People demonstrate in support of sex workers, April 14, 2018.  © 2018 Alain Apaydin/Sipa via AP Images

Norwegian police have arrested sex workers over accusations that they violated quarantine restrictions. Although not accused of any crime, the workers, from other European countries, face detention and expulsion from Norway. Media reports suggest some have already been forced to leave although their clients do not appear to have been arrested.

These cases illustrate how governments are failing to respect the rights of sex workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Rights organizations drew attention early in the pandemic to its devastating impact on sex workers — how they faced additional stigma, difficulty working safely, and heightened risk of infection. Sex workers often struggle to access financial safety nets due to the marginalized nature of their work and because many are migrants or members of other groups facing discrimination.

These problems are worsened by laws criminalizing sex work in countries, including Norway. Norway uses the so-called “Nordic model” — criminalizing the purchase of sex. Human Rights Watch research finds that criminalization of buying sex also harms people who sell sex. It makes it harder for them to find safe places to work, work together, advocate for their rights, or even open a bank account. It stigmatizes sex workers and leaves them vulnerable to abuse by police.

Groups advocating for sex workers urged governments to ensure their inclusion in plans to address the Covid-19 public health crisis and its economic fallout. Public health experts highlighted lessons from the HIV epidemic about the need for targeted assistance to sex workers to protect them.  

These warnings were largely ignored by governments, including Norway. An organization assisting sex workers documented how sex workers were excluded from pandemic-related public health and financial assistance initiatives in Norway and other Nordic countries. Others have documented how sex workers around the world lost income and access to specialized programs, and were cut off from services.

Governments should ensure Covid-19 health measures include specific outreach and assistance to sex workers. They should ensure specialized services for sex workers continue and fund their expansion where needed. Governments financially assisting freelancers and others in financial crisis should specifically include sex workers. They should ensure sex workers know they can access these programs, and remove barriers, such as the need to provide proof of past income in places where sex work is criminalized. Finally, they should decriminalize sex work and end measures that further harm sex workers like Norway’s approach of arresting and expelling them.