A vendor in Tijuana selling masks. (Photo by Abril Rodriguez Diaz)
Orange County School of the Arts

Mexico’s informal workers devastated by the halted economy

TIJUANA, Mexico — Despite stay-at-home guidelines and rising COVID-19 cases, many informal workers have been forced to continue working, exposing themselves to the virus in the process. They face the highest risk of getting sick, as well as the most severe consequences. 

On a normal day, Playas de Tijuana floods with beachgoers and street vendors selling elotes, mangos, churros and fried plantains. But now, Playas is indefinitely closed, and its street vendors and musicians have been devastated by the halted economy.

According to The New York Times, over half of Mexico’s population works informal jobs and lives day-to-day. At the end of June, street vendors in Mexico City protested the lockdown and demanded that they be allowed to resume selling.

“If I don’t sell, I don’t eat. It’s as simple as that,” Leonardo Meneses Prado, a hamburger vendor in Mexico City, told The New York Times

Leftist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador sides with the country’s vendors and has failed to properly respond to the country’s health needs. Despite pushback from members of his cabinet, López Obrador has consistently encouraged a return to cultural and economic activities, as well as an end to social distancing.

“Our national economy, the well-being of our people need this,” he said a news conference

Still, despite his apparent alliance with the poor, his economic response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been surprisingly conservative. As reported by The L.A. Times, López Obrador has made large budget cuts, rejected debt reliefs and encouraged the Mexican people to remain austere. According to the OECD, countries in Latin America spend a fourth of what developed countries spend on healthcare.

Mexico’s weak healthcare system is underfunded; hospitals attribute a large number of coronavirus deaths to faulty equipment and a lack of resources rather than the virus itself. The country is in no way equipped to provide unemployment benefits or stimulus checks to almost half of the population that lives in poverty. Furthermore, many informal workers lack health insurance.

Continuing to work during a pandemic increases the risk of contracting the virus for street vendors, domestic workers, and others. 

Still, ceasing work is simply not an option.

“If the doctors and experts tell me to stay home, I would ask them, ‘What do I eat then?’” Mario Muñoz Cruz, a shoe shiner in Mexico City, told The New York Times.

Vendors have no choice but to put on a mask in the morning and set up their carts with little hope. Mexico’s early opening will be catastrophic, but the virus is unrelenting, and the Mexican people are weary and hungry. Here in Tijuana, the urge for normalcy has become clear to me. Each time I pass a street vendor, my heart aches as I keep my distance.