India is aiming for higher and wider vaccination targets to tackle the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, but transgender persons are still getting ‘othered’ in the process. Whether it be through outreach and awareness programmes or through Covid testing and vaccine registration forms.
Dhananjay Chauhan, a leading transgender activist from Chandigarh who got her first jab of the vaccine last month, told me she was shocked when she had to unwillingly pick ‘others’ as her gender because there was no other option.
“I am not others,” she says. “Why can’t they write transgender instead of this ‘others’ and all? It is so sad.”
Despite the NALSA ruling, being discriminated against so casually on most occasions exacerbates the community’s scepticism about any sensitised treatment from society and the State. This also serves as a reason for their reluctance to get vaccinated. It’s a dangerous situation in the second wave because many in the transgender community are already immuno-compromised and at greater risk of Covid.
Data backs this trend. The transgender community makes up only 0.013 per cent of the total vaccinated population of India so far (as of 9 am, 15 May).
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Fear of healthcare and society
Sex reassignment surgery, hormone intake, drug addiction and HIV have made many in the transgender community vulnerable to the coronavirus. What makes it worse is their scepticism towards the medical industry because of the transphobia and stigma they usually face when reaching out for aid. Also, the lack of transgender representation in medical trials fails to convince them of the efficacy of medicines and vaccines. Equality magazine says “communities that are underrepresented in medical trials, including those for vaccines, have developed considerable mistrust in the overall effect certain medicines and products will have on their health.”
Alisha from Rajasthan has not yet registered herself for vaccination in the second wave because she fears the side effects after hearing stories of people dying.
“Didi we already are keeping ourselves indoors and what if something happens after vaccination? Even normal people are not getting beds in hospitals, who will bother about saving an orphan kinnar?” she tells me when I tell her to get vaccinated.
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As of this week, the number of ‘others’ vaccinated is only 19,392 persons out of the total 13,98,65,001 That roughly translates to 3.97 per cent of the total transgender population (4,87,803), going by the 2011 Census.
Uttar Pradesh – with the highest number of ‘others’ population – barely recorded 1.51 per cent vaccination. Ironically, only Lakshadweep recorded 100 per cent vaccination of ‘others’, but its transgender population was only two, according to the 2011 Census.
Disappointingly, the highest percentage reached by any state/UT after Lakshadweep is Kerala with 20.73 per cent of its transgender population vaccinated. Apart from these two, not even a single state has been able to vaccinate even 20 per cent of its ‘others’ population.
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Vaccination for all, not some
Vaccine hesitancy alone isn’t the reason for the low participation of the transgender community. Lack of valid photo ID cards is also a hindrance. Many transgender people faced this hurdle while registering themselves on CoWin. Taking cognisance of this, on 6 May, the Narendra Modi government came up with special provisions for those who don’t possess photo identity cards – but the new process now is even more difficult.
Shreya Reddy, a transwoman and activist from Hyderabad, told me of another roadblock. Many of her transgender friends, who are not so well educated, could not get vaccinated at walk-ins because they entertain only pre-registered people or there is a shortage of doses.
There is still so much to aim for when it comes to transgender welfare and healthcare in India. Authorities and officials need to sensitise themselves on issues of inclusion to maintain the chord of trust between the State and transgender persons. Sweeping expressions like ‘others’ not only break this chord, but also snatch the right to proper documentation of healthcare data of transgender persons.
To facilitate better access and reach of vaccination, awareness drives should be planned by governments to amplify the post-vaccination experiences of transgender leaders and community members. This will help eradicate the fear of the transgender populace about the side effects of the vaccination.
For the lesser-educated transgender population living in community-specific areas and for those who fear reaching out for medical aid, governments can collaborate with trans activists to arrange local vaccination camps.
An inclusive vaccine drive is crucial as India prepares for a third wave of the Covid pandemic. And we can’t be so complacent as to leave out an entire community of Indians.
The author is currently serving as Assistant Professor in Department of English, University of Rajasthan and has been a Project Director in a policy-making MHRD project on transgender persons. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)