Reason Roundup

COVID-19 Measures Magnified the Wars on Drugs and Sex Work

Plus: International Whores' Day, U.S. Postal Service sued over the seizure of Black Lives Matter masks, and more...


"Widespread reliance on punitive approaches to enforcing public health" harms marginalized groups, says Amnesty International. A new report from the human rights group Amnesty International suggests quarantine rules and other COVID-19 restrictions were especially damaging for groups already more likely to face discrimination, police harassment, and unjust criminalization. Amnesty International calls on governments to reject using criminal sanctions to implement public health goals and "refrain from implementing repressive policies" in the name of protecting pubic health.

"Though Covid-19 measures may have varied from country to country, governments' approaches to tackling the pandemic have had a common failing," said Rajat Khosla, Amnesty International's senior director of research, advocacy, and policy, in a statement. "An overemphasis on using punitive sanctions against people for non-compliance with regulations, rather than supporting them to better comply, had a grossly disproportionate effect on those who already faced systematic discrimination."

"Contrary to the often-voiced claim by governments that 'we were all in this together', the truth is that their responses to Covid-19 have been experienced unequally," states Amnesty's report. "Nowhere is this more evident than in the impact of Covid-19 measures on people who are discriminatorily targeted by criminal sanctions or punitive laws, policies or regulations," including people who are homeless, engage in sex work, or use drugs, as well as people "targeted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and expression."

Amnesty's report comes from a survey of private groups "working on issues including sex workers' rights, LGBTI rights, drug policy reform, homelessness, racial justice, Indigenous people's rights, discrimination based on work and descent, and sexual and reproductive rights." It includes information from 28 countries, including the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

Examples of COVID-19 restrictions in these countries include lockdowns, school closures, curfews, mandatory quarantine requirements, and "in some cases, forced confinement in camps or other state-run facilities," as well as restrictions on public assembly and protest and closures of bars, restaurants, shops, and other workplaces. "These measures have had a particularly severe impact on the ability of people living in poverty and other marginalized communities to work and support themselves and their families," the report points out.

COVID-19 restrictions also had noneconomic consequences, including increased targeting by police. Nearly three-quarters of the 54 organizations Amnesty surveyed said "the communities they work with, including sex workers, people who use drugs, LGBTI people and people in need of abortion, were punished for breaching Covid-19 measures," according to Amnesty's summary of the report.

In addition, COVID-19 restrictions exacerbated the negative consequences of existing laws and regulations. For example:

According to the Mexican human rights organization Elementa, the country's punitive "war on drugs" has enabled police forces to target people who use or possess drugs through the enforcement of Covid-19 related measures. In an alarming case that sparked widespread protests, a construction worker, who at the time was under the influence of drugs, was arrested in the western state of Jalisco, allegedly for not wearing a face mask. He died in police custody days later. His body was covered in bruises and he had a bullet wound in his leg.

In Belize, Indonesia, Mexico Nigeria, Uganda, the Philippines, Tanzania, and UK, civil society organizations working on issues including LGBTI rights, drug policy reform, the rights of sex workers and ending homelessness, have reported that marginalized communities have seen an increase in surveillance and harassment from law enforcement and have been disproportionately affected by arrests, fines and detentions during the pandemic.

In Argentina, a sex worker-led organization reported police violence against transgender sex workers, including "beatings, searches and arbitrary detentions" and that sex workers were harassed by police "for quarantine violations when they went to the supermarket or the neighbourhood pharmacy."

The report is full of examples like these:

In Uganda, in 2020, 23 youths were arrested in the shelter for LGBTI people where they lived on the pretext that they were guilty of "a negligent act likely to spread infection of disease," as well as "disobedience of lawful orders." In April 2020, police in the Philippines forced three LGBTI people to perform humiliating acts as punishment for supposedly violating the curfew. The punishment was recorded on video and posted on social media….

In Zanzibar, Tanzania, Front Line Defenders reported that in April 2020, as part of nationwide enforcement of Covid-19 related measures, police targeted houses known to be occupied by LGBTI people and sex workers and forced 15 sex workers to leave their homes, claiming they were breaching physical distancing requirements….

In Norway, the sex worker rights organization PION reported that law enforcement agencies used legislation relating to the control of communicable diseases as a pretext for harassing sex workers, resulting in arrests, detentions, heavy fines and deportations of sex workers who are foreign nationals.

Marginalized and criminalized groups were also more likely to suffer under COVID-19 restrictions by being unable to access support and services typically relied upon. These services may have been forced to stop operations during lockdowns, or may have been subject to increase monitoring by law enforcement.

"For example, a harm reduction organization based in the USA described how police parking close to syringe exchange sites deterred people from coming to access services," notes Amnesty's report.

Meanwhile, sex workers and others in underground industries were barred from government handouts designed to mitigate the fallout from pandemic shutdowns. "Over half of the organizations surveyed reported that the community they work with had been excluded from any state support measures and over half also reported specific barriers preventing people who are marginalized or criminalized from accessing Covid-19 relief services or support schemes," notes Amnesty.

And those subject to unjust criminalization were also barred from participating in decisions about pandemic restrictions, notes Amnesty. "Unjust criminalization…created barriers to the meaningful consultation and participation in governments' decision-making by individuals and organizations whose expertise and experience could otherwise have informed and improved states' pandemic response," the report states. 

It also notes that while "widespread reliance on punitive approaches to enforcing public health and social measures" may have fallen hardest on marginalized groups and communities, the rights violations they engendered were not exclusive to these groups. "Amnesty International has documented cases in at least 60 countries where authorities' use of such measures has violated a range of human rights," it says.


Today is International Whores' Day, a day commemorating a landmark 1975 sex worker rights protest in Lyon, France, and calling for an end to repressive policing of sex work around the world. Eurydice Aroney has a great Twitter thread about the day's history:

Almost immediately, the weeklong protest reverberated beyond France, and it has continued to inspire generations of sex worker rights activists. "News of the strike spread to other sex worker activists like Roberta Perkins from the Australian Prostitutes Collective," Aroney points out. "During the 1980's she'd recount to us young whore activists the story of the strike. These were our 'motivational moments' and we used them to inspire others."

For more on International Whores' Day's history and impact, check out this podcast conversation between Kaytlin Bailey and Ceyenne Doroshow.

The struggle for sex worker rights continues today, of course, with movements in the U.S. and around the world pushing for the decriminalization of prostitution and for "rights, not rescue," to borrow one popular sex worker rights slogan.

While attitudes toward casual sex have largely loosened since the 1970s, the criminalization of sex workers in many countries has gotten worse and worse, as activists have successfully conflated sex work with sex trafficking and pushed for more prostitution arrests and sex worker surveillance as the means to combat the latter. For more on this push and its effects, check out these stories from me and others at Reason:

The War on Sex Trafficking Is the New War on Drugs

Sex Slaves and the Surveillance State

The 'White Slavery' Panic

American Sex Police

Massage Parlor Panic

The Truth About the Biggest U.S. Sex Trafficking Story of the Year

I recently debated British feminist Julie Bindel about sex work decriminalization, which you can watch here:


The U.S. Postal Service is being sued over the seizure of Black Lives Matter masks:

A California screen printer is suing the U.S. Postal Service for seizing shipments of Black Lives Matter masks intended to protect demonstrators from Covid-19 during protests following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd.

The cloth masks, with slogans like "Stop killing Black people" and "Defund police," were purchased by the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) and were meant to be shipped to D.C., St. Louis, New York City and Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed by a police officer. But four boxes containing about 500 masks each were marked as "Seized by law enforcement" and their shipment was delayed more than 24 hours.

The lawsuit, filed on Wednesday and shared first with NBC News, accuses U.S. Postal Service and U.S. Postal Inspection Service officials of violating constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment by improperly seizing the boxes without probable cause, a warrant, or even reasonable suspicion. The lawsuit also raises the possibility that officials violated the First Amendment by seizing the masks because of their political messaging.


•  "Abortion providers in Florida filed a lawsuit Wednesday to try to block the state's new law banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, which is slated to take effect July 1," The Washington Post reports.

• Anti-LGBT panics are bad for everyone's liberty, warns Reason's Scott Shackford.