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Mexico street artists and vendors worry about virus-hit future

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Mexico City (AFP)

Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, Luis Valdovinos was earning about $12 a day playing his barrel organ in the streets of Mexico City.

Now, it's taking him a lot longer to make that much money.

The streets of the Mexican capital are emptying out with each passing day, as residents become more and more aware of the need to practice social distancing to curb the virus's spread.

For performers like Valdovinos, such measures are threatening his livelihood.

"Some people have money (to offer), and the rest of them can go to hell," said the 46-year-old, whose instrument creates a somewhat ominous drone that fits the mood of a city in fear.

"All of Mexico is afraid. Businesses are closing. Unfortunately, those of us who live off the streets every day are the ones who are hit hardest."

Valdovinos is part of the whopping 56 percent of all Mexicans who work in the informal economy. No taxes, no social security, no safety net.

Many of those people live day to day, and simply cannot work from home, as tens of millions of people around the world with typical office jobs are able to do.

"Those who cannot have a 'home office' run a greater risk of suffering the economic and social consequences of this public health crisis," said the advocacy group Citizen Action Against Poverty.

"Their low income and list of needs make these people the most vulnerable in a virus pandemic scenario that requires quarantining and social distancing," the group said.

- 'No other choice' -

Gabriel Gonzalez is facing many of the same problems as Valdovinos.

The 42-year-old Gonzalez is a street clown -- he specifically dons the make-up of the sinister Pennywise from Stephen King's "It."

Before the coronavirus crisis erupted, he could count on making about $40 a day in fees paid by tourists wanting to take pictures with him.

Now, he's making 10 times less than that, as the mega-city of more than 20 million people turns into a virtual ghost town, and tourists are scarce.

"It's hard at home right now. But we have no other choice but to keep working," Gonzalez told AFP.

- 'What else can we do?' -

Salvador Alvarado, 51, slices meat for traditional Mexican tacos. His business has slowed to a near halt.

"What else can we do? Nothing. We can just keep working," he says with a mix of anger and resignation.

"People don't want to go out to eat anymore. They are totally panicked. If everything shuts down, we'll see how well we can survive."

So far, Mexico has more than 350 confirmed coronavirus cases, and has registered four deaths.

The food and restaurant business is one of the sectors hardest hit by the health crisis. Many employees, who earn the minimum wage, say they fear greater hardships as the pandemic drags on.

On social media, Mexicans call for residents to order takeout meals from small mom-and-pop restaurants and shops, to help save those businesses from going under.

But Alsea, a Mexican company that operates major US chains such as Burger King and Starbucks, came under sweeping criticism for granting employees 30 days of unpaid leave -- some even called for the chains to be boycotted.

- 'Don't stop going out!' -

The Mexican economy, the second-largest in Latin America after Brazil, is bracing to take a major hit from the coronavirus crisis.

Several analysts have predicted that the economic slowdown in 2020 could reach four percent.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador admitted last week that a crisis was on the horizon and, in a video message broadcast on social media, asked Mexicans to keep going to restaurants to shore up the industry.

"Don't stop going out!" he urged. "I'll tell you when it's time not to go outside anymore."

Moises Villanueva, 63, gets paid on a commission basis for steering customers to a city optician.

He says Lopez Obrador is on the right track, even as medical experts plead with nations around the world to keeps their citizens at home.

"It doesn't help anything to scare people," Villanueva says, as he hand out flyers offering glasses at low prices.

Villanueva admits his bottom line is taking a hit.

He's only getting one of every three or four potential clients to consider the optician, meaning he needs to think about other sources of income.

"The people who will die are people like me," he said. "I've lived long enough, and it has to happen sometime."

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