Alejandro Fox, an amputee in Playa del Carmen on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, has prepared meals every day for the last 14 years with his wife to sell to workers and tourists on one of the city’s main streets.
Each morning Fox, 64, rises at 6 a.m. and spends the next 15 hours cooking and selling his homemade meals of carne asada, beef barbacoa, and chicken moles with salsa and salads.
Since early April, that street has been closed, his customer base gone, and Fox has been left to deliver between five and six meals a day, earning about $20 in total, to whatever remaining clients he can find.
“The impact of this pandemic has been very difficult,” Fox said. “They have closed everything — all the established businesses, craft shops, places where they sell snorkeling, tours — everything has died.”
The COVID-19 virus has been devastating worldwide, but while in the U.S. a significant portion of the population has been able to telework or receive some government assistance, Mexico’s large informal economy has meant little or no safety nets. In Mexico, about 56 percent of the population is either self-employed or works for small family businesses that are out of the formal tax system — a status known as the informal sector.
Many of these jobs provide workers with a day-by-day income, with little or no savings, no unemployment compensation or health benefits, and no backup for the kind of self-isolation measures that have been recommended by Mexico’s federal government and made mandatory by several states, including Quintana Roo, where Playa del Carmen is located.
“The current situation is horrible for the informal economy, because there is no tolerance for the way these businesses operate: everything you do requires hand-to-hand distribution, close quarters, face-to-face,” said Harry Jones, a human resources attorney who specializes in Mexican labor issues.
Mexico reported 42,595 confirmed coronavirus cases and 4,477 deaths as of May 14, although the Health Ministry has stated that testing is only done for those who have symptoms serious enough to warrant hospitalization. The ministry had previously estimated about eight undetected COVID-19 cases for each confirmed one, based on international guidelines.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration has been criticized for its low level of economic aid to help businesses like that of Fox, which supports him and 11 family members in his household.
While the U.S. has spent nearly 15 percent of its annual GDP to boost the economy by helping those hit hard by the virus, Mexico’s spending has been less than 2 percent of its GDP. There have been no cash payouts to small businesses or families.
“In Mexico, we have not developed the means for transferring funds to informal sector workers in this crisis,” said Santiago Levy, a former Finance Ministry official and expert on poverty on Mexico, in a recent webinar on the crisis in Mexico. “In Brazil, in Peru, they are making these kinds of transfers. As a result, in Mexico, the isolation cannot be as strict as it is in other countries.”
López Obrador has publicly stated his resistance to Mexico taking on debt because of the virus and there has been no significant intervention for its businesses, whether formal or informal.
“What you really need in Mexico is a fiscal stimulus,” said Manuel Molano, the director of the Institute of Mexican Competitiveness. “In the U.S., if you are a small business and you are in trouble because of the pandemic, you will get a soft loan, and that loan might be subsidized. We don’t have anything similar.”
The only available assistance to these small businesses from the federal government is coming in the form of a $25,000 peso loan (about $1,000), with 6 percent interest and repayment to begin in three months.
“I don’t know anyone who has gotten a loan,” said Arturo Buenrostro, an artisan in San Miguel de Allende, whose recycled materials shop was forced to close, and has left him struggling to pay his 15 employees. “All the loans are with papers, you need to show papers. You need to show ID and home information and telephone information. And you need to show that you are paying taxes.”
Mexican economists say that this kind of loan program falls short of the kind of assistance the most vulnerable informal sector businesses would need to survive.
“The lack of government intervention for these businesses is inexplicable,” said Beatriz Leycegui, a former trade ministry official. “It is impossible for these micro-businesses to be able to address the situation by themselves. The amount of cash flows that they have only allowed them to survive a couple of weeks, at the most six weeks. Companies are shutting down.”
And it is expected to leverage a heavy blow to the Mexican economy, which is expected to contract 6 to 8 percent this year, as informal and formal businesses fold.
Government authorities are providing some food aid, making deliveries of beans, rice, and other staples to impacted communities. Yet the combination of no financial assistance and a large population that lives at the economic margin has meant that Mexican health officials are already predicting that there will be a second wave of Covid-19 infections when the restrictions will begin to be lifted in June.
Organizations are trying to fill the gap as well, with food deliveries to vulnerable populations. For example, a loosely-organized group of artists and artisans in San Miguel de Allende have raffled off a guitar to raise money for food donations.
Mariana Luz Amador, a flower and garland seller in San Miguel de Allende who was forced to close her stand, is one such recipient.
“I’m starting to cry, just thinking about it,” she said in the video that asks for contributions. “We just have to wait until this thing is over.”
But for most Mexicans in need, their most reliable source of help will be other family members, both locally and overseas.
“The family is saving the country,” Buenrostro said. “A lot of money is coming from outside to help family members, mothers, sisters. There are lines of at least a hundred people at the bank, every time I go there, waiting to get a number at the bank to collect their money transfer.”
And in places like Playa del Carmen, the local government has started offering free long-distance bus trips to help unemployed cooks and waiters and hotel workers get back to their home villages, where their overhead costs are lower.
“The people with lower salaries, they all had to return to their families,” said Daniela Nieto Preciado, a human resources manager for a local tourism company in Playa del Carmen, who said her company laid off about 450 of its 500 employees as a result of the health crisis. “A lot of people from the Yucatan are from small villages, where people can live from their cattle and ranches.”
The Mazatlan Post