‘If you don’t work you don’t eat’: Where lockdowns have extra sting

Why We Wrote This

As the novel coronavirus spreads, governments are watching each other, trying to learn what policies work. But poorer countries, where much of the labor force is outside safety nets, are entering less-charted waters. 

Gustavo Graf/Reuters
Fish sellers walk outside La Viga fish market during the coronavirus outbreak in Mexico City April 9, 2020. In recent weeks, the government has limited gatherings to 50 people and shut down nonessential businesses.

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Across the globe, governments face tough choices about how to control the spread of the novel coronavirus. Let life go on, and the disease can spread unchecked. Order everyone home, and the economy buckles.

These choices are especially painful in countries where high percentages of people work informally, outside most safety nets. Governments from Mexico to South Africa have taken dramatically different approaches but have one thing in common: Stopping the pandemic demands something more complicated than a cut-and-paste of responses tried in China, Europe, and the United States.

Arturo Granadas sells fruit in pop-up street markets in Mexico City. Each morning, he puts on a face mask and heads out to set up his hot-pink tarp stall, as he has for the past four decades. “If the government doesn’t provide alternatives [for informal workers], we will have no choice but to continue to go out and work,” he says.

Resistance has pushed governments to ease some restrictions and assist poor people. Meanwhile, informal workers say they hope the crisis will be a wake-up call about how important they are.

“We aren’t the problem,” Mr. Granadas says. “We are the solution to the government’s inability to create jobs and stable employment.”

The number of coronavirus cases in Mexico was growing quickly, bending toward the kind of curve that had turned cities like Paris, Rome, and Wuhan into ghost towns, empty and silent. 

But in Mexico City on a recent morning, though the streets were quieter than normal, the dissonant orchestra of daily life continued. Sweet potato vendors sounded their iconic steam-engine whistles. Flatbed trucks piped their monotone jingle as they circled the city collecting broken electronics and used mattresses. Subway trains clattered along their tracks, their doors squealing open to disgorge crowds of passengers. And tortillas sizzled on street-corner comales, large round griddles.

In the tranquil Coyoacán neighborhood, a sign beside one food stand offered a succinct explanation for why the coronavirus hadn’t interrupted daily life the way it had elsewhere.  

Mexico isn’t Europe,” read the sign, photographed by journalist Andalusia Knoll Soloff. “In Mexico, if you don’t work you don’t eat.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Across the globe, governments have faced tough choices about how to control the spread of the novel coronavirus. Let life go on, and the disease can spread unchecked. But order everyone home, and the economy buckles.

These choices are especially painful in countries like Mexico, where social safety nets are often flimsy and millions live off whatever they can hustle together each day. For these countries, stopping the coronavirus demands something more complicated than a cut-and-paste of responses that have been tried in China, Europe, and the United States. Instead, it requires bending those solutions to meet the needs of the world’s poorest people, for whom staying home without work could be as deadly as walking into the virus’s hotspots.

“A lockdown, or even social distancing, is actually a bit elitist as a concept,” says Dr. Elizabeth Kimani-Murage, a senior researcher at the African Population and Health Research Center in Nairobi, Kenya. “When people live in houses that are very small and close together, when they work to earn enough to live off of that day, how can you expect them to stay home and stay indoors to keep an unknown virus away?”

Opposite approaches

At one extreme in answering that question is Mexico, where President Andrés Manuel López Obrador for weeks brusquely ignored calls to institute nationwide restrictions on movement, or to close businesses. “Remember,” his government implored in a March public health notice, “the illness caused by the COVID-19 coronavirus is not serious.”

Schools were closed, and in recent weeks he has agreed to certain measures, including limiting gatherings to 50 people and shuttering nonessential businesses. But his priority, he says, is to protect the 60% of Mexican workers who labor informally – hawking fruit, scrubbing toilets, preparing tacos, and doing other piece work that pays job-to-job, in cash. Because these jobs are unofficial, they tend to be unprotected by employment law or government safety nets.

Jerome Delay/AP
Homeless people get in line to receive food baskets from private donors during a lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19, in Johannesburg April 13, 2020. South Africa, with the continent’s most cases, has been able to slow the pace of infections.

At the other end sit countries like South Africa, where a quarter of the labor force is also informal. But unlike Mexico, it has instituted one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, which has shuttered most industries, and prohibits even outdoor exercise and the sale of alcohol and cigarettes.

“The countries that have acted swiftly and dramatically have been far more effective in controlling the spread of the disease,” explained President Cyril Ramaphosa as he announced South Africa’s original three-week lockdown – now extended to five weeks. Since the lockdown began on March 26, indeed, the rate of newly diagnosed case has fallen sharply, from 110 per day before the lockdown began to 67 per day by its second week.

Globally, most experts and leaders acknowledge that some form of societal shutdown is necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19. “We know how to bring the economy back to life. What we do not know is how to bring people back to life,” said Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo on March 27. “We will, therefore, protect people’s lives, then their livelihoods.”

But shutting down countries where more than half the population lives in poverty has not gone seamlessly. Police and soldiers deployed to enforce the lockdown in poor South African communities have beaten and publicly humiliated those who resisted the orders, conjuring up painful echoes of apartheid-era lockdowns to violently quell black resistance. In Kenya, police have killed nearly as many people for resisting curfews and other disease control measures than have died from the disease itself.

And many of those resisting the lockdown restrictions say they simply have no other choice.

“The thing that makes people keep going out is their empty stomach, that they simply don’t have anything to eat,” says Luyanda Hlatshwayo, who works as an informal recycler in Johannesburg and is also an organizer with the African Reclaimers Organization (ARO). In normal times, recyclers like Mr. Hlatshwayo spend their days sorting through garbage bins left out for collection, picking out recyclable goods, which they then sell to centers around the city.

Those centers are now closed, since the country did not deem them an “essential service.” But many recyclers continue to roam their old routes, dodging police and hoping for handouts from sympathetic suburbanites. “People who have enough to eat, enough to live off of, they follow the rules,” he says. “But the ones who don’t, can’t.”

Attempts to help

Resistance from the country’s poorest people has pushed the South African government to ease some of its more onerous restrictions. Shared minibus taxis – the most common form of public transportation – are now allowed to travel at 70% capacity, up from 50% at the start of the lockdown. And in early April, officials announced that informal hawkers of fruits and vegetables would be allowed to sell their wares on the streets again, as long as they registered to do so. 

“The only way lockdowns can continue in societies with high poverty is if government is responding swiftly and directly to the needs of very poor people, whether that’s food or just direct transfers of money,” says Hannah Ryder, a Kenyan economist and former diplomat who runs the consultancy Development Reimagined.

Across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, governments have begun to adapt their responses to assist poor people, particularly those in informal jobs most likely to fall through the cracks of other social assistance. (The informal sector accounts for 89% of employment in sub-Saharan Africa, and 54% in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the International Labor Organization.)

Peru and Argentina, for instance, have begun emergency cash transfers to vulnerable people. Forty-seven African countries, meanwhile, have instituted some form of relief for citizens to access essential services, from waiving utility bills and fees on mobile money transfers to direct food or cash aid. And India has promised $22.6 billion for direct cash transfers and food assistance, which it hopes to use to feed more than 800 million people, after its lockdown left millions of workers without wages.

But many countries have struggled to keep up with the sheer magnitude of need when their economies are already in free-fall. In South Africa, for instance, phone lines for numbers set up for food assistance ring unanswered, and most of the aid given to informal workers so far has been private. “Not five cents from government,” says Mr. Hlatshwayo, whose organization ARO has raised nearly $10,000 in a crowdfunding campaign to support out-of-work recyclers.

“We aren’t the problem”

In Mexico, meanwhile, most informal workers have continued working, and say they will do so as long as there are no alternatives. Although the federal government has not implemented strict restrictions – taco stands and other informal food stalls can still sell their food to-go – some states and municipalities have implemented curfews or lockdowns.  

“What I understand is that the virus is a really, really big risk. I truly believe that,” says Arturo Granadas, who sells fruit in pop-up street markets in Mexico City called tianguis, and who serves as a representative for a union of informal hawkers in the capital. Each morning, he puts on a face mask and heads out to set up his hot-pink tarp stall, just as he has for the past four decades. “If the government doesn’t provide alternatives [for informal workers], we will have no choice but to continue to go out and work,” he says.

But like grocery-store employees and delivery drivers in Europe and the U.S., workers like Mr. Granadas and Mr. Hlatshwayo say they hope this crisis will be a wake-up call about how important their industries are, and how crucial it is for government to support them – not only in times of crisis.

“We are constantly criminalized, stigmatized, and persecuted in Mexico,” Mr. Granadas says. “But we aren’t the problem. We are the solution to the government’s inability to create jobs and stable employment.”

For experts, too, a silver lining of this pandemic may be the light it shines on people at the margins, whose lives have historically been easy for those in power to ignore.  

“Maybe the right model to address this is not only the health challenges, but the many underlying challenges, like poverty, education, and access to care,” says Dr. Hermes Florez, the interim chair of public health sciences at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “We have to address those to better be able to tackle future pandemics.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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