Sexuality Policy Watch

Sexual politics in times of pandemic

March and early April 2020

It has been very challenging to prepare the  SPW announcement for March/April 2020 due to the abnormality, risks, and losses caused by the dizzying spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In this troubled context, we thought that it was not sufficient to compile and organize, in our usual categories, the substantial volume of information and analyses we have collected regarding the meanings and effects of the pandemic in relation to gender, sexuality, HIV/AIDS and abortion. We have, therefore, chosen to organize this material in a different format, situating these thematic categories in relation to the implications of COVID-19 for politics, the economy and biopolitics. Additionally, as the pandemic has initially affected the so-called central economies — China, Europe and the US — before spreading to other countries and regions, we invited collaborators to write about contexts that had not been looked at by the mainstream media, especially in Brazil. We thank Humberto Meza and Amaral Arévalo for their generous and excellent analyses of what is happening in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Covid-19: Exceptionality and de-democratization

Since  January, when the Chinese government adopted extreme confinement measures in Wuhan,  the pandemic sparked the worldwide spread of a questionable war semantics.  It also provided states, in particular existing authoritarian regimes, new justifications for exercising their monopoly on violence, declaring arbitrary measures, and conducting new forms of political coercion.

In the Philippines, Duterte authorized the execution of those who break quarantine rules. In Hungary, Orbán suspended what remained of the country’s democratic institutions (click here to find out more). In Poland, the Law and Justice Party struck against electoral laws in order to institute voting by mail and maintain the presidential elections scheduled for May. This maneuver in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis was identified by opponents as a coup. The State’s power of coercion has also been expanded in Iran, Turkey, Israel, Russia, and Kyrgyzstan (see here for a compilation). In India, COVID-19 interrupted political mobilizations against the new citizenship law and the protests against the community violence that has victimized Muslims in several Indian cities. Above all, it gave Modi new arguments for using force and restricting the freedom of the press. In Uganda, the Museveni regime used the pandemic to resume the persecution of the country’s LGBT population (here and here). Central America has been another flagrant site of abuses, with states of exception being installed in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. More recently, Ecuador has also suspended access to constitutional guarantees. Finally, we should also mention authoritarian contexts that are rarely talked about as it is the case of  Middle East and, even more dramatically, Palestine (especially Gaza)  or else Kashmir, territories that have been under states of exception for a long period prior to the epidemic. It should also be noted that even in contexts where there have been no major threats to democracy,  the COVID-19 crisis is leading to the indiscriminate use of criminal law and increased abuses by actors in charge of state surveillance.

Furthermore, in addition to the populist and anti-democratic leaders who are using COVID-19 to expand their discretionary powers, it is vital to look at the dramatic cases of  COVID-19 negationists, such as Trump, Boris Johnson, Lopez Obrador and Bolsonaro. In the name of protecting the economy (as well as employing other arguments), these leaders have delayed and attacked containment measures, putting the population of their countries at risk. Boris Johnson seems to have more consistently recognized the implications of the new epidemiological reality. Trump, after much back and forth,   ended up yielding to quarantine enforcement rules, but continued to threaten to suspend them and exonerate Dr. Fauci who coordinates the U.S. health care system response. Bolsonaro, it should be said, has followed a darker route. Even after more than 1,000 deaths due to COVID-19 in Brazil, he continued irresponsibly interrogating the seriousness of the pandemic and, in order to keep his political base mobilized, invented and harassed enemies, such as his (now former) Minister of Health. On this path of insanity, Bolsonaro is accompanied by three other undisputed autocrats: Daniel Ortega and the dictators of Belarus and Turkmenistan. Furthermore, in the week of April 10th, after replacing the Minister of Health, the announcement has also been made that, from now on, the Brazilian armed forces will oversee the COVID 19 crisis management, a step signaling towards a more flagrant authoritarian turn in the response to the pandemic and Brazilian politics more widely speaking.

Considering this unmistakable wave of authoritarianism and arbitrariness, it is important to highlight successful responses to the pandemic that are not openly carrying waters to the mills of de-democratization, such as in Germany, Argentina, Barbados, South Korea, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, New Zealand, Portugal and Taiwan. Although several other factors must be taken into account to better grasp the contours and effectiveness of policies adopted in these countries,  it is not exactly trivial that they are predominantly governed by women. This evidence, however, should not lead us towards facile essentialized interpretations.  Not all female leaders would conduct or are conducting effective and democratic responses to the pandemic. Suffice to think of what would have been the policies adopted by European or US female right-wing leaders,  or else to look at Bolivia where an undeclared state of exception has been adopted by the country’s female interim president, known for having a  Bible in hand when taking the post in November 2019.

Under the current circumstances, it is also inspiring to read and disseminate the recommendations made by the regional and international human rights systems, as well as by international HR organizations, strongly underlining that human rights cannot be violated by policies implemented in response to the pandemic, and that also reminds us that, in conditions of exceptionality,  persons and groups that already experienced inequality and discrimination will be the first victims of state violence and discrimination.

COVID 19: Capitalism, gender and sexuality

The scale and speed of the COVID-19 crisis cannot be understood without reference to the conditions of capitalism in the 21st century. In a nutshell, these features are the intensification in the circulation of capital, goods and people; the creation of global production chains that are increasingly interconnected with each other and with China (and, more specifically, with Wuhan); and the creation and maintenance of high levels of inequality. It is worth remembering that the first global symptoms of the pandemic were economic and financial, not health-related,  as quite early in January the Chinese epidemic was already affecting stock markets across the world.

On the other hand, the pandemic’s drastic effects must be decidedly attributed to neoliberal policies that have defunded or privatized public health systems, eroded labor rights and other networks of protection, and promoted precarious forms of labor. A paradoxical feature of the current scenario is that, as noted by a Brazilian political scientist,  if governments want to avoid humanitarian and economic catastrophes, they can no longer blindly follow the neoliberal catechism. If public health systems were more robust, for example, the health response to COVID-19 would have been much more effective and the virus possibly less lethal. Additionally, sexual and reproductive health services (including those for HIV-AIDS) would not have been so compromised by the emergence of the pandemic (a topic that will be examined below). As David Harvey notes, it has been the least neoliberal countries that have responded best to the crisis in terms of health policies.

Above all else, if neoliberalism had not become a globalized dogma, we would not now be witnessing the economic destruction of millions of people who live on the edge of survival through informal and precarious labor. It is a well-known fact that women are the majority of these people in many countries. In Brazil, for example, economist Hildete Pereira (in Portuguese) notes that 82% of jobs created in the informal market in recent years are occupied by women, most of them in domestic services, which, both here and in other countries, are rapidly disappearing. In this sense, the emergency social protection measures for informal workers benefiting female heads of households that have been adopted by the Brazilian Congress are very welcome, as well as Argentinean gender policies in response to the pandemic (see here and here in Spanish).

In the vast array of articles and analyzes that have been circulated regarding the gendered impacts of the pandemic, the most complete text is perhaps that of Helen Lewis in The Atlantic, which critically recovers histories of what happened in other recent epidemics, such as Ebola and Zika. Lewis emphasizes how the inequalities of the sexual division of labor exacerbate the deleterious effects of COVID-19, pointing out that the pandemic is highlighting both the persistent sexual division of labor and the centrality of the care economy. Not only are women at the forefront of the health response, but they are largely responsible for the sustainability of people in quarantine. This centrality, hitherto obscured by the primacy of the “economy of production”, has been examined by Débora Diniz (in Portuguese), Rita Segato (in Spanish), and Alain Touraine (in Spanish). It also emphasized in several feminist and UN documents that address the engendered impacts of COVID (here and here).

Returning to the impacts of the pandemic on the informal labor market, we must remember that, worldwide, its effects have been dramatic for people involved in commercial sex, whose activities are predominantly informal and precarious. We have identified a wide range of news and analysis on the negative impacts of falling sex work client demand in Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico, Thailand, Bangladesh, France and Spain in our compilations in Portuguese / Spanish and English. On the one hand, the treatment given by the press to this topic tells us that, after several decades of struggle by sex workers for rights, the provision of sexual services is being recognized (at least by the press) as “work” and not as simple moral degradation. On the other hand, the rejection of conservative and feminist sectors of this recognition will possibly constitute an obstacle to the implementation of state measures of social protection for sex workers. This can be illustrated by what has happened in Brazil, where the first version of a booklet on risks from COVID-19, published by the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights, recommended that sex workers adapt to the pandemic by offering virtual services. As soon as the booklet gained visibility in the media, however, another edition was published in which this and other contents were eliminated.

COVID-19: Biopolitical implications

COVID-19 and its effects should also be read as biopolitics. Like previous epidemics, it updates and radicalizes governmental, technological, and scientific knowledge and devices for large-scale population management and for the disciplining and surveillance of the social (le corps social)  and individual bodies. In other words, as theorized by Foucault, devices that attribute the biological to the State are intertwined with the political and legal apparatus of coercion. This Foucaultian framework has inspired countless thought-provoking critical reflections on COVID in recent weeks, among which Clare O’Farrel has produced an exquisite fictional interview with the master of biopolitics.

In the biopolitical realm, COVID-19 inevitably evokes other epidemics such as syphilis, the recent Zika outbreak (read in Portuguese) and, above all, the political history of HIV/AIDS. This because epidemics potentially convert people and social groups into vectors of infection that must be controlled or even eliminated (see a compilation in Portuguese, Spanish and English).

Richard Parker, president of ABIA, in writing about the lack of tests for COVID-19 in Brazil, noted that, as was the case in the course of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the response to COVID-19 can easily propel discourses and practices to blame, stigmatize and produce violence against “others”: the elderly and people with chronic diseases, including people living with HIV/AIDS. This is particularly the case in contexts where authoritarian populism has taken holds, such as in Brazil and the USA. Analyzing the Indian context, feminist Gita Sen mentions the stigmatization of health professionals (who are most exposed to infection) and vulnerable groups such as the Dalits, people with disabilities, and poor women. In China, female health workers working on the frontline of containment had their heads compulsively shaved. In countless countries, people who do not comply with quarantine rules (generally members of the poorest and most marginalized populations) have been accused of being irresponsible and are more easily subject to state coercion and violence (including lethal violence, as in the Philippines).

Another biopolitical feature of the pandemic is, therefore, differentiated vulnerability. As Judith Butler points out, the virus has demonstrated our shared precariousness as humans, but its risks and effects – whether pathological, social or political – are radically differentiated according to age, health status, gender, sexual identity and orientation, race,  ethnicity, caste, class, and place of birth. This differential vulnerability is tragically illustrated by the trajectory of the first female victim of COVID-19 in the state of Rio de Janeiro: a 63-year-old domestic worker (therefore a person at risk), who was exposed to the virus by her mistress who had been infected on a trip to Italy.

No less important, COVID-19 has also implied spatial segregation and the resource to biopolitical technologies for the management of the social body. One first sign of these effects was the immediate increase in gender-based violence, including murders, due to the fact that women are once again confined to domestic spaces while in quarantine (learn more here). The first news of increased gender-based violence came from China and then spread around the world, casting light upon the lack of security that prevails in the domestic (family) universe, to the contrary of the ideologies propagated by the world’s conservative forces. However, it also demonstrates how the biopolitical rules of compulsory spatialization can very quickly destroy sociability networks as a horizontal protection mechanism.

Furthermore, the governments of Panama, Peru, and the municipality of Bogotá adopted sex/gender criteria to establish rules for restraining the public circulation of citizens. The Latina and Brazilian press published articles about these measures describing their impacts in terms of discrimination of trans persons and, in the case in Peru, the stigmatization of women (see a compilation). In Peru, after a week, the rule was repealed and an assessment of its detrimental and ineffective impacts is now available (in Spanish). In Colombia, an editorial in the newspaper El Espectador criticized the measures adopted and sex/gender rotation, and a digital campaign is underway that calls for the suspension of sex/gender-based quarantine measures. In her article about these policies, Sonia Corrêa observes that sex/gender segregation rules reify the biological determinism of sexual dimorphism, immediately placing non-binary people in a situation of greater risk and vulnerability in the face of State coercion. According to Corrêa, this logic also contributes to crystallize the so-called natural sex/gender order, reactivating deeply held prejudices concerning the sexual division of labor and inequalities between men and women.

It is also necessary to consider (as several observers have) the biopolitical implications of COVID’s individualized risk management and, more particularly, the meanings and developments of the expanded digital surveillance apparatus that has been adopted with epidemiological success in several countries, including those where democracy is not openly threatened (learn more in our compilation).

Lastly, the recommendations from the UN and the International Human Rights System on how to respond to gender violence and other forms of violence, discrimination, stigmatization resulting from the pandemic are a must-read. Click here to read more on gender-based violence soaring during the pandemic.

Reproductive health and abortion

The disciplining, regulation, and jurisdiction over bodies that become pregnant is also within the sphere of biopolitics and, as such, has also been impacted by the pandemic. Both above and below the Equator – in Brazil, the US, France, India and Italy – abortion and reproductive health services have been suspended because they are not considered essential. This distinction between the essential and non-essential, which seems to be inevitable during this moment of crisis, must be questioned. Bodily autonomy and access to sexual and reproductive health are not expendable rights. In addition, anti-abortion forces have deliberately used the pandemic as a pretext to force the shut down of abortion services. In Brazil, this seems to have happened at the Pérola Byington Hospital in São Paulo, which, under pressure from the State level judiciary had the service re-established (read here in Portuguese). In Argentina, a group of religious MPs questioned president Fernandes Administration’s decision to consider reproductive health services, including abortion in legal cases, as essential, as well as the government’s continued expenditures on Misoprostol. In the United States, Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas, where draft bills had been introduced to absolutely ban abortion in 2019, have seen strong pressure to close abortion services and several states, such as Texas, which have clinics closed by decree. As will be further discussed below, a radical ban on abortion has become a priority for the Polish government during the pandemic (see compilation here). More serious, however, was Bolsonaro’s statement when he sacked the Brazilian Minister of Health on April 16th over disagreements regarding the President’s pressure to suspend quarantine. On this occasion, Bolsonaro declared that he would nominate to the position a person radically opposed to abortion.

On the other hand, however, the difficulty of physical access to abortion services has led to expanding access to pharmacological abortion techniques that can be performed at home. The International Campaign for the Right of Women to Safe Abortion (ICWRSA) launched an international call to action for a rational agenda that guarantees the right of women in the current state of emergency, favoring remote abortion. Colombia, England, France, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales managed to approve the regularization (even if temporarily) of telemedicine abortion services (see a compilation). Finally, and very importantly, recognizing the deleterious effects of COVID-19 on sexual and reproductive health services, the World Health Organization released a clinical guide on March 26th stating that these services, including voluntary interruption of pregnancy, must be preserved as essential during the pandemic.

COVID- 19: anti-gender politics

This section explores, in a preliminary and partial way,  how anti-gender forces are positioned and mobilized in relation to COVID-19. One first observation is that, everywhere, religious institutions involved in anti-gender campaigns have reacted negatively to rules promoting social isolation. Even the Vatican initially criticized the closure of churches and challenged the measures implemented in Rome. However, when the Italian situation worsened, the Pope stepped back and offered a solitary mass in an empty St. Peter’s square. In Latin America and in Brazil in particular, pastors have widely rebelled against restricting worship. Videos were circulated throughout the region, in which conservative Catholic and Evangelical voices questioned the existence of the virus, disqualified the effectiveness of biomedical responses, and stated that people should trust in the healing powers of God (see Brazilian and Chilean videos here).

Also in Latin America, conservative Catholic leaders interpreted COVID-19 as divine punishment for efforts aimed at the legalization of abortion in Argentina, as well as for feminist radicalism and granting of rights to sexual diversity in Mexico. Evangelical churches have circulated pamphlets that teach women to behave like good wives during quarantine. In Israel, Rabbi Meir Mazzur declared that the epidemic was divine punishment for LGBT Pride Parades. Meanwhile, in Europe, conservative Catholicism linked the spread of the virus to the so-called “demographic winter”, that is, falling fertility rates.

On the other hand, it must be said that not all governments that have taken negative or arbitrary positions in response to the pandemic are aligned with or have the support of anti-gender forces. This does not apply to India or the Philippines, for example, although it is certainly the case in the US, Brazil, Hungary, Nicaragua and Poland. In Poland, where there are now areas where the presence of LGBTTI people is prohibited, the ruling Justice Party has used the pandemic to quickly approve a total ban on abortion (learn more here and here). In the US and Brazil, anti-gender forces, reiterating their anti-intellectualist ideology, supported presidential speeches that disqualified the seriousness of the pandemic and have openly attacked epidemiologists and other scientists.

In both cases, some of these extremist voices state that science is not to be believed. Rather, Trump and Bolsonaro – supposedly “sent from God” – are to be trusted as the nations’ true leaders in times of pandemic. There are also religious and secular pundits that accuse social isolation, access to universal health, and economic relief packages of being socialist measures (see a compilation in English and Portuguese). In the case of the United States, these pressures partially explain the suspension of funding for the WHO, based on accusations of ineffectiveness, alignment with China, and the promotion of abortion. This decision is being applauded by celebrities from the anti-gender field, such as Argentine’s Agustín Laje .

In an article published in openDemocracy, Claire Provost argues that the state of abnormality and emergency now reigning on the planet creates favorable conditions for anti-gender forces to reinforce traditional gender roles, sexual dimorphism, and the rejection of feminism and sexual diversity. It also allows for the closing of borders and for these forces and their political allies to greater control over the power of the State in contexts in which they are already installed. In the future, the tragedies resulting from the epidemic may also provide electoral munition for these same forces which may be used to capture more power in countries not yet threatened by anti-democratic authoritarianism.

In conclusion, it is productive to see how the pandemic is interpreted within the broader ideological frameworks that have inspired the global extreme right, as well as an important range of anti-gender forces. In an exciting article published by The Nation, Benjamin Teitelbaum shows, for example, how both Putin’s guru Alexandr Dugin and Trump’s old ally Steve Bannon – despite their substantive differences wit respect the role of the West and the United States in the world system – interpret the pandemic as an epochal and systemic event that may favor their views of repudiation of modernity, in its multiple manifestations, and of globalism.

Let us remember

The unresolved murders of City Councilwoman Marielle Franco and driver Anderson Gomes completed two years on March 14th. The SPW joins the voices that, even in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, remember this brutal crime and call for answers and justice. Read our compilation in Portuguese.

Sexuality & Art

In this edition, SPW exhibits the work Engineered Antibody by artist Anna Dumitriu on infectious diseases, synthetic biology and robotics.

We recommend


Continuities of Gendered Violence in Conflict Making Political Economy Visible: Insights by Young Feminists from the Global South – DAWN

Papers and articles

COVID-19 and biopolitics

Back to where we always have been: sex/gender segregation to contain Covid-19, by Sonia Corrêa – LSE Engendering

Backlash: A misleading narrative, by David Paternotte – LSE Engendering

Laissez COVID19 faire, laissez COVID19 passer?, by Gabriela Arguedas – Journal of Medical Ethics

The Invention of an Epidemic, by Giorgio Agamben – European Journal of  Psychoanalysis

Viral Exception, by Jean Luc Nancy – Antinomie

Tech Solutions to Covid-19 Can’t Dispense with Fundamental Rights – Bot Populi


What Lessons Does the AIDS Crisis Offer for the Coronavirus Pandemic?, by Masha Gessen – The New Yorker

ABIA statement: democracy in Brazil and COVID-19 health policy – SPW

States of Emergency, Metaphors of Virus, and COVID-19 – Verso Books

COVID-19 and politics

The pandemic as a war and Trump, the ‘medic-in-chief’ – Al Jazeera

A Letter to My Anti-racist Feminist Sisters in the Time of COVID-19, by Zillah Eisenstein – NYU Press Blog

Responding to Covid-19 – the social dynamics – IDS

We Are Living In A Failed State – The Atlantic

COVID-19, authoritarian and conservative politics

Nicaragua: A Pandemic Carnival, by Humberto Meza – SPW

Bukele: A ‘caudilho’ Dies and A Messiah is Born in El Salvador, by Amaral Arévalo – SPW

These People Aren’t Freedom Fighters—They’re Virus-Spreading Sociopaths – The Nation

The Right’s Desperate Attempts to Hijack ‘My Body, My Choice’ – Rewire

COVID-19 and inequality

Capitalism Has Its Limits, by Judith Butler – Verso Books

Let’s stop pretending billionaires are in the same boat as us during this pandemic – The Guardian

Anti-Capitalist Politics in the Time of COVID-19, by David Harvey – Jacobin

In India, the pandemic is creating new borders – openDemocracy

Latin America and the outbreak of COVID-19: a chronicle of multiple crises (I) – Eurodad

Disease Has Never Been Just Disease for Native Americans – The Atlantic

COVID-19, gender and sexuality

The Prostitute, The Virus and The City, by Prostitution Policy Watch – SPW

The danger of being transgender in Latin America in times of quarantine – openDemocracy

The Coronavirus is a Disaster for Feminism – The Atlantic

The Losers Conspiracy, by Paul B. Preciado – Art Forum

A Transition on Pause – The Baffler

UN issues warning to countries who use COVID-19 emergency powers to attack LGBT+ community – gcn


Human Rights Dimensions of COVID-19 Response – HRW

We are all in this together: policy brief on COVID-19 and human rights – UN


International Campaign for Women’s Rights to Safe Abortion

27 April 2020–3 May 2020

20 April 2020–26 April 2020

13 April 2020–19 April 2020

6 April 2020–12 April 2020

In Plainspeak

Safety and Sexuality – April 2020 issue

Check it out!

AWID is seeking contributions in the form of articles, reviews, artwork, photography, profiles/ features (on individuals or collectives), for issue of digital magazine Feminist Realities. Apply by May 15, 2020


Click here to access our website

Skip to content