Between livelihood and health: The “pandemic of the informals” at the Gamarra market in Lima, Peru
By Francesco Ginocchio*
Luzmila, an “ambulante” with more than 25 years working in Gamarra, summarizes the main strategy of the Peruvian government to fight the pandemic in “respecting social distancing to stop the advance of COVID-19, while we starve to death in the eyes of a government from which we have never received anything.” At her side is Juan José, another veteran street vendor from the area who asserts that “neither terrorism, nor the economic changes of the 90's, not even the last mayor of the district could bring us down, but I cannot expect the same from this COVID pandemic". When trying to start a conversation with the “ambulantes” about the effects of the pandemic on their livelihoods, the responses were repetitive and accompanied by faces of hopelessness, helplessness and frustration at their imminent eviction by police officers and members of the armed forces. This time was different, they knew. Under the protection of the Supreme Decree that declared a "State of National Emergency for the serious circumstances that affect the life of the Nation as a result of the outbreak of COVID-19", on March 15, 2020, the prohibition of informal street vending went on to become a government policy. Months before, the management of this type of urban trade was completely attributed to the local government. Moreover, the incidence of street vending in the largest textile cluster in Latin America was usually understood as a consequence of a fragile political system with frequent episodes of corruption that has sought to consolidate itself in the shadows of neoliberal economic policies. However, in a scenario marked by the uncertainty that characterizes an invisible enemy, the presence of "ambulantes" in Gamarra suddenly became a public health issue.
Initially, the political discourse, accompanied by concrete actions, was quite clear: "extreme measures for extreme situations." In other words, to carry out a radical quarantine throughout the national territory, suspending the exercise of constitutional rights and, consequently, limiting people's right to the freedom of transit. The question that arose in the face of this situation was, how will people survive in a country where around 70% of the Economically Active Population belongs to the informal labor market? The government's response was prompt. At the beginning of April, newspaper El País titled in its economy section "Peru applies the most ambitious economic plan in the region to face the pandemic."1 A statement that was supported by an initial stimulus of 26,000 million dollars, about 12% of the country's GDP, aimed at preventing the collapse of the country's economy in the face of the health emergency. This measure set the tone for a still unfinished history of subsidies, loans to inject liquidity into small and micro-enterprises, and the so-called pandemic bonds. These measures allowed the spread of the slogan to "stay at home", since the state was taking charge of the lives of all Peruvians. This way, from the beginning of the state of emergency, it became customary to wait for the daily report of the President of the Republic. The President's words sought to emulate the dialogue from a father to a son, whose main advice is to keep him at home to protect him: "we have to change. Before we weren't like that, before we liked to be around with friends, with family. Now, because I want to hug you later, I take my distance."2
With the passing of the weeks, the situation on the streets gave signals that the possibility of keeping all the inhabitants of the country in their homes was becoming increasingly remote. By the end of May, "the pandemic of the informals" in Gamarra, as the country’s main media called it, faced a government that was suffering the ravages of decades of trust given to the invisible hand of the market. This time, the combined effect of everyone seeking his or her individual interests in the free market would not benefit the collective. The complexity of the situation seemed to indicate that the persistence of informal street vending in the textile cluster did not respond to legal barriers associated with the costs of legality, or to the search for competitive advantage granted by the informal status. The situation became so complex that by mid-June, the mayor of La Victoria district, where the Gamarra market is located, mentioned the existence of a new “mafia”3 known as the “camionetas ambulantes”, which combined with the huge number of street vendors in the area, generated more unwanted conglomerations of people. Interestingly, this "mafia" appeared to be composed exactly by those formal entrepreneurs who, unable to open their businesses, chose to offer their products on the streets. In the light of this, the reopening of the textile cluster was maturing not only as a measure to reduce the number of street vendors to control, but also to ensure the livelihood of thousands of families that depended on the textile industry. In this manner, the reopening of commercial activities in Gamarra began to take place under the argument that conglomerations of people that occur as a result of the informal trade have become an “infectious focus” that diminishes government efforts to stop the exponential growth of Covid-19 infections in the capital city.
In all, the impacts of the pandemic on Gamarra became one of the greatest signs of the precariousness of the labor market in Peru, bringing to light the shortcomings of an urban economic structure sustained in a false formality. Thus, in this extreme scenario of suspended rights, informal street vending management trespassed the threshold of regulation, to become a policy dilemma that exacerbates the choice between on the one hand the livelihood and on the other the health of the city’s inhabitants.
*Francesco Ginocchio is a PhD Candidate in Urban Studies and Regional Science at the Gran Sasso Science Institute (Italy) and a former visiting fellow to CEDLA. He holds a Master of Arts in Development Studies from the ISS of Erasmus University Rotterdam, majoring in Governance, Policy and Political Economy, and a bachelor's degree in Political Science and Government from Pontificia Universidad Católica del Peru. Currently, he is conducting research on informal economies and extra-legal governance in Peru as part of his PhD project.