Health

Chilean capital’s street markets emerge as coronavirus hotbeds

By Maria M. Mur

Santiago, Jul 10 (efe-epa).- Olaya sprays alcohol on coins she receives from a customer and then smears her hands with the disinfectant. She has read that the coronavirus can remain for several hours on cash and knows that her workplace – a Santiago street market – is considered one of the Chilean capital’s main pandemic hotbeds.

“We’re touching coins and bills the whole time here. I’ve been spared thus far because I take a lot of precautions. As soon as I get home, I undress and run right to the shower,” she told Efe while working at a fruit and vegetable stand in Peñalolen, a neighborhood on this metropolis’ east side.

“I’m a single mother of two small children and I can’t afford to get sick,” she added.

Health authorities are closely monitoring these street markets, which are very popular in Chile despite a high density of supermarkets, and many municipalities have ordered them closed after linking them to significant outbreaks.

The large crowds of consumers who gather at those markets, the lack of space between the stalls and the constant changing hands of goods and cash make them an infection focal point.

“The supermarkets have raised their prices, and more and more people are coming to the street market, especially on days when they receive (government) aid,” Raul Delgado, another vendor who has been selling pickled vegetables on the city’s streets for more than 30 years, told Efe.

The latest street market to be shut down was one in Lo Espejo, a commune in the Santiago metropolitan area that has been hard-hit by the pandemic, having already registered more than 3,600 confirmed cases. Lo Espejo’s mayor said Tuesday that 20 vendors had died of Covid-19 in recent weeks and that the market will be closed for at least 14 days.

“Many of the ‘coleros’ (informal vendors) arrived when the other communes decided to close their street markets. There started to be lot of people, and the level of contagion rose,” the mayor, Miguel Angel Bruna, told local news outlet CHV Noticias.

The national government has established a protocol for the street markets, including requiring proper distancing between stalls and a requirement that each vendor use and provide disinfectant, but not all municipalities have complied with the rules.

Home to just 19 million inhabitants, Chile ranks sixth worldwide in confirmed coronavirus cases ahead of Spain, France and the United Kingdom, according to the latest figures from Maryland’s Johns Hopkins University.

Although there are signs the pandemic is gradually receding, particularly in Santiago, where the hospital network was on the verge of collapse in June, the country has registered more than 300,000 confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic and 10,000 deaths attributed to Covid-19, including suspected and probable fatalities.

A group of nurses from a municipal health center, outfitted with personal protective equipment, including gas masks, picks up some boxes and bids farewell to a few vendors after conducting around 100 Covid-19 tests throughout the morning.

“We’re going to push to have the test results in just two days,” one of the nurses, Katia Pesoa, told Efe, adding that “there are many workers who don’t want to do the test for fear it’ll come back positive and they won’t be able to work.”

The pandemic has exacted a hefty economic toll on Chile, a country whose gross domestic product per capita is one of the highest in Latin America.

The country’s economy contracted by a record 15.3 percent year-over-year in May. Since March, more than 1.5 million people have lost their jobs and thousands have been left without any source of income.

The Central Bank of Chile is forecasting a 7.5 percent drop in GDP this year, while the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean is projecting that the nation’s poverty rate could climb to 13.7 percent.

The economic fears are especially palpable among the country’s informal workers.

“If they close the Peñalolen market, I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Victor Saavedra, one of the vendors, told Efe. EFE-EPA

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