MEXICO CITY, Mar 20 (Reuters) – Supermarkets, including Mexico’s Walmart, began to bow on Friday to remove tens of thousands of older workers who pack purchases from stores as concerns about their vulnerability to coronavirus.
Some 35,000 Mexicans, most between the ages of 60 and 74, pack groceries at Walmart stores and other chains through a government-backed voluntary program, earning only tips. The program has been criticized by activists.
On Friday afternoon, Walmart de México said it will suspend the program from Saturday, following a large online petition and a Reuters story of mounting pressure on the Latin American country’s largest retailer.
“Considering older adults are an especially vulnerable group, we have decided to dispense with the presence of older adults who provide valuable support as volunteer packers,” the company said in a statement.
Walmex also said it would offer workers “financial support,” but did not provide details.
The company had previously said it would keep bag packers in its stores in accordance with recommendations from the public National Institute for Older Adults (INAPAM), which oversees the program.
People over 65 account for eight out of 10 deaths from coronavirus in the United States, according to official figures. In China, where the virus first appeared, about 80% of deaths are people aged 60 and over.
At Superama, one of the chains owned by Walmart, they placed antibacterial gel, disinfecting towels for cashiers, and urged them to wash their hands frequently, several workers said.
Since Friday, the Mexican Soriana stopped having packers of the elderly in its 810 branches, as a measure to take care of their health.
Mexico, with 164 cases of coronavirus and one death, has so far had better results than countries like China and Italy dealing with thousands of deaths. However, critics question President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s resistance to travel or business closure bans.
His toughest measures have been canceling major events and suspending classes starting next week.
Walmart also recommended masks, said Guillermo Valdez, 65, who packs groceries at a Superama in the upscale Polanco neighborhood. However, he said there were none available earlier this week.
Still, Valdez said he had few concerns.
“I am not afraid of death. When it touches us, it touches us,” he confessed.
(Edited by Diego Oré and Gabriela Donoso)