MEXICO CITY – Lockdown orders imposed to combat the coronavirus pandemic have emptied Paseo de la Reforma, the Mexican capital’s main thoroughfare.
Tiny-looking pedestrians once visible day and night from the upper stories of Mexico City skyscrapers are no longer seen except on Monday and Wednesday nights, when a line of poor people waiting for packaged meals wraps around an entire city block.
“Prior to the pandemic, we gave out 200 meals every Wednesday,” said Cesar Cardenas, the head of the Sant’Egidio Catholic community team that provides this service.
But he added that now that number has risen to “500 meals on Wednesdays and 500 on Mondays.”
The service is made possible by the work of some 30 volunteers from that lay Catholic association, who hand out both food and anti-bacterial gel and also take the temperature of those waiting in line, each of whom stands at a relatively safe distance from others as a health precaution.
The line moves rapidly once the volunteers start working at 8 pm. But so many people of all ages are waiting that bags of food are still being grabbed from boxes until almost 10 pm.
“I’ve just been coming for a month, when a friend invited me, because they’re giving out assistance here to poor people,” Rocio, a woman in her 60s whose earnings have dried up due to a lack of bottles to collect and resell, told EFE.
She said that “even if it’s something small, it’s still a big help” for her and “many poor Mexicans.”
More than 50 million people – 41.9% of the population – are below the poverty line in the Aztec nation, according to official figures.
But the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (Coneval), a Mexico City-based decentralized public agency, estimates that as many as 10 million more people may have joined those ranks as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown in Mexico, where a total of 56,594 confirmed cases and 6,090 COVID-19-related deaths have been reported thus far.
The formal unemployment figures also are worrying, with 555,247 people enrolled in Mexico’s social security system having lost their jobs in April alone.
Bag in hand, Rocio said she does not expect any government support because despite being a Mexican citizen, she does not have her official documents in order. “But I don’t need papers here. It doesn’t matter. They give a taco to everyone.”
Further ahead in the line, Antonio told EFE while waiting for his meal that he has applied for one of the 3 million loans of around $1,000 apiece that Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s administration has pledged to grant in May to small businesses in the formal and informal economy.
“I already did the paperwork when this all began two months ago, and they haven’t called me,” said Antonio, who used to work as an appliance repairman but has been unemployed for two years.
Now around 50, he has come to this downtown Mexico City street for food since his economic troubles began, although amid the coronavirus crisis his wait times for meals have tripled.
“There are now lots of people here due to the unemployment conditions in Mexico. There’s not much work. Some companies have closed and a lot people have been left jobless,” he said.
Among those near the front of the line is a middle-aged woman named Minerva and a son of hers who had been making a living at an open-air market but now is no longer able to because, she says, “they’ve closed several of them due to the coronavirus.”
Minerva repeatedly glances at the line of people ahead of her during the interview, checking to make sure it keeps advancing.
“It moves fast here, but there are other places where the food doesn’t arrive,” she said with a smile.
Cardenas, however, said the volunteers from the Sant’Egidio Catholic community won’t leave as long as people are still waiting because their mission goes beyond addressing the immediate hunger of people like Rocio, Antonio and Minerva.
“The fact that you’re worried about someone when no one else is looking means starting to restore that person’s dignity. That’s the most important thing. A lot of people gain hope and say ‘I’m not alone, they haven’t forgotten about me,’” he added.