SAO PAULO – Joseane Santos, a domestic worker, commutes more than two hours every weekday via public transport to clean homes in the Brazilian metropolis of Sao Paulo.
Like tens of millions of other informal workers across Latin America, the health emergency that began six months ago forced her to choose between losing her income or facing the imminent threat of infection with the novel coronavirus.
Santos’ situation stands in sharp contrast to that of her clients, who have been able to work remotely since the COVID-19-triggered lockdowns began in March and are not exposing themselves to the same level of risk.
“If I could have, I would’ve stayed at home, especially in the most critical phase of the pandemic. But since they never gave me that chance to choose, I had to work,” Santos, who lives with her husband and 13-year-old son in Sao Paulo’s low-income Cidade Tiradentes neighborhood, told EFE.
Although stay-at-home orders were issued in March in that metropolis, South America’s most populous with 12 million inhabitants and the one hardest hit by COVID-19, several of Santos’ affluent clients did not want to go without domestic service.
“One of them is a lawyer who is working from home and also has a six-year-old son. She told me she wasn’t able to do her daily work and take care of the house,” Santos said.
Unlike her five clients, all of whom live upscale areas of Sao Paulo, Santos’ informal work status means that she lacks sick leave, paid vacations and employer-provided private health insurance.
She is hardly alone.
Some 38 million Brazilians – roughly 41 percent of the employed population – work in the informal economy. And that situation is repeated in Mexico City, Bogota, Caracas and other Latin American metropolises.
In Venezuela, a country mired in a years-long political and socio-economic crisis where nearly 60 percent of the workforce is employed in the informal sector, citizens can no longer afford to heed stay-at-home orders in place since March 16 and must find a way to make a living.
Small business owners in Caracas, for example, say they need to operate on the sly to put food on the table.
“Working in Venezuela is now a crime. If you work on days (during weeks when non-essential businesses are not allowed to operate), they’ll arrest you, they’ll fine you. I know we have to take care of ourselves, but it’s too much,” Emilsen, who owns a workshop in Sucre, a municipality in the Metropolitan District of Caracas that has been particularly hard-hit by COVID-19, told EFE.
Unlike Venezuela, Brazil and Mexico – two of the countries most affected by the pandemic in Latin America – entered a so-called “new normal” period in June and July, respectively.
Colombia, meanwhile, allowed non-essential businesses to open their doors two months ago.
In all four countries, the quarantine is a luxury that many cannot afford even though the Americas is the epicenter of the pandemic with some 12.5 million confirmed cases and nearly 450,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19.
More than 25 million people in Mexico – around 53 percent of the employed population – work in the informal sector, and it is common to see food, clothing, cookware and furniture being sold on the street.
Aware of this reality, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s administration ordered the closure of non-essential businesses at the start of the pandemic but did not issue mandatory stay-at-home orders, thus allowing some flexibility for people like Antonio Carrillo.
That 68-year-old tinsmith and painter waits seven days a week on a street corner in Mexico City’s Tepito neighborhood for customers to arrive. His routine has not changed during the pandemic.
“I need to be here. I’m here from Monday to Sunday, every day,” said Carrillo, who said he is known in the neighborhood as Riquense.
His family’s economic situation became dire when his wife, who had worked for a restaurant chain, was laid off due to the coronavirus lockdowns.
“Everything came crashing down,” said Carrillo, who now is struggling to provide for his four grandchildren even though his customer base has all but dried up.
“The economy scares me more than the illness,” he added.
Ivon Lopez, a Colombian vendor and female head of household whose income supports her daughter and father, also was forced to the return to the streets in the southern Bogota neighborhood of La Alqueria.
“You have to be aware that this virus is killing a lot of people, that we need to take care of ourselves,” said Lopez, who works at a fabric shop in that district, which was declared a “permanent preventive care zone” due to the large crowds of fabric buyers and the lack of compliance there with coronavirus mitigation measures.
“But let’s look at ‘stay at home,’ which means that you’re staying at home and starving … that they evict you, that you can’t work, that you can’t make a living. It’s terrible.”
Although the coronavirus took hold in Latin America due to air travel by relatively affluent people, Mexican Deputy Health Secretary Hugo Lopez-Gatell recently acknowledged, authorities and scientists say the disease spread rapidly in low-income suburban areas of large cities.
Furthermore, according to a University of Sao Paulo study, the risk of death is 50 percent higher among people who live in the poorest areas of that city compared to upscale, centrally located districts – a reality also seen in other Latin American countries.
In poor areas throughout the region, people not only are unable to heed social-isolation measures but also are incapable of complying with recommendations to practice regular hand-washing.
“Water is conspicuous by its absence. We’re really bad off in Venezuela, because of the pandemic and everything it entails,” Emilsen said of water service that is only available once a week or once every two weeks.
“We don’t have water. We get it from the tank truck. We also can’t bathe,” said Mexican woman Antonia Castro, who lives with her four daughters and 11 grandchildren in a shack in Tepito.
A distance of just seven kilometers (4.3 miles) separates the tianguis (traditional open-air markets) of Tepito from the upscale restaurants of Mexico City’s affluent Polanco neighborhood, where residents can choose whether to strictly heed stay-at-home recommendations or gradually resume their normal routines.
Maria Torres, a resident of Polanco, spoke to EFE while going for a walk on a sunny day with her son and Lucy, a live-in domestic worker.
“We heeded the quarantine,” Torres said. “Now it’s getting back to work and getting back to (normal) life little by little. We’re not going to be enclosed anymore.”