For the LGBTQ community, the coronavirus crisis has worsened an already precarious reality—physically, emotionally, socially, politically and economically. Sadly, the unique needs and hardships faced by the queer community, and particularly the most marginalised within it, are, for the most part, excluded from the global discourse surrounding the pandemic and our societies’ reaction to it.
Research indicates that queer people are drastically more susceptible to substance abuse and mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, and are more prone to suicidality. This results, to a large extent, from what researchers define as ‘minority stress’; queer members of other minority groups (such as people of colour and immigrants) often experience increased levels of minority stress. Physical distancing and an abrupt reduction in social interactions during COVID-19 are noted by experts to exacerbate the mental and emotional strain experienced by LGBTQ people, and particularly queer youths and young adults.
Lack of access to care during the pandemic also significantly impacts the queer community, as many services vital to their well-being have been regarded as ‘nonessential’. An article published by Harvard Medical School titled COVID-19 and the LGBTQ+ community: Rising to unique challenges notes that trans and non-binary people may be having difficulty accessing hormone treatments and surgeries during the crisis—both of which are essential for their physical and mental well-being.
Furthermore, the economic fallout from the pandemic is proving to be a great source of distress for the queer community. Seeing as many LGBTQ people were economically disadvantaged prior to the outbreak of coronavirus, the current crisis puts them at an increased risk of unemployment, homelessness, and food insecurity.
“When something like the pandemic happens, the lowest on the totem pole are always the ones that are forgotten,” Jari Jones, a New York City-based trans actress and activist, told Screen Shot. “A lot of rich white queers who are living in New York were able to leave the city, and were able to go to their rich homes or parents and quarantine there, while a lot of queer people of colour, mainly, or those experiencing homelessness or travelling from home to home now had to find a way to be stationary within New York—there wasn’t the option of leaving, ” she added. “[This] affects people of colour in a dramatic way because a lot of us don’t have the resources to be in safe areas […] a lot of us had to go into the shelter system, which only exposes you more to the virus.”
The pandemic has also served as an excuse for oppressive leaders around the world to curtail the rights and liberties of queer people. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s parliament—now ruling by decree due to the COVID-19 emergency—just passed a bill which, among other provisions, amends the civil registry document to read ‘sex assigned at birth’ instead of ‘sex’. This move by the Hungarian government precludes trans and non-binary people from ever having their gender identity be recognised by the state, and opens the door to further violence and discrimination against them.
Hungary is merely one out of many European countries in which the pandemic accelerates the erosion of queer rights—a recent report by ILGA Europe finds. Members of ILGA-Europe also crucially point out that it’s not overwhelming public support but rather widespread indifference which makes this anti-queer campaign possible.
But not all is bleak. While the current crisis has presented new (and intensified existing) challenges for LGBTQ people, the pandemic has also encouraged increased activism and mutual-aid among queer communities. “We come from generations of people who had to band together, who had to make do with what we got,” said Jones, referencing the rallying-up of queer communities, and particularly queer people of colour, in response to the virus. “I’m seeing a lot of people and grassroots organisations coming together to feed each other, to deliver masks, deliver medicine, to make sure our elders of colour are taken care of. These organisations are giving out money and funds and food to make sure that those people are staying afloat.”
“It’s refreshing to see parts of the community, or sub-communities, come together to make sure that we’re still thriving through this,” Jones added.
The implications of the coronavirus crisis will be evident for years to come, and the chaos left in its wake will be felt most potently by vulnerable groups, including the queer community. A genuine resilience to this virus can only be developed if the specific needs and challenges of all segments of the population are acknowledged and addressed. And so, the prevailing apathy must be urgently replaced with keen readiness to act, not just on behalf of, but alongside society’s most marginalised.
On the 31st day of my quarantine, I received a call from a friend; he sounded upset and explained that he had just been stopped by the police while going for his daily run around the neighbourhood. According to him, the police approached him and spoke to him aggressively. They then questioned the reason behind his activity by making threatening remarks, repeatedly ordering him to go back home and reminding him that in other countries a man running around for no reasonable explanation would have been thrown in jail. This encounter happened in Italy, where, at the time, running alone in proximity to your house was still allowed.
“I told you the police would start abusing their power,” my friend told me. During the first weeks under lockdown—when the regulations were still blurred and our future uncertain—we did find ourselves repeatedly speculating on the possible threats that a state of emergency could mean regarding the state overpower and potential police misconduct. Yet, I partially disagreed with my friend: the abuse of power by the police isn’t a by-product of the pandemic, it has been happening around us for way longer. The only difference today is that under these exceptional circumstances, what was once only visible to those who were systematically targeted by the police has suddenly become visible to us all.
Law enforcement is playing a big part in managing the COVID-19 crisis as more and more countries all over the world are calling for an increase in restrictive regulations concerning social and physical distancing. As reported by Al Jazeera in a recent article on police violence on the time of pandemic, after a couple of weeks since a mandatory curfew was implemented in Kenya, there have been more deaths from the police than virus-related ones.
Kenya is far from being the only country accused of such behaviour. Stories of police brutality enacted in the name of control and the enforcement of rules have spread like the virus itself, showing officers in India, Mexico, Egypt and other countries threatening people in the streets, using physical punishment in public and forcing people to follow containment measures at gunpoint. As the days pass, it is evident why more concern over the sovereignty of the police is rising.
“The point is that the police—contrary to public opinion—are not merely an administrative function of law enforcement; rather, the police are perhaps the place where the proximity and the almost constitutive exchange between violence and right that characterizes the figure of the sovereign is shown more nakedly and clearly than anywhere else,” wrote the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben in 1991. Fast forward 30 years from then, one could argue that his words are still relevant. What is happening in front of our eyes isn’t a shift in the way the police act, but rather the unsettling revelation of their unbridled power and sovereignty in countries all over the world.
Of course we should avoid making generalisations, but as police helicopters loom over our heads throughout Easter weekend and the mobility of citizens is (rightly) limited to maintain the spreading of the virus, it’s not just a right but an obligation to scrutinize and question the modalities in which those same rules are imposed on citizens. If we can learn one thing from this pandemic it is that, as solidarity and a shared sense of support are spreading, pre-existing inequalities and state flaws grow even larger.
It is in this mindset that we need to look at some of the police’s coercive attitudes, not as an unavoidable shift in behaviour, but as a testament to a systemic issue. The question right now is not whether law enforcement agencies need to undergo some changes or not; they clearly do and that’s not new. As we witness more and more police violence during the pandemic, the real question is whether this sudden awakening will remain among citizens, and hopefully governments too, once this crisis is over.