“News from Mexico, Informally facing COVID”

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by Antonieta Castro-Cosío, PhD.

At this point of 2020, no matter what city you live in, you have probably had to get used to life in lockdown, social distancing, and constant handwashing. You have probably also gotten used to holding work and social meetings at home via zoom, wearing a face mask when going outside, and only ordering take out if you are not cooking your meals. Indeed, these practices apply for those lucky enough to have a job that has allowed to work from home, and who have a home to shelter in.

In Mexico, 56.2% (or 31.3 million individuals) of the total population work on the informal sector. As such, they have had to leave their homes every day to earn a living, whether cleaning houses, selling tamales, or playing some music for the few passers-by on the empty streets. Such workers do not have a guaranteed salary to get through the weeks-long quarantine or health insurance to cover for medical costs if they get infected. All they can do is keep going out to work, the way they did before there was a pandemic and their urban livelihoods were threatened by an unknown mortal virus.

Indeed, the health aspects of the crisis are just one face of the crisis. The head of the Business Coordinating Council (CCE for its Spanish accronym) estimated in April that an approximate 700,000 jobs had been officially lost in Mexico. With no unemployment insurance and over half its workforce informally employed, such figure of unemployment is likely to be higher. Moreover, the absence of an aid package providing cash transfers for such a high number of newly-unemployed workers is likely to make matters more difficult for the Latin American country.

Such situation has complicated the management of the epidemic in large urban areas, as has been the case in other countries, and Mexico City, whose total population goes up to 21.5 million (for the whole metropolitan area), is no exception. Up to June 7th, the second largest city in Latin America (following Sao Paulo), had a total of 30,831 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 3,729 deaths, making it the most infected city and state in the country, and one of the highest in Latin America. Like in New York City, the fact that Mexico City is also a large urban area is not a coincidence. Its size and density contribute to its high rate of infections, as well as its high level of informal employment (48.8% as of 2019), which make it difficult, if not impossible, for almost half its population to stop working or access health benefits to avoid getting infected.

The lack of proper housing conditions for households to ‘stay home’ presents an additional challenge for Mexico City, and other Latin American cities. UN-Habitat estimated that about 23.5% of residents living in urban areas across Latin America, did so in informal settlements. Such figure implies a total of 113.4 million people, or 1 out of every 4 city dwellers whose homes lie in informal settlements. As UN-Habitat explains, such urban areas are “densely populated with inadequate household water and sanitation, little or no waste management, overcrowded public transport and limited access to formal health care facilities. In addition, they suffer from a lack of basic services, secure tenure and adequate housing.” In such conditions, families usually live in crowded spaces with just one or two rooms, having to share toilets with other households and fetch water from collective sites. Additionally, governance and misinformation issues in such areas given their legal situation, complicate the spread of reliable and necessary information for them.

For such reasons, measures to prevent infection such as handwashing, self-quarantining or physical distancing become impossible tasks and increase their vulnerability. COVID-19 is not the first or the only disease that they have faced, but it is one that has come to shine light on the need to grasp the nettle and tackle the challenges facing informal settlements in Latin American cities for many years.

 About the author: Antonieta Castro-Cosío, PhD in Public and Urban Policy from the New School for Social Research, is currently a research consultant for a private investment firm in New York, serves as a board member for CSU and the Urban Resilience Research Network.