Four out of five merchants at a major fruit market in Peru have tested positive for coronavirus, revealing shocking levels of infection – and prompting fears that Latin America’s traditional trading centres may have helped spread Covid-19 across the region.
Seventy-nine per cent of stall-holders in Lima’s wholesale fruit market tested positive for Covid-19, while spot tests at five other large fresh food markets in the city revealed at least half were carrying the virus.
The results came as local authorities from Mexico City to Rio de Janeiro struggle to enforce social distancing and sanitary measures at wholesale and retail markets, which are mainstays of local economies.
Related: Record death tolls in Mexico and Brazil add to fears of Covid-19 surge in Latin America
Latin America is wrestling with a surging death toll from the pandemic: Mexico and Brazil – whose presidents have been accused of downplaying the epidemic – both saw record single-day mortalities last week.
But Peru also reported a peak in coronavirus deaths and new infections – even after two months of one the region’s strictest lockdowns.
A fruit and vegetable seller waits for customers after street markets were reopened in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on 29 April 2020. Photograph: Mauro Pimentel/AFP via Getty Images
Peru’s president, Martín Vizcarra, said the infected merchants in Lima would be replaced, but stopped short of shutting down the fruit market, arguing that such a move could create food shortages. Soldiers and police officers were deployed at the market to take the temperature of all traders and clients.
“Markets were probably the biggest vector of infection which is why Peru’s quarantine did not work as it should have,” said Eduardo Zegarra, the principal investigator for Grade, a development thinktank in Lima.
“These figures are a bombshell,” he said, calling on the government to shut down the markets and declare a sanitary emergency.
Authorities in Lima have left most of the city’s 1,200-plus markets open, carrying out spot tests and sending infected vendors – most of whom were asymptomatic – to self-isolate at home or at government facilities.
But Zegarra worried Lima’s huge wholesale markets were already “enormous hubs of infection”, particularly Santa Anita, Lima’s largest, where some 30,000 merchants, porters and suppliers distribute and sell around 8,000 tonnes of food per day.
Dozens of infections and at least one death have been reported among the market’s porters and fears were growing that the virus could already have spread; not only to thousands of retailers and customers but also to lorry drivers traveling between the city and the country.
Municipal workers clean and disinfect the surroundings of the Caqueta market in the north of Lima. Photograph: Ernesto Benavides/AFP via Getty Images
“I fear that could trigger a second wave of the pandemic,” said Zegarra, a former deputy mayor of Lima. “The contagion among merchants is terribly high and we don’t know how long they’ve had it or how many people they’ve passed it on to.”
Coronavirus cases in Peru rose to more than 88,000 on Saturday, with a death toll of 2,572, according to official figures. Only Brazil has a higher infection rate in Latin America, surging to fourth place in the world with 233,511 confirmed cases and sixth place for coronavirus deaths with 15,662, according to Johns Hopkins University.
São Paulo’s CEAGESP wholesale market – one of the largest on the continent – has already seen “innumerable” cases and around 30 deaths from Covid-19, according to the president of the market suppliers’ union.
“We are very sad about the deaths of these people – but if you consider 40,000 people who come here every day, it is quite low,” said Cláudio Furquim.
Media reports have shown crowds of shoppers and workers at Brazilian markets, most them without masks. In a report by TV Record, Diego Hipólito said his uncle, a driver, went to the market daily and kept working when he fell sick with coronavirus symptoms before eventually dying. “I think he could have passed it on,” Hipólito said.
Markets still occupy an important place in Latin American culture and economies – even as retail giants such as Walmart expand into the region. But that has also tied them closely to the spread of the disease.
Colombia’s largest wholesale market, Corabastos, sits in the hardscrabble Kennedy neighbourhood of the capital Bogotá – currently centre of the country’s outbreak.
Last week, the city’s mayor, Claudia López, said the vast market would be operate at just 35% of capacity after 30 cases were detected there.
The city’s health minister, Alejandro Gómez, admitted that local government could have done better but also stressed the importance of food supplies. “We cannot allow Corabastos to become a risk to the health of Bogotá, but neither can we allow food shortages,” he said.
Jorge Colmenares, an opposition city councilman, tweeted: “Thanks to Bogota’s carelessness, the coronavirus has hit the food supply of millions of citizens.”
At Mexico City’s mammoth Central de Abasto, which receives merchandise from around the country and in turn supplies markets throughout the capital, at least 25 cases of Covid-19 and two deaths have been reported, although local media suggested the true figure was much higher.
Manuel Cornejo Carrillo owns a laundry in the Mercado Coyoacán, where he says 60% of the stalls have closed and sales are down 90% in his business. Cornejo lamented that the few customers still coming to the market were still failing to keep their distance or wear masks.
After a brief lockdown, Mexico has already announced plans to re-open its economy, but while Cornejo was sympathetic with the urge to get back to work, he feared that the worst was still to come from the coronavirus.
“Economically, it’s time to restart. But on the health side, I’m worried – I don’t think we’ve hit bottom,” he said.
“I’ve lived through the H1N1 outbreak and earthquakes, but I’ve never experienced anything like this.”