Countless men, women, children – entire families – take to the streets of the country’s major cities every day to beg for money or food. Desperately trying to survive in the midst of the pandemic, the most vulnerable women and children endure threats, insults, and even sexual harassment.
Extreme poverty has always forced people to beg. This has been the story for years, reported in sometimes horrific detail. Countries like Honduras have never had government programs to help the poor overcome their financial and personal insecurity. According to Honduras’ national institute of statistics (Instituto Nacional de Estadística de Honduras – INE), 38.7% of the Honduran population was already living in extreme poverty in 2018 (the most recent data published on the INE website). When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country, this poverty became more and more visible every day. The pandemic and the government’s response have imperiled the lives of thousands of people, many of whom have lost their source of income and are now living on the streets.
After the state of emergency was declared, the subsequent permanent curfew and stay-at-home order caught many people off guard. Thousands have been forced out onto city streets to beg for money, food, or anything that can help them deal with the virus outbreak in Honduras. A common sight in the streets of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula were youths cleaning windshields for whatever the drivers wanted to give them. Others juggled to entertain passers-by, sometimes even juggling machetes and fireballs. But one never saw entire families and so many single mothers and children as now. The beltway road around Tegucigalpa is now lined with groups of people holding up signs with words of helplessness.
According to the Ministry of Labor and Social Security (Secretaría de Trabajo y de Seguridad Social – STSS), the open unemployment rate (people who want to work but cannot find a job) remained stable around 240,000 people in 2019, equivalent to 5.7% of the economically active population. But many people have lost their jobs during the pandemic, even though executive decree PCM 021-2020 was issued two weeks after the state of emergency was declared. This decree included measures by the Honduran government to prevent layoffs and secure jobs. Heartlessly disregarding the worldwide crisis, businesses furloughed their employees or “associates” (the latest jargon), making them count the time off as vacation days. Some workers have been pressured by their employers to return to work, in many cases with lower pay, while the country’s infection rates hit a peak.
But a large part of Honduras’ economically active population didn’t have formal jobs to begin with, and surviving from their informal work has become even more difficult. The plan to reopen the economy was doomed to failure, because it never incorporated the informal employment sector.
“As a result of the crisis prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the population living in extreme poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean could reach 83.4 million people in 2020, which would entail a significant rise in hunger levels due to the difficulties these people will face in accessing food”, stated a report, issued jointly on June 16 by the Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
The once-crowded streets of Honduras’ main cities are now occupied by women, single mothers, and domestic workers who haven’t been able to return to work because their employers are afraid they’ll bring the virus with them. These women of all ages are forced to endure sexual harassment and insults from drivers who sometimes throw some money at them or threaten to report them to the child protective services agency (Dirección de Niñez, Adolescencia y Familia – DINAF), to remove their small children – who aren’t safe at home because they don’t have one, because they lost it when rent came due. These are poor families that the pandemic has made even poorer, and who now have to endure yet another burden – discrimination.
The people on the streets previously worked in construction, transportation, electrical services, domestic jobs, and more. They all have one thing in common: they haven’t been able to self-quarantine, order food deliveries, or go for a car drive just because they’re tired of staying at home. They endure rejection by those who have the personal protective equipment to safely go out, because they fear hunger more than COVID-19.
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