Humanitarian Action

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Abstract

In South Africa, the focus on the COVID-19 pandemic was primarily directed at establishing the detrimental effects on the economic sector, including how to contain the spread of the virus. Limited attention was paid to how the pandemic affected those who work in the informal sector, particularly the sex industry. This article rests on the premise that while sex work has not been legalized in South Africa, it is nonetheless a vital source of income for those who work in the industry. The article used humanitarianism as a lens to explain the exclusion of sex workers from government social support programs. The article found that there were no designated social and economic programs for sex workers due to their occupation falling outside the legal beneficiary framework. The criminalization of commercial sex work exacerbated poverty and socio-economic desperation during the pandemic and also exposed them to operational risks that included exposure to COVID-19 ailments. Going forward, this article argues for the need to decriminalize commercial sex and the introduction of safety net programs to restore the dignity of sex workers and their livelihoods in the event of crises.