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The invisible impact of COVID-19 on Guatemalas mayority

The Corona pandemic is one of the major threats people are facing worldwide. While for most people in developed countries a health hazard directly caused by the virus comes to mind, economic stability and supply of the population with the bare essentials of survival is most probably the bigger challenge for people living in underdeveloped countries.

A typical day in Guatemala

Imagine you are a street vendor in one of Guatemalas famous artisan markets. You regularly wake up on a Thursday or Sunday morning at 5 a.m. heading by bus to the local market in Chichicastenango located in the western highlands of Guatemala. Once arrived you are preparing your market stand laying out hand-woven textiles, necklaces, earrings and key chains you prepared by hand during the other days of the week. Business usually starts around 8:30 a.m. and can last until late at night, sometimes without even making enough money to pay your monthly rent. If business runs good though, you sell about four pieces a day earning roughly $ 30 which is enough money to survive for the rest of the week.

Late at night you are returning to your small home located in a rural community nearby which costs you about $ 65 rent a month to take care of your children and the household. You are a single mother of three children who lost their father years ago due to gang-related violence by one of the major local groups involved in drug trafficking. Like most other women in Guatemala you are carrying the cultural expectation of being the solely caregiver of your family. But that’s a nearly impossible thing to do after working for hours every day preparing your hand-made articles you are selling on the market. And if business wasn’t good, you are forced to sell your goods during the other days of the week to tourists on the streets of Panajachel, a flourishing destination for western tourists located at the front of famous lake Atitlan.

Informal workers selling in the streets of Guatemala

The informal job sector – backbone of Guatemalas economy

If the everyday struggle of a street vendor is the reality of your life, your are already battling many days of the year to pay your bills regularly. Having no savings, unforeseen happenings can destroy the foundation of your life in a glimpse. Guatemala has one of the highest rates of informal employment worldwide, with almost 75 % of the population working within the so called informal economy, often self-employed jobs that are untaxed and unmonitored by the state like jobs in housekeeping or street vending. With these jobs which are entirely unprotected by the government comes naturally no health insurance, no minimum wage, a lack of regulated working hours, no social security, no pension and the lack of the right to join a workers union. 

“Informality is a trap because it prevents the emergence of a dynamic economy. It allows people to survive but nothing more.“

– Michel Andrade, a labor analyst at the Guatemala City think tank Asies

Even before the pandemic hit Guatemala, there was a high deficit of formal jobs already, forcing most people into the informal sector. This situation only became worse with many regular jobs removed from the market due to restrictions and global travel bans. The informal job sector, which allows people to survive at least, seemed to be the only option left for many people. Unfortunately, a vast reduction of tourism and restrictions for the Guatemalan population also diminished the demand for these jobs. Therefore, the pandemic has a major economic impact on many Guatemalans by destructing formal and informal employment possibilities resulting in the disappearance of regular income for hundreds of thousands and the entire termination of certain economic sectors like tourisms.


Major threat to vulnerable groups

The value of the economic activity that couldn’t take place due to all the restrictions is one of the main costs of the pandemic that is generally overlooked. Therefore, the Corona crisis is more than a health crisis. It is affecting entire societies and economies and is very likely to increase poverty and inequality worldwide.

The pandemic is especially effecting the most vulnerable groups within a society which are for Guatemala the indigenous people in rural areas. Especially women of these communities are effected by the crisis who make up 71 % of employees in accommodation and food service activities in Guatemala. As a part of the informal tourism sector, these jobs were highly effected by the global travel ban. As of May 2020 almost 90 % of all travel agencies in Guatemala have registered a 100 % cancellation rate and around 80 % of the hotels have registered a 0 % occupancy.

Next to the lack of tourists a very harsh curfew lasting for month emptied out the streets and markets in Guatemala making living from these informal jobs nearly impossible. Due to the quarantine situation worldwide, the closing of commerce and isolation measures by governments many rural communities in Guatemala struggle from serious supply problems, difficult access to food and a lack of hygiene articles and medical services. 

Protest in Guatemala because of COVID-19

Abandoned by the government

Besides some help in providing food and hygiene articles for certain areas, the Guatemalan government was probably best in corrupting most of the money meant to help and improve the situation. The public health system in Guatemala has traditionally been weak and underfunded, therefore the pandemic resulted in unprecedented investments in this sector. Unfortunately, most of the money has not made it into the health system but disappeared somewhere on the way.

Probably one of the worst examples of the government failure in protecting their population was the Sputnik V deal it has contracted with Russian officials. Guatemala only received 860.000 vaccine doses of the 16 million ordered ones and prosecutors are investigating the case about a possible corruption related to the deal. Meanwhile, people are protesting on the streets of Guatemala and asking the president Alejandro Giammatei for resignation. Due to the failed Sputnik deal, most of the administered vaccines in Guatemala are sourced from the global COVAX alliance or from donations of the US government.

Looking into the vaccination efforts within the Guatemalan population in more detail reveals only more inequality and injustice. Although indigenous people comprise almost 40 % of the population, only 17 % have been vaccinated as of July 2021.  This is mostly due to structural racism and infrastructure problems with testing and vaccination facilities designed with the urban population in mind, leaving all the rural areas far behind. 

With all the impacts the Corona pandemic already had on millions of Guatemalans struggling from every day life, the situation only became worse. With new virus variants threatening all of us worldwide, life remains challenging for most Guatemalans with no prospect of improvement in the near future.

Images (in order of appearance):
© Jose Casado
© David Salamanca

© Shalom de León