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Covid crisis pushes jobless into survival mode

Marie-Pierre Ferey in Paris, Ania Tsoukanova in Kiev, Thomas Perroteau in Madrid, Juan Sebastian Serrano in Bogota and Jenifer Gonzales Covarrubias in Mexico
·6-min read

AFP has spoken to workers around the world who suddenly lost their jobs in sectors hit hard by the pandemic such as air travel, hospitality and tourism, to find out how they have coped during the second coronavirus wave.

Forced to skip meals, weighed down by debt or having to move back in with parents, most of them described being in survival mode, worse off than when AFP journalists first interviewed them five months ago when they suddenly lost their jobs.

Several have avoided the worst, but none has escaped feelings of deep anguish.

Due to the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the World Bank estimates that by 2021, 150 million people could fall into extreme poverty, with a rising share of them in urban areas.

Eight out of 10 of the ‘new poor’ will be in middle-income countries.

Here are six workers' stories:

- Debts and 'survival mode' -

"I'm in survival mode, one meal a day for the family and that's it," said Frenchman Xavier Chergui, 44, who used to be able to earn up to 4,000 euros ($4,800) in a really good month as a temp maitre d', filling in at Paris restaurants when they were short-staffed.

His situation was already precarious after France's first lockdown but the married, father of two banked on things picking up again from September.

Apart from "a few days" of work that has not happened, due to November's partial lockdown.

"I'm behind on the rent, the electricity bill... I also have the car loan to pay," he said.

His family survives on state aid and benefits which come to 1,400 euros.

The rent is 1,000 euros but most of the money goes towards "filling the fridge", said Chergui, whose son had wanted to study graphics at university but has changed to history as it's less expensive.

- Scrimping and saving -

Domestic worker Sonia Herrera is getting by without resorting to the food bank again, an experience that made her feel "a bit ashamed" she told AFP earlier this year.

The 52-year-old Honduran, whose employers in central Madrid let her go the day after Spain's lockdown began, has since managed to pick up a few hours of cleaning.

Her daughter Alejandra, 33, who lost her job as a cook, does the same -- their household of four lives on a little over 1,000 euros a month.

But they scrimp and save, hanging around town at lunchtime to avoid paying the three-euro bus fare to come home to eat.

With schools having reopened, Herrera's grandson Izan can have lunch in the school canteen which helps.

The few savings that helped Herrera, a single mother, scrape by earlier are now gone and she says the idea of another lockdown is "terrifying".

As an undocumented migrant, she doesn't qualify for a new minimum wage scheme introduced in May.

- Moving back home -

Colombian Roger Ordonez, 26, said he had no choice but to move back in with his parents in the northeastern city of Bucaramanga after losing his job as a flight attendant for Avianca.

He was open to relocating or retraining but couldn't find another job in the airline industry and can't pay rent.

Applications to Bogota call centres were just as futile.

He worries that his previous career may put prospective bosses off.

"From the salary that I used to have, people think that I'm going to leave as soon as I get another job," he said.

From having earned a monthly salary of 1,000 euros at Avianca, Ordonez said he'd now be happy with minimum wage, which is about 210 euros.

"But there's nothing," he said.

He used to enjoy travelling and was studying to become a pilot.

"You get used to living alone, being independent, buying yourself things... Now, I have to live with my family in their space... it's cramped," he said.

- 'Better than nothing' -

Marie Cedile was relieved to learn the shop where she works was among those being taken over, after French shoe company Andre went into receivership earlier in the year.

Half the staff lost their jobs.

"Everything is OK for me, for now," said Cedile, 54, who has worked for Andre for 30 years and had told AFP previously that, if necessary, she would clean houses if laid off.

Her husband, who was unemployed in the spring, has found a job in car rentals.

"Let's hope it's all going in the right direction. We are scared nevertheless," she admitted.

Andre shops were closed under the recent partial lockdown -- they reopened at the weekend -- and Cedile was on partial unemployment, meaning she got about 1,000 euros a month.

"But it's still better than nothing, there are countries like Portugal, where they don't get anything," Cedile, who is of Portuguese origin, said.

- 'Hell of misery' -

Jesus Yepez, 60, has lost everything -- the tourists he used to take around the famed Templo Mayor Aztec pyramid in the heart of Mexico City, his home, health and hope.

Months after the tour guide entered a homeless shelter in the capital as work dried up due to the pandemic, the once-rotund Mexican is a shadow of his former self.

Yepez's cheekbones protrude from his sunken face and he has dark circles under his eyes from insomnia.

Every night, instead of falling into a restful sleep, he prays that he will die soon.

"My God, come and get me. I can't stand this anymore," he said in a broken voice.

Doctors at the shelter diagnosed depression and neuropathy and put him on medication.

He tried to go back to work after some Mexican museums and archaeological sites reopened.

But when tourists see his dirty feet, worn plastic sandals and tattered old clothes, they soon lose interest in his services.

"I'm trapped in this hell of misery," Yepez said.

"The only way out is for someone or some institution to help me systematically because the government only gave me 3,000 pesos (less than $150) over the past 100 days which is not enough."

- Happy turnaround -

Ukrainian IT specialist Natalia Murashko, 40, is earning more now than in her previous job.

"My work day is shorter and I can work from anywhere," she said.

In April, she was suddenly laid off by the American travel company where she'd worked for four years.

It came as "a total shock" she told AFP shortly afterwards, especially since her computer skills placed her in a rarefied and high earning group in Ukraine.

Her lifestyle changed overnight and the mum of two teens, who also looks after her 73-year-old mother, began job hunting.

Part-time work for an American mobile app development site saw her through the first months of unemployment and has now turned into her main job.

After negotiating a better rate, she takes home 10 percent more than in her previous employment.

She was able to take a holiday in Bulgaria this year and is saving to build up a better safety net.

The stress from months of being unemployed however exacerbated her sleeping problems and re-triggered back pain.

But, she thinks that "generally, it has turned out that Covid has made everything change for the better."

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