This past week in the nation’s capital, a lot more people than usual were worried about getting sick. And street vendors are preparing to step onto the front lines of prevention.
Community organizers in the District have begun working with public health clinics to train and equip street vendors to stand on their usual corners and distribute hand sanitizer and health information instead of their typical wares of elote, sliced mango, soccer jerseys or fresh flowers.
In exchange, the vendors will earn a stipend to make up for lost wages, said Megan Macaraeg, the labor organizer for Many Languages One Voice, an immigrant advocacy group.
“Vendors are out there handling cash, talking to people, without any protection — they’re at risk of getting sick and then passing it along to even more people. But with this new coronavirus, we’re in a totally different reality,” she said. “We need to encourage people in some of our most vulnerable communities to essentially stop doing their jobs and help us flatten the curve.”
The “flatten the curve” mantra is epidemiologist speak for slowing the rate of transmission enough so the number of people who need treatment for covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, does not overwhelm hospitals and medical centers.
District health clinics such as Whitman-Walker Health and La Clinica del Pueblo already rely on a network of trained community ambassadors to provide health information to residents, acting as a bridge between neighborhoods and health-care providers.
But in the midst of a pandemic, health officials said, the more people working on prevention, the better. As of Sunday, the number of reported cases of the novel coronavirus in the District, Maryland and Virginia was closing in on 100, according to a Washington Post analysis.
“We think it’s really important to work together with members of our community to get good, accurate information out there,” said Meghan Davies, chief program officer at the nonprofit Whitman-Walker Health. “It’s helpful to have members from the community do this because they understand the needs of their communities and they already know what the misinformation is that people might be hearing out there.”
The idea to turn street vendors into community health ambassadors began at an emergency meeting of Vendadores Unidos, a group of vendors formed to address the police’s treatment of vendors and lobby for friendlier laws in the District that would facilitate their sales to customers.
Vendors who rely on what they can earn on the street to pay their bills and rent and take care of their children expressed dismay in recent days at the prospect of shutting down over mounting coronavirus concerns.
Like many low-wage workers, vendors do not have access to paid leave. Some vendors work other jobs, but many do not.
They do not want to quit, but they do not want to put people in danger, either, said street vendor Matea Salvador, 58, who has been selling home goods and perfume on the city’s streets for nearly 15 years.
On a sidewalk tabletop in the Columbia Heights neighborhood packed with perfumes, incense and soccer jerseys from El Salvador and Honduras, Salvador kept a green bottle of hand sanitizer ready for customers who wanted to disinfect their hands.
She greeted people with a laugh and an elbow bump — cautious about the dangers of shaking hands. But even before she knew what the disease was called or how it spread, Salvador and other vendors had heard whispers about a mystery illness killing people half a world away.
They did not know what to call it, so they settled on “el gripe” — the flu — even though several said they knew it was more than that.
The day before D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) declared a state of emergency in the city this past week, Salvador began passing out hand sanitizer to anyone who lingered at her table.
When there was a language barrier — Salvador speaks only Spanish — she held out the bottle encouragingly, pressed down on the pump and smiled as customers rubbed their hands together.
“We have to have this now,” she said in Spanish as she waved goodbye to a family of four.
Macaraeg said Many Languages One Voice is working to gather enough donated supplies — such as hand sanitizer and keychains that remind passersby to avoid touching their faces — to involve dozens of vendors in the prevention effort, but the push will start small. About 10 vendors have signed up to be part of the first wave.
The group even changed the Vendadores Unidos logo from two clasped hands to two arms, bent at the elbows, about to touch, in a greeting Macaraeg and several vendors have dubbed the “hola de corona.”
“We need to all start being creative and asking ourselves questions like: How do we make people stop touching their face? How do we get people to self-isolate? How do we communicate this to people in new ways so that it really sticks?” Macaraeg said. “We can’t wait for someone else to fix it. We need to take charge in our own communities.”
Deputizing street vendors as health ambassadors is not typical in the United States, but in several countries it is a common way to get information to and from medical professionals, said Boris Lushniak, dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health.
Lushniak pointed to Liberia, where similar methods were used during the Ebola outbreak.
“The concept of a community health worker — someone who is a member of the community and is trained up with information as someone who’s trusted, who speaks the language and knows the culture — it can be one of the most effective modalities to get communities the right information,” Lushniak said. In a pandemic, “what tends to fall to the wayside is that personal contact about health, that individual communication.”
He emphasized the importance of training vendors to protect themselves by physically distancing from others and staying home if they develop symptoms.
Vendors and their advocates also hope the public health push eventually helps them make a case for why the District should loosen laws around street vending. They say the outreach efforts underscore their utility and unique position in the community.
“This is not just a model to tack this virus and then it goes away,” said Ayush Manandhar, a Georgetown University public policy graduate student who is helping to launch the program.
“It allows them to create a sustainable model that can be activated in the future. It makes a vulnerable community stronger.”