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Opinion

How street papers are dealing with the coronavirus

Vendors of magazines like The Big Issue have already been impacted by the coronavirus outbreak in in Korea, Japan and Italy but their customers are rallying round to support them

Being part of an international network of street papers – more than 100 magazines in 35 countries – gives immediate, first-hand insight into challenges facing people on the margins across the globe.

Homelessness is a pervasive presence everywhere, even if the reasons why people can find themselves without a home or stable income differ from place to place. But from Birmingham to Buenos Aires, Cardiff to Chicago or Perth, Scotland to Perth, Australia, vendors choose to sell a street paper like The Big Issue for the chance to support themselves.

A fresh crisis has been on everybody’s lips (which you shouldn’t be touching with unwashed hands) as street papers are encountering the coronavirus.

The Covid-19 virus is spreading so quickly and unpredictably that anything written about it risks being instantaneously outdated. But it has already affected street paper vendors, beginning with those based in South Korea, where the first outbreak outside of China occurred.

Early in February, staff noticed the streets of Seoul were quieter than usual. Five thousand face masks were sourced to distribute among vendors. They were donated by a music label, and worryingly described as “fashionable”. Let’s hope face mask fashion doesn’t become this season’s hottest trend.

But face masks themselves prove problematic for vendors. Mr Yamada, who sells The Big Issue Japan in Osaka, said: “It’s a complicated matter. When you wear a mask, some people feel anxious and cautious, believing the vendor to be sick, despite the mask being there for protection in the first place.”

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Inevitably, in times of crisis, it is the most marginalised and vulnerable in society who are hit hardest

Mr Yamada’s colleague Mr Yoshitomi sells in the city’s tourist district. “There are clearly not as many people around during the daytime and, generally, people are increasingly likely to avoid crowded areas,” he said.

Last week the coronavirus established itself in Europe, starting – like many visitors to the continent – in northern Italy. Street paper Scarp de’tenis is based in Milan.

“So far, all Scarp de’tenis staff and vendors remain well,” said staff member Marta Zanella. She explained however, that new pitches have had to be found for vendors. Most usually sell at churches but masses in the regions of Lombardy, Veneto and Piedmont have been suspended until further notice.

“We’re discussing how to approach this, and to ensure they still have a chance to sell their street papers. We’re increasing the number of their pitches located on streets and in supermarkets. Things seem to be changing rapidly though.”

Reassuringly, Zanella added that sales have not been impacted so far as communities are rallying to support each other.

Should the outbreak develop into a pandemic and worsen in this country, hopefully we will similarly look out for others. Inevitably, in times of crisis, it is the most marginalised and vulnerable in society who are hit hardest.

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