Healthcare organisations in the United States (US) have warned that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) communities may be particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Several organisations, including  Whitman-Walker Health and SAGE, have worked together with the LGBT Cancer Network in the US to highlight factors that make the LGBT+ population more vulnerable to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

These include that LGBT+ people smoke at rates 50% higher than the general population, and that, as Covid-19 is a respiratory illness, people in this community are at greater risk of dying; that there are higher rates of pre-existing conditions such as cancer and HIV amongst the LGBT+ population compared to the general population; and that ignorance and discriminatory views of the LGBT+ population make many in this community hesitant to seek medical care. 

The LGBT+ population is also aware of how easily stigma can arise from pandemics.  When the HIV/AIDS epidemic began in the US in the 1980s, there was initially limited media coverage since the virus seemed to affect only gay men and other stigmatised groups. This narrative led to the government being slow to respond to the disease, resulting in a sharp rise in stigmatisation, discrimination and deaths. 

Although public perceptions have changed in many countries and LGBT+ tolerance is growing across the world, organisations fear Covid-19 may still create new environments of stigmatisation and discrimination in countries where homosexuality is illegal.

In Uganda, for example, police arrested 23 homeless people at a shelter serving LGBT+ people. Police claimed they were enforcing presidential directives to combat the spread of Covid-19, which included the prohibiting of public gatherings with more than 10 people.  However, according to the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF), complaints from people living near the shelter about the presumed sexuality of shelter residents led to mayor Hajj Abdul Kiyimba’s ordering the raid. 

Human Rights Watch drew attention to a video showing shelter residents being beaten with sticks while slurs were hurled at them. According to HRAPF, police were also looking for evidence of homosexuality. Given Uganda’s abysmal track record when it comes to LGBT+ rights, there is a risk of the Covid-19 pandemic being used as a new excuse to further crack down on the LGBT+ community.

IRR analysts say that, as South Africa battled to contain the spread of Covid-19, steps should be taken to ensure that the pandemic does not lead to new forms of discrimination.