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The resilience of street vendors in surviving Covid-19 crisis in Hanoi, Vietnam

Authors:

Abstract

INTRODUCTION: Vietnam has been reported as one of the first countries where strict lockdown measures have been put in place to effectively manage the outbreak of coronavirus (Pollack et al. 2020). While such actions are vital to keep the pandemic under control and save lives, they appear to increase the vulnerability of people working in informal sectors, such as ‘hand-to-mouth’ fresh food vendors, lotto sellers, hawkers, barbers, motorbike-taxi drivers and locksmiths. In the megacity of Hanoi, strict social distancing policies have wiped hundred thousands of poor street vendors out of informal workplaces in public spaces, and forced to close hundreds of outdoor neighbourhood markets and street-front businesses that are deemed non-essential. These informal workers are unlikely to receive timely financial support from the government and tend to suffer from food insecurity due to income losses (Wertheim-Heck, 2020). During this difficult time, they have demonstrated their resilience with an ability to self-sustain and their critical roles to the community via various initiatives. Given that informal sectors have usually been considered a source of negative issues and been unequally treated by the government, the informal experiences and initiatives of street vendors during the pandemic in Hanoi represent a form of local resilience that should deserve a better judgment in an attempt to minimise urban inequality. This chapter examines the informal livelihoods of street vendors in Hanoi, Vietnam, during the Covid-19 crisis. It highlights the initiatives they employed amidst the restrictions to generate income and provide affordable foods and critical services to, at least, other low-income families. This chapter elucidates data from local reports and 22 interviews with street vendors conducted in April 2020, to generate some insights into the survival strategies and adaptive capacity of the urban poor in Hanoi. It sheds light on the local practices of social capital in enhancing resilience, as demonstrated through community collaboration, sharing, and solidarity. Given that social capital has multiple meanings and applications, this chapter refers to its most common definition as the capability of people to work together for mutual objectives through personal connection, communal network and virtual platform in societies (Burt, 1992; Ellison et al., 2007). The local practice of social capital during the lockdown in Hanoi is in line with the concept by Fukuyama (1995) who defined social capital as the presence of a certain set of informal values or norms shared among local residents that enable collaboration and bonding. This type of social capital is significant in building up resilience (Agnitsch et al., 2006).
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FIFTEEN
The Resilience of Street Vendors
in Surviving COVID- 19 Crisis
in Hanoi, Vietnam
Ha Minh Hai Thai, Phuong Quoc Dinh,
and Phuong Thu Nguyen
Introduction
Vietnam is one of the fi rst countries where strict lockdown
measures were enacted to mitigate the COVID- 19 outbreak
(Pollack et al, 2020 ). While such actions are vital to control the
pandemic and save lives, they appear to increase the vulner-
ability of people working in informal sectors, such as ‘hand-
to- mouth’ fresh food vendors, lotto sellers, hawkers, barbers,
motorbike- taxi drivers, and locksmiths. In the megacity of
Hanoi, strict social distancing policies have wiped countless
poor street vendors out of informal workplaces in public spaces,
and closed hundreds of outdoor neighborhood markets and
street- front businesses deemed non- essential. These informal
workers are unlikely to receive timely fi nancial support from
the government and tend to su er food insecurity due to
income loss (Wertheim- Heck, 2020 ). During this di cult
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time, they have demonstrated their resilience with an ability to
self- sustain and through their various, critical roles supporting
the community. Given that informal sectors have usually been
considered problematic and treated unequally by the govern-
ment, the experiences and initiatives of street vendors during
the pandemic in Hanoi represent a form of local resilience that
deserves a closer look in our work to understand and minimize
urban inequality.
This chapter examines the informal livelihoods of street
vendors in Hanoi, Vietnam during the COVID- 19 crisis,
highlighting their initiatives (employed amid public health
restrictions) to generate income and provide a ordable foods
and critical services to others, especially low- income families
(see also Volume 1, Chapter Two ). We analyze data from local
reports and 22 interviews with street vendors conducted in
April 2020, to illuminate the survival strategies and adaptive
capacity of the urban poor in Hanoi. This sheds light on the
role of social capital in enhancing resilience, through com-
munity collaboration, sharing, and solidarity. Given social
capital has multiple meanings and applications, this chapter
refers to the capability of people to work together for mutual
objectives through personal connection, communal net-
work, and virtual platforms in societies (Burt, 1992 ; Ellison
et al, 2007 ). Street vendors’ practices during the lockdown
in Hanoi aligns with Fukuyama ( 1995 ), who defi nes social
capital as the presence of a certain set of informal values or
norms shared among local residents that enable collabor-
ation and bonding; both are signifi cant in building resilience
(Agnitsch et al, 2006 ).
Informal livelihoods and COVID- 19 crisis in Hanoi
Residents in Hanoi have a long tradition of running small-
scale and informal businesses to mitigate their lack of formal
employment or social security programs (Pasquier- Doumer
et al, 2017 ). To many, public sector work is out of reach and/
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THE RESILIENCE OF STREET VENDORS
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or low- paid. Better- paid private sector employment requires
specifi c qualifi cations and time commitments inconsistent with
work- life balance. Therefore, informal livelihoods are the pri-
mary option to generate either main income for low- skilled
workers or extra income for low- paid state employees (key
players in the informal economy).
More than just earning their livelihoods, informal workers
o er a ordable goods and services to the general population,
especially the urban poor. They connect farmers and small-
scale manufacturers in the periphery to inner- city consumers.
Goods – especially fresh food, household items, and clothes –
are obtained directly from producers and sold to consumers
with minimal transaction fees imposed by informal workers.
Providers of services, such as barbers, motorbike repairers, and
locksmiths, are also widely found on Hanoi’s streets; further,
the stalls and carts of local food and tea merchants serve as
community eating areas, helping to ensure a vibrant street life.
The adverse impacts of COVID- 19 have created unprece-
dented challenges for informal workers. The most e ective and
widespread measure the government has employed to contain
the virus has been strictly enforced lockdown of communities.
Social distancing rules and gathering prohibitions temporarily
eliminate public space use rights for most residents including
street vendors, now forced to stop their income- generating
activities. During the lockdown in Hanoi, from March 28 to
April 23, using public space for informal trading was not allowed.
Most residents, particularly low- income families, lost access to
a ordable foods and services while, goods, especially perishables,
were stuck with farmers. From August 17 to September 5, social
distancing policies were reinstated to ban public gathering and
the operation of non- essential businesses in public spaces.
Government responses
In early April 2020, Hanoi People’s Committee conducted
a survey to understand the impact of COVID- 19 on local
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residents (RISED, 2020 ). While the survey’s results are still
confi dential, they are expected to help the government enact an
e ective economic growth plan during and after the pandemic.
The survey targeted three population groups: (1) local residents
of Hanoi; (2) school and university students; and (3) workers
and family- based manufacturers and retailers. Notably, no
specifi c concern was given to informal workers, whose lives
depend on being able to work in public space. That ‘o cial’
government actors failed to recognize their important role in
the city’s economy likely led to informal workers’ (for example
street vendors) exclusion from the survey.
At the end of April 2020, the Vietnamese government
announced Decision No15/ 2020/ QD/ TTg to implement a
62 trillion VND (approximately 2.6 billion USD) aid program
for residents impacted by COVID- 19. Six groups of residents
can apply for this fi nancial support. Almost all of these come
from formal economic sectors. Residents whose incomes
come from informal sectors, such as street vendors, traders,
and service providers are listed as a subgroup within this policy.
However, eligible applicants must verify their residential status
and/ or recent business activities when applying to the local
authority. These conditions marginalize informal workers who
are often immigrants and/ or lack fi xed addresses or places of
work. This suggests a lack of policy understanding and infra-
structure to support informal economies under crises such as
those imposed by COVID- 19.
Local resilience and survival initiatives
During lockdown, Hanoi’s street vendors and residents devised
a range of survival tactics , to borrow the term coined by de
Certeau ( 1984 : 30), in response to lockdown strategies imposed
by the government. Although these initiatives are very diverse,
they share some qualities that reveal the role of local social
capital practices of community sharing and solidarity.
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Embracing solidarity through grassroots
community organizations
While local governments still struggle to fi nancially support
informal workers, community- based groups have quickly
materialized to aid the urban poor. For instance, ATM stations
introduced in mid- April by generous individuals to dispense free
rice, were welcomed by many poor workers (donated rice is
packed and distributed by volunteers). These ATMs, organized
by local authorities, provide shelters and instructions for rice
gatherers to socially distance. A practice now widely adopted
by various other communities, semi- automatic rice dispensers
(made with donated materials by tech students) are programmed
to give three free kilograms of rice per person per day.
Mrs B, a trash collector and a mother of two, claims the free
rice helps her family to survive for a week (Interview, April
2020). She does not know how to apply for support from
the government because she is an unregistered resident and
itinerant worker. Her husband, an intermittent hotel security
guard, has not been paid for months. While Mrs B appreciates
the free food from local community groups and rent reduc-
tion from her landlord, lacking support amid the precarious
economics brought on by COVID- 19 led her to reduce the
family’s already modestly portioned meals.
Solidarity, demonstrated through giving, sharing, and caring,
led by grassroots organizations, and facilitated by local author-
ities, provides critically important relief to the poor and the
government. During the crisis, ‘a little bite when hungry is
worth a feast when full’ (interview with Mr H, a rice donor,
in April 2020).
Shifting to mobile trading
During the March– April lockdown, when informal pop- up
stalls and outdoor markets were closed, footpath traders quickly
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found alternatives to keep up their livelihood. Some took and
delivered orders from frequent buyers via phones, while others
shifted to mobile trading which requires walking from place
to place, seeking random customers. They walked a bicycle
or carried baskets loaded with foods or small- household con-
sumable items and dodged local authorities. As they traversed
neighborhoods, these vendors yelled the name of goods to
attract customers. The local police cannot accuse a moving
vendor unless they catch the vendor transacting. These trading
activities, however, are accepted by communities and appear to
work well for many urban dwellers because supermarkets are
only suitable for the better- o . The foods o ered by mobile
vendors are limited to non- or slowly perishable products,
mostly fruits and vegetable, because the sellers do not have
suitable appliances to preserve goods.
While street vendors were able to ‘borrow’ particular spots
in public spaces, such as footpaths, for several hours under
‘normal’ conditions, this was barred during lockdown. Mrs T,
a fruit vendor, explains that if she keeps pushing her bicycle,
she will not get in trouble with the local police. She believes
that the local authority is aware of street vendors’ practices, but
they ‘are sentimental’ (Interview, April 2020). Mrs T shared
that she always keeps an eye out for the local police while
trading. After a tiring day of moving around, she returns to her
usual spot in the local informal marketplace. At 5 pm when
the local police fi nish their shift, Mrs T puts on a facemask
and sits down with hopes to sell her remaining goods without
being caught in an irregular raid.
Employing information technologies and social media
During the lockdown, evicted informal workers also used
ICT for their trading activities. Social media platforms, such as
Facebook, became a virtual marketplace for service providers
whose businesses are considered non- essential. Beauty services,
such as nail and hair salons, were supposed to close during the
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pandemic. Some service providers, like Mr K, a street barber,
started going to customers’ homes. When his shop was shut,
Mr K took his barber tool bag and purchased face shields,
facemasks, and hand sanitizer. He put his phone number on
the closed door and advertised his haircut- at- home service
on various community Facebook groups. Apart from cutting
loyal patrons’ hair, Mr K also received orders through Facebook
(Interview, May 2020). He often had more than one customer
in a home visit. Charging no extra fee, delivering high- quality
services and practicing good hygiene, Mr K garnered good
online feedback and received more requests. Unlike Mr K, his
hairdresser girlfriend struggled with her mobile service because
her job involves immobile specialist equipment.
Social media, especially Facebook, has long been a popular
platform for Hanoians to share information, form community,
and trade goods and services. It is common to fi nd people
advertising clothes, shoes, homemade food, health products,
haircuts, and pet care (Thai et al, 2020 ). Searching online social
networks reveals these forms of informal trade were very active
during lockdown, largely because the ease of transaction and
relatively low costs make it a highly accessible economic venue.
These inclusive yet informal virtual marketplaces have become
critical to evicted street traders as well as bargain hunters during
the COVID- 19 pandemic.
Conclusion
The health and economic impacts of COVID- 19 are dreadful,
especially to the poorer members of our communities and
workers in informal sectors (International Labour Organization
(ILO), 2020). Being on the brink of hunger and precarity,
Hanoi’s street vendors made a di cult choice: working and
taking risks to feed themselves and their families, which in turn
keeps goods and services available to the wider community.
While the central government’s lockdowns and social dis-
tancing rules appear to be e ective in containing the virus
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and assisting disadvantaged workers from formal sectors,
urban inequality will remain rampant so long as the vital role
of informal economies is underestimated. However, local
governments and neighborhood- level community groups have
been fl exibly supportive to poor residents, especially informal
street vendors and service providers, who are popular yet lack
legitimacy in the o cial policy frameworks of Vietnam’s muni-
cipal and state governments.
This chapter highlights how informal economies, including
those newly established through ICT, have managed to survive
in light of COVID- 19’s impacts. Through their tactics , informal
workers have maintained their urban livelihoods and provided
alternative economic opportunities to residents struggling with
the government’s lockdown strategies .
The stories discussed in this chapter have implications.
In cities such as Hanoi, where the coexistence of formality
and informality have always shaped urban economies and
wider society, the pandemic and strictly enforced reactionary
measures demonstrate informal sectors’ resilience and their
role in softening various economic and social impacts. This
resilience together with the sense of solidarity brought by indi-
vidual, community, and local government initiatives represent
a form of social capital essential for supporting disadvantaged
residents. Given COVID- 19 is unpredictable – Hanoi reapplied
the social distancing policies from August 17 to September 5
(the time this chapter was being written) – the question is: to
what extent can social capital help the urban poor deal with
impacts of this and future pandemics? Indeed, it is important,
in the long term, to enact policies that better recognize the
signifi cance of informal economies and workers to urban
livelihoods. This in turn would help governments mitigate
urban inequality via e ective, progressive policies and programs
to identify and assist the most vulnerable during these public
health and economic lockdowns.
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