Fears, stigma, lack of representation deter transgenders from getting vaccines

Bhopal: While much of India is rushing to get vaccinated for Covid-19, there are still many people from the transgender and kinnar or hijra communities in the country who are lagging behind due to lack of awareness and counselling.

Myths, fears and social stigma have also left the community wary of vaccination. And even when they do seek the vaccine, waiting in long queues becomes a big task due to social discrimination against them.

Meera Parida, a transwoman, and Chairperson of the All Odisha Third Gender Welfare Trust, Bhubaneswar told Covid Response Watch that several factors are leading to vaccine hesitancy among transgenders and kinnars.

“Several transgenders are living in constant fear of the virus as well as the vaccine as they do not know how their bodies will react to the vaccination. Many of them, who are on hormone replacement therapy, have no idea what will happen to them if they take the vaccine as there was hardly any representation of transgenders and kinnars in the vaccine trials. They are scared for their lives,” she said.

COVID Response Watch LogoWhile those who have undergone sex-change operations and are on hormone replacement therapies, are scared about the side effects, those who are HIV positive are also in a dilemma whether they should get the vaccine or not.

“HIV positive patients are already weak and they are really scared. If they fall ill after vaccination, there is no way they can get admitted into good hospitals for their treatment. Here in Odisha, we have several great government hospitals and the Bhubaneshwar and Cuttack Municipal Corporations are doing a fantastic job for transgenders, but unfortunately the same does not hold true for the rest of the country,” she added.

Krishna, a transgender activist, working with Parida says that transgenders and kinnars earn their living by begging for alms on the trains, attending wedding functions and other social events to collect ‘badhai’ or by prostitution and are very vulnlerable. Many of them are afraid of the expenses involved in case they fall sick after the vaccination, as they have hardly earned anything in the past two years.

Covid vaccines offer a high degree of protection from severe illness and to lesser extent prevent infection altogether. They have minor side effects, such as body pain, fever and allergic reactions in very rare cases.

“Many people fall ill for two to three days after getting their first jab, but the people in the kinnar and transgender community cannot take that risk as they will miss out a day’s wage or alms, which are the two main sources of their livelihood. This is deterring a lot of people from the community from getting vaccinated,” he said.

While 44,95,53,344 people got vaccinated in the country by 29 July 2021 only 83,189 belonged to the ‘others’ category. This amounts to only 17% of the entire transgender population in the country, if we go by the 2011 census , which states that there are around 4,87,000 transgenders country-wide. The highest proportion of these communities reside in Uttar Pradesh (28.2 per cent), followed by Andhra Pradesh (9.0 per cent), Maharashtra (8.4 per cent) and Bihar (8.4 per cent).

The vaccination rates among transgenders and kinnars however varies considerably according which part of the country they live and whether they are in urban or rural areas.

According to the available data on the COWIN portal and state-wise transgender population, around 19.6% of transgender people have been vaccinated in Madhya Pradesh, 15% in Odisha and 10% in Uttar Pradesh. One of the highest percentage of vaccinations was recorded in Delhi, with 51% of the whole transgender population vaccinated in the nation’s capital.

“We have almost 100% vaccination among transgenders in Bhopal. The population in the state capital is hardly 250-300, which is not a big number. But in the rural areas, especially where there is more stigma, the vaccination is pretty low,” said Sanjana, a noted social and transgender activist.

Parida added, “While in cities, there are communities and organizations to support them, the scenario in the villages is completely different. There they face a lot of discrimination and as a result do not step out of their houses. Standing in long queues is very challenging for them as people distance themselves when they see a kinnar approaching, some even make rude remarks and make fun of them. Many transgenders who left for their villages during the pandemic are facing this problem.”

While some transmen and transwomen are considering getting vaccinated, they are not able get rid them of their fears completely.

“I know two kinnars who are diabetic and after getting the first shot of the vaccination, their sugar levels shot up and they fell ill. Now when they will recount their negative experiences, it will increase fear among the community members. This is how fears and myths spread. And since they are kinnars, they face discrimination even in clinics and hospitals, so they avoid going to the doctors if they have side-effects. Everything boils down to social discrimination and stigma,” says Sanjana.

Krishna added that there was a dire need for more counselling and research so that the transgender community could make an informed decision.

“Since there is a lack of information about impact of vaccines on those on hormone replacement therapy, HIV positive, have undergone sex-change operations, have diabetes, thyroid problems etc., there is great hesitancy among transgenders and kinnars. Doctors and para medical staff can help bust myths and providing them with correct guidance,” said Krishna.

Many transgenders have taken their vaccine shots under the category of ‘males’, as their identity cards list them as males.

“Not everyone has transgender cards or certificates issued by the Government of India. This is also due to the lack of promotion and advertisement of this scheme. A lot of transgenders do not even know that such a thing exists. It is possible that the COWIN portal might not reflect the correct figure under ‘others’, if some people took the jab as males,” Parida said.

Many social organizations and NGOs working for the welfare of transgenders organised a few vaccination camps for them in their cities to motivate more and more trans-people and kinnars to get jabbed.

“We helped organise a camp at Mangalwara area in Bhopal, where most of the city’s transgenders and kinnars live. This helped speed up things and many of them got vaccinated. However, after falling ill, some opine that it would be better for them to not take the second dose. We are trying to provide them with counselling to remove their fears” says Sanjana.

In Cuttack and Bhubaneshwar the Municipal Corporations have come forward to help out the community with vaccination.  

“ It was a great help to us. Many doctors also provided free guidance counselling at the vaccine centres and cleared the doubts of the people,” said Parida.

Shuchita Jha is a Bhopal-based freelance journalist 

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