A 25-year-old sex worker at Daulatdia brothel, Sonia Akhter (not her real name) had the minimum age requirement for getting the Covid-19 vaccine. So, she tried to get a jab by registering online.
But Sonia – like so many others involved in this profession – does not have a National Identity Card (NID), a mandatory requirement for vaccine registration.
She also lacks a birth certificate, and could not register in-person at inoculation camps previously organised in the area.
Daulatdia brothel houses around 1,400 sex workers, making it the largest brothel in Bangladesh. But a lack of birth certificates and NIDs is preventing the majority of these women from getting inoculated against the deadly virus, insiders have said.
The government had already organised two vaccination camps on February 25 and August 18 this year to inoculate the sex workers, but only 550 of them managed to get the jab so far.
Dr Asif Mahmud, Upazila Health and Family Planning officer of Goalanda who had led vaccination drives at the brothel, told The Business Standard, "Initially, the sex workers did not have much interest in getting vaccinated against Covid-19.
"We helped change their mind after counseling, and now most of them want to take the shot. However, many of the sex workers are underage, and those who are not, lack NIDs or birth certificates. So, these women have fallen outside the vaccination coverage."
He further said, "We have discussed the matter of issuing NIDs to sex workers with the Election Commission. Besides, NGOs are helping these women register for the vaccine. If Bangladesh received enough doses, more camps will the organised in Daulatdia to inoculate sex workers.
"If no camps are organised, they can visit the Upazila Health Center to get vaccinated after registration."
In Daulatdia brothel, about 150 women aged 40 years or above got vaccinated in the first camp on February 25, while 400 more over the age of 25 got vaccinated in the second camp on August 18.
Bangladesh began mass vaccinations against the Covid-19 pandemic from February 7 this year. So far, around 1.59 core people have received at least one dose, and 61.29 lakh people have been fully vaccinated.
Less than half of the sex workers in Daulatdia brothel had received inoculations through vaccination camps, but floating sex workers and those in other brothels remain out of the vaccine coverage.
The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) estimates the number of female sex workers in Bangladesh to be about 140,000. They typically contact clients from their homes, in hotels, brothels, and on the street. There are 10 brothels in the country.
The Business Standard approached a number of agencies and NGOs seeking information about the percentage of sex workers who received the Covid-19 jab – excluding those who reside in Daulatdia brothel. But no concrete information has been found on the matter.
Commenting on the matter, Sex Workers' Network of Bangladesh's President Aleya Akter Lily said, "Many sex workers could not get the Covid-19 shot as they do not have NIDs. Our estimation says no more than one percent of these women have been vaccinated in Bangladesh.
"Sex workers are now coming into contact with their clients as the lockdown has been relaxed. If they are not vaccinated now, the risk of Covid-19 infections spreading will go up. For this reason, sex workers who do not have NIDs should be vaccinated too."
She added that if necessary, the Sex Workers' Network of Bangladesh will submit a list of its members to the government so that they can get vaccine coverage.
Public health expert and a Member of the Directorate General of Health Services' (DGHS) Covid-19 Public Health Advisory Committee, Dr Abu Jamil Faisel said, "Sex workers come in contact with many people, and these women are at high risk of being infected.
"So, sex workers need to be vaccinated on a priority basis."
DGHS Spokesperson Prof Nazmul Islam said, "We want the sex worker and third gender communities to be vaccinated. But an identity card is required to get the shot because we need to keep track of the second dose as well.
"We are planning on bringing every community under the vaccine coverage."
On the issue, Chair of the Thematic Group on Vaccination under Bangladesh Health Watch and former director of the DGHS' Primary Health Care, Dr AM Zakir Hussain said, "Sex workers should at least to get a birth certificate from their local union parishad to get the vaccine.
"We are also urging the government to spare the sex workers and the other marginalised communities the hassle of applying for NID card in the interim, as it is time consuming."
He added that the health department should waive certain preconditions of taking the jab to accommodate such groups.
A Collaboration between The Business Standard and Bangladesh Health Watch