful intent and awareness?

Has it revealed this with clarity, using the lens of gender and sexuality?

Who – is doing what – with the revelations?

Relegated to the periphery

Would looking at internal migration and COVID-19 in India help us draft effective questions? In a section of this report, titled Missed Opportunities for Reform: The Structures that Impede Migrants, the authors say, “The pandemic-triggered migrant crisis brought clarity to a larger issue of exclusionary development in India, in both the rural and urban landscapes. Even though migrants form an integral part of both these landscapes, their welfare has often been relegated to the periphery of policy discussions.”

(i) Being ‘relegated to the periphery’ – this is true in a more universal way to multiple versions of injustice and inequity.

When I looked for resources, I swiftly found a COVID-19 Compendium, dated January 2024. It says in the title that it is “Official Information on COVID-19 Released by India and the WHO”, and then explains, “An up-to-date compilation of more than 1,800 official statements by the Government of India from January 17, 2020. Links to articles published by The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy on COVID-19, daily State-wise Status by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, all-India SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) Testing Status by the Indian Council of Medical Research, and the WHO’s ‘Global Situation Reports’ and ‘India Updates’ are also provided on this page.”

This led me to many other resources. All of which appeared overwhelming and gave me a sense of disconnect with my experiences, and that of my neighbour, my friends and my co-workers. Of course, it is important to note that the compendium referred to earlier is a large body of work that could not be read in its entirety. This is also true of the freely available data assets. I almost feel like apologising for not being able to read these.

(ii) What can be said with confidence is that, at the level of a cursory read, words like gender, sexuality, and intersectional identity, did not jump up and raise a hand.

Here’s something else that showed up amongst the first results on learnings from COVID-19. This is a news release dated May 2023 from WHO, Regional Office for Europe, and is titled Lessons learned from COVID-19: how did the pandemic affect children’s health and habits? The article includes information like this: “One positive outcome has emerged from the crisis: more families started cooking at home regularly”, and also “Policy considerations to mitigate the negative impacts of COVID-19 on the psychosocial well-being of children include delivery of universal mental health promotion/prevention activities for school-aged children, expanding access to family and parenting support initiatives, and identifying opportunities to provide accessible psychosocial support in community and primary health-care settings.”

So close. Parenting and family support. Psychosocial wellbeing. Let us now raise a hand – for kids who have identity issues, and based on this, their relationships with their parents and families may be under siege on an ordinary day, without an extraordinary virus in it. Do we know what happened to them?

Why aren’t we making the connections we should?

Finally, I specifically asked Google about ‘collecting data on gender minorities and COVID’. That’s when I got this, published in 2020:

Sexual and Gender Minority Health in the COVID-19 Pandemic: Why Data Collection and Combatting Discrimination Matter Now More Than Ever. From the article: “Although COVID-19 has sparked an important conversation about racial/ethnic health disparities, the risks of COVID-19 for sexual and gender minority (SGM) people have received little to no attention.”

I also found this, published in 2022:

The impact of COVID-19 on the LGBTQ+ community: Comparisons between cisgender, heterosexual people, cisgender sexual minority people, and gender minority people. Quoting from the abstract, “Compared to cisgender, heterosexual people, significantly more cisgender sexual minority people reported worsening physical health, and significantly more gender minority people reported worsening of all outcomes.”

These words and studies, amongst others that, we may be sure, exist or are currently underway, indicate that the gaps found while doing the homework for this article, represent a larger set of invisibles.

At the same time, there were and are those who worked to create resources, from the ground up, to plug these gaps. One such India-based effort as reported in a 2022 news article in The Deccan Herald, is enormously significant. Quoting from the article, “In the realisation that the pandemic situation caused people from the LGBTQ community great difficulties in accessing requisite medical services, three NGOs have come together to launch a pan-Indian Covid-19 services locator dedicated to the people from this community. The said locator, created jointly by Varta Trust in Kolkata, Chennai-based Solidarity and Action Against the HIV Infection in India (SAATHII), and Grindr for Equality from Los Angeles was launched in Kolkata on late Saturday evening.” Pawan Dhall, founding Trustee at Varta, is quoted in the article: “Even if it is dormant at this stage, its devastating socio-economic and health impact on transgender and queer lives is still being felt and will continue to be felt. Such an online help finder was badly needed. What if there’s a fourth wave of the pandemic? Queer people need to be smarter next time around and be prepared with information where to access help.”

Then there is this 2023 study, titled COVID-19 pandemic and transgender migrant women in India: Socio-economic vulnerability and vaccine hesitancy. In the abstract, the authors say, “During the COVID-19 pandemic these disparities were heightened and the livelihood of transgender migrant women were severely hit and disrupted, causing further financial and physical hardship. The present study aims to explore the socio-economic vulnerability faced by these women during the pandemic and the factors that contribute to vaccine hesitancy in order to assist government officials and policy makers in the formulation of more inclusive policies for transgender people.”

It is crucial that we note this, “to assist government officials and policy makers in the formulation of more inclusive policies”. Here is a cue – looking to convert tacit knowledge into the explicit, and this is a shift. This is heartening but requires to be highlighted and nurtured.

The words and concepts associated with gender and sexuality don’t seem to be easily connected to pandemic, disaster management and mitigation, recovery and learnings, on the pages of big power and visible big policy much. They can’t leap off the page at us.

Mistakes and griefs are remembered, overcome, and lessons integrated into our life skills, practices and changes we make. This is how we convert tacit knowledge into explicit, and apply it in our lives. When will we start to collate our diverse and collective tacit knowledge, and convert it into explicit, applicable practices across infrastructure and support systems?

As I end this article, I stumble across a post on LinkedIn, by the WHO Commission on Social Connection. It is a “call for lived experiences of social isolation and loneliness to inform the WHO Commission’s flagship report”. The deadline is 31 May, 2024. The post says that they “particularly encourage submissions from people with disabilities, migrants, LGBTQI+ individuals, populations in remote settings, indigenous peoples, and those affected by humanitarian crises – across all age groups”.

I think that this is the most amazing stumble I have had while writing this article. We need this, and more like this, on a global scale, allowing space for expression and representation that is both formal and informal, and ready to have many loose threads, tangents and human stories to build and disseminate a knowledge that is sourced from us and applied by us, to our lives.

Cover Image: Photo by Al Ishrak Sunny on Unsplash