Post-virus recovery goes up in flames for Tunisian vendors

Post-virus recovery goes up in flames for Tunisian vendors
Tunisia’s early lockdown saw it report just 49 deaths from the coronavirus disease, but informal workers, like vendors, have suffered. (AFP)
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Updated 18 June 2020

Post-virus recovery goes up in flames for Tunisian vendors

Post-virus recovery goes up in flames for Tunisian vendors
  • Dozens of market sellers in the Tunisian capital have seen their livelihoods go up in smoke

TUNIS: The Tunis Medina had reopened for business after nearly three months of lockdown, but vendor Abdel Aziz Talbi wasn’t working.

Three weeks earlier, the 67-year-old lost his entire stock of clothes and shoes in a fire that ravaged the second-hand market.

“I had prepared and bought clothes for the summer,” said Talbi. “All of it is burnt.”

Dozens of market sellers in the Tunisian capital have seen their livelihoods go up in smoke, destroying their hopes of recovering from months of lost revenue due to slow sales and measures put in place to stop the coronavirus.

Even before the market in the historic Hafsia neighbourhood had to close for lockdown in March, sellers say sales of their winter stock were low due to mild weather and a new market that blocked access to their stalls.

The old market, which houses several hundred stalls, reopened on May 11, as the lockdown was partially eased in the middle of the holy month of Ramadan.

Traders say they hoped sales would pick up with people looking for new clothes for Eid. But two days later, 30 of the 50 stalls in the oldest part of the market went up in flames. Police are investigating, and have arrested six people suspected of arson, according to municipal authorities.

“They (the sellers) were already suffering and Ramadan tends to be a good time, so the fire hit at a very bad time,” says Katharina Grueneisl, a researcher studying Tunis’ second-hand economy at Durham University in the UK. Market sellers who spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation said they lost between 3,000 dinars ($1,100) and 35,000 dinars worth of stock to the fire, though Grueneisl said reliable data was hard to find.

“In the period of (lockdown), I borrowed money — 500 dinars here, 500 there. I am now in debt to my wholesaler, my friends and my relatives,” said Talbi.

“Sellers that can are rebuilding. The rest of us, we’re just standing here and watching.”

Now a square of rubble punctuated with a few blackened metal poles, the marketplace was a criss-cross of wooden stalls. It sprung up on the demolition site of a historic Jewish neighbourhood, when rural migrants arrived in Tunis and started building and selling informally.

Today, the vendors are part of Tunisia’s informal workforce, worth almost 60 percent of the country’s total working population, according to the International Labour Organisation.

It added that informal workers were among the hardest hit by global coronavirus lockdowns.

By instituting severe quarantine measures early, Tunisia managed to control the spread of the disease, reporting only 49 deaths.

However, those measures also deepened the country’s economic crisis and have left many Tunisians struggling to make ends meet.

Among the poorest 40 percent of Tunisian people, over three-quarters received no income at all during the lockdown, according to Tunisia’s national statistics institute and the World Bank.

“We have no insurance, so I didn’t receive anything,” said Ali Boualeg, 82, who has had a stall in the market since the 1970s.

Amel Meddeb, head of the municipal council for the medina, said the government was paying a 200-dinar monthly stipend to individuals hit by the crisis, but many informal workers were not eligible.

“In the informal sector, we can’t assess whether workers are in need or not, we don’t know if they earn a lot or a little,” she explained.

The municipality has offered to help repair the damage caused by the fire and sees this as a good occasion to “study the situation of the fripe (market),” said Meddeb.

That could include formalising the marketplace by allocating spaces, registering the sellers — who currently pay the municipality a small, annual licence fee — and improving the layout to prevent future fires, she noted.

But the vendors are wary of the council’s plans, worried that authorities will “take this place” said Mohamed Ayari, a 62-year-old seller, as he sat on a cushion and surveilled the construction workers rebuilding his stall.

Meddeb, though, said there are no plans to get rid of the market completely.


China economy grows in 2020 as rebound from coronavirus gains

China economy grows in 2020 as rebound from coronavirus gains
Updated 18 January 2021

China economy grows in 2020 as rebound from coronavirus gains

China economy grows in 2020 as rebound from coronavirus gains
  • Growth in the three months ending in December rose to 6.5 percent over a year earlier
  • China’s quick recovery brought it closer to matching the US in economic output

BEIJING: China eked out 2.3 percent economic growth in 2020, likely becoming the only major economy to expand as shops and factories reopened relatively early from a shutdown to fight the coronavirus while the United States, Japan and Europe struggled with rising infections.
Growth in the three months ending in December rose to 6.5 percent over a year earlier as consumers returned to shopping malls, restaurants and cinemas, official data showed Monday. That was up from the previous quarter’s 4.9 percent and stronger than many forecasters expected.
In early 2020, activity contracted by 6.8 percent in the first quarter as the ruling Communist Party took the then-unprecedented step of shutting down most of its economy to fight the virus. The following quarter, China became the first major country to grow again with a 3.2 percent expansion after the party declared victory over the virus in March and allowed factories, shops and offices to reopen.
Restaurants are filling up while cinemas and retailers struggle to lure customers back. Crowds are thin at shopping malls, where guards check visitors for signs of the disease’s tell-tale fever.
Domestic tourism is reviving, though authorities have urged the public to stay home during the Lunar New Year holiday in February, normally the busiest travel season, in response to a spate of new infections in some Chinese cities.
Exports have been boosted by demand for Chinese-made masks and other medical goods.
The growing momentum “reflected improving private consumption expenditure as well as buoyant net exports,” said Rajiv Biswas of IHS Markit in a report. He said China is likely to be the only major economy to grow in 2020 while developed countries and most major emerging markets were in recession.
The economy “recovered steadily” and “living standards were ensured forcefully,” the National Bureau of Statistics said in a statement. It said the ruling party’s development goals were “accomplished better than expectation” but gave no details.
2020 was China’s weakest growth in decades and below 1990’s 3.9 percent following the crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement, which led to China’s international isolation.
Despite growth for the year, “it is too early to conclude that this is a full recovery,” said Iris Pang of ING in a report. “External demand has not yet fully recovered. This is a big hurdle.”
Exporters and high-tech manufacturers face uncertainty about how President-elect Joseph Biden will handle conflicts with Beijing over trade, technology and security. His predecessor, Donald Trump, hurt exporters by hiking tariffs on Chinese goods and manufacturers including telecom equipment giant Huawei by imposing curbs on access to US components and technology.
“We expect the newly elected US government will continue most of the current policies on China, at least for the first quarter,” Pang said.
The International Monetary Fund and private sector forecasters expect economic growth to rise further this year to above 8 percent.
China’s quick recovery brought it closer to matching the United States in economic output.
Total activity in 2020 was 102 trillion yuan ($15.6 trillion), according to the government. That is about 75 percent the size of the $20.8 trillion forecast by the IMF for the US economy, which is expected to shrink by 4.3 percent from 2019. The IMF estimates China will be about 90 percent of the size of the US economy by 2025, though with more than four times as many people average income will be lower.
Exports rose 3.6 percent last year despite the tariff war with Washington. Exporters took market share from foreign competitors that still faced anti-virus restrictions.
Retail spending contracted by 3.9 percent over 2019 but gained 4.6 percent in December over a year earlier as demand revived. Consumer spending recovered to above the previous year’s levels in the quarter ending in September.
Online sales of consumer goods rose 14.8 percent as millions of families who were ordered to stay home shifted to buying groceries and clothing on the Internet.
Factory output rose 2.8 percent over 2019. Activity accelerated toward the end of the year. Production rose 7.3 percent in December.
Despite travel controls imposed for some areas after new cases flared this month most of the country is unaffected.
Still, the government’s appeal to the public to avoid traditional Lunar New Year gatherings and travel might dent spending on tourism, gifts and restaurants.
Other activity might increase, however, if farms, factories and traders keep operating over the holiday, said Chaoping Zhu of JP Morgan Asset Management in a report.
“Unusually high growth rates in this quarter are likely to be seen,” said Zhu.