MEXICO CITY (AP) – Mexico City’s major wholesale market detects dozens of cases of coronavirus every week. An indoor food market in Venezuela was the source of one of the biggest outbreaks in the country. And every trader in a huge market in Peru has tested positive for the virus.
As the coronavirus pandemic engulfs countries from Mexico to Argentina, public health officials struggle to eradicate outbreaks in Latin America’s iconic indoor food markets, a beloved essential feature of life in the region – and a near-perfect setting for spreading the disease .
Now that hundreds of millions depend on such markets for their food and livelihood, officials are debating whether and how to work safely. With inconsistent testing, huge gaps in health coverage, poorly enforced social distance measures and widespread inequality, many Latin American countries are seeing large and increasing numbers of new cases every day, making the region one of the hardest hit countries in the world.
Mexico City’s massive Central de Abasto is an area of approximately 3 square kilometers (1 square mile) of lots, warehouses, loading bays, and wholesalers, the primary depot for bringing fruits, vegetables, and other products to approximately 20 million consumers in the metropolitan area. The labyrinthine corridors are packed with 90,000 workers and up to 300,000 customers a day.
The market registered 690 confirmed cases of coronavirus, peaking at over 200 cases a week in May. But it installed its own testing center and triage area and instituted contact tracking long before the city did, and the weekly number of new cases has since dropped to about 60 or 70, said the director, Hector Garcia Nieto.
Closing is excluded.
“It would be like closing the stomach of part of the nation,” said Garcia Nieto.
That truth is echoed across Latin America, where clusters of street vendors often grow up around the markets; where millions of farmers have no other market for their products; and where poverty prevents consumers from buying in supermarkets.
Peru has more than 2,600 food markets. In May, the government said it found after surveying thousands of suppliers that 36 of Lima’s largest markets were contagion points.
Jhoan Faneite, a 36-year-old Venezuelan migrant, collects COVID-19 victims from a funeral home in the city.
“The infection centers here are always around the popular markets,” he said. “We always pick up in those areas, always.”
In the Belén market in the Loreto region of Peru, officials found that 100% of suppliers were contaminated. All 2,500 market stalls were destroyed.
In Maracaibo, Venezuela, the Las Pulgas market has been identified as the source of one of the largest outbreaks in the country, responsible for 400 of the province’s nearly 580 cases of coronavirus. About a dozen deaths have been linked to the market.
The outbreak was likely to become so deadly because the sellers who run the informal stalls in the market refused to close the store for weeks because they received no government support – and so had to keep selling. The way in which the uncertainty of people working in the informal economy has contributed to outbreaks can be seen all over Latin America.
Finally, the government ordered Las Pulgas to close.
But in many places in Latin America, there has been violent resistance to attempts to close markets.
In late June, in Bolivia, in the La Alto suburb of La Paz, street market vendors stoned police officers who were trying to force a shutdown. The sellers said that they had been without sales for two months and could no longer stand. About 75% of trade in Bolivia takes place in the informal economy, where, as elsewhere in the region, unemployment insurance is not available.
In Rio de Janeiro’s wholesale market Ceasa, where around 50,000 customers and workers bob daily, fruit and vegetable seller Marcos dos Santos is now wearing a mask.
“I’m wearing the mask because I’ve lost a lot of friends here,” Dos Santos said as he waited for customers. “When we see people we know die, we see it’s real.”
There has been much debate about whether these markets can be held responsible for the spread of the virus – and whether they can ever operate safely. Many that were initially closed have reopened with measures such as limiting the number of people, forming orderly lines, taking temperatures and using masks – but the rules are difficult to enforce and are routinely violated.
In Mexico City’s Central de Abasto, the passages are fully booked despite the pandemic, with puffing workers hauling unbelievably high stacks of bags and boxes on dolly’s and weaving through the crowd and shouting “here’s the hit” to spur customers their way to go.
People keep coming because they have to: this is the cheapest place to buy products in the city, and it is the main selling point for about a third of the country’s fruit and vegetable production.
“People are desperate, they come to buy essentials, they don’t buy superfluous things, only the basic necessities,” says Jorge Flores, 39, who has been selling vegetables in the market since he was 8 with his father.
While health workers in hazmat suits check temperatures at the door and most people wear masks, a significant number don’t wear them, or wear them only half way.
“I usually use my face mask, my sanitizing gel, but I’m not wearing it now because I just had a taco,” said Flores, half apologetically.
While Central de Abasto is largely wholesale, it feeds Mexico City’s 329 public markets and the city’s hundreds of thousands of food stalls and street vendors. This will give farms and truck drivers across the country access to Mexico City’s 22 million residents.
So it is an ideal transit for the virus – often invisible.
Laboratory worker Ulises Cadena Santana helps take as many as 100 COVID-19 test samples a day off the market.
“Most cases are asymptomatic,” said Cadena Santana. “They look healthy, they have no symptoms, they are the most dangerous positive cases.”
Downstream from Central de Abasto, the product finds its way to smaller neighborhood vendors, such as the San Cosme Market, where the problem is obvious: the aisles under San Cosme’s tents leave customers just a few feet (less than a meter) to walk, stop, haggle and buy.
Still, many people who visit such markets have resisted wearing masks or taking other measures to protect themselves.
But that can change.
“People are starting to believe the disease exists, and it’s not just something the government invented,” said Rocio Bautista, a lab technician who administers COVID-19 test swabs at the Central de Abasto. “People start saying, well, if they’ve had close relatives or dead neighbors.”
In Colombia, Mauricio Parra, the manager of Bogota’s Corabastos production market, emphasizes that the market can be safe even if it serves 80,000 customers and 10,000 trucks every day.
The market has temperature controls and 500 hand washing stations.
“The key is the triangle of life: mandatory face masks, washing hands, and social distancing,” said Parra. “If we meet these three requirements, we can prevent it from spreading.”
Associated Press journalists Franklin Briceño in Lima, Peru; Cesar Garcia in Bogota, Colombia; Jorge Rueda in Caracas, Venezuela; Paola Flores in La Paz, Bolivia; and Yesica Fisch in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this story.
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