Featured in Town Planning Review 92.2: Informal food systems and differential mobility during the COVID-19 pandemic in Arequipa, Peru

The editors of Town Planning Review (TPR) have selected the following paper as a Featured Viewpoint in TPR 92.2:

Informal food systems and differential mobility during the COVID-19 pandemic in Arequipa, Peru‘ by Aaron Malone, Yezelia Danira Caceres Cabana and Anabel Taya Zegarra. 

When asked to describe the paper and highlight its importance, the authors stated the following:

Our study grew out of daily observations of life under COVID quarantine and the state of emergency in Arequipa, Peru, as Yezelia and Anabel observed the emergence and proliferation of mobile produce vendors. The sound of loudspeakers announcing different foods on offer, the sight of cars circulating neighborhood streets, of mobile vendors weighing out quantities and making sales at curbside, these once rare occurrences were becoming commonplace in Arequipa’s cityscape. Even as typical routines were disrupted and mobility cut back, food vendors emerged as a new, mobile presence. Interviewing mobile vendors revealed a mix of resourcefulness and desperation that is all too familiar as austerity governance has pared back safety nets in numerous global contexts. Perhaps the most emblematic example is of taxi drivers who, with no passengers to transport and little to fall back on, repurposed their cars to sell produce door to door, in turn allowing them to put food on their own tables.

Many of the mobile food vendors interviewed shared with us that they feared catching COVID because of their work – the same fears that kept their customers home and created the market for mobile vending in the first place. Unlike their customers, though, the mobile vendors were compelled to circulate and create new sources of income.

The vendors fears and sense of exposure proved to be well founded. As an informal follow-up, Yezelia conducted telephone interviews with fifteen mobile vendors in December 2020 (six months after the primary data collection for the paper). Astonishingly, all fifteen reported that they had tested positive for COVID. Thankfully, none had suffered a severe case, but the result was sobering nonetheless. Even more so, because they have continued mobile vending work after recovering.

In the paper, we turn to Mimi Sheller’s concept of “mobility justice” to make sense of these trends. As Sheller emphasizes, the common-sense notions of mobility as privilege – think of jet-set vacationers and hyper-mobile professionals – are only part of the picture. Immobility can also be privilege and mobility a form of injustice, as has been made clear by the pandemic. Elites and professionals have disproportionately been able to work from home and dramatically reduce their mobility – for more than a full year now – during which time “essential” workers and those in the informal sectors or living in poverty had no choice but to venture out and accept greater risks of infection.

As our research on mobile food vendors makes clear, the food system in Arequipa was propped up by the ingenuity of informal workers, which avoided disaster when traditional distribution channels froze with the onset of the pandemic and related restrictions. People and activities on the margins of society and the “normal” economy made major contributions to resilience and adaptation. But these same people bore increased risks in the face of the pandemic – and indeed, as our follow-up revealed, those risks materialized in infection and health impacts. There is little justice to be found in the compulsory mobility of essential and informal workers and its inextricable links to the privileged classes’ ability to remain (temporarily) immobilized. Adding insult to injury, the vendors we spoke with in the follow-up interviews felt their contributions remained unrecognized and unappreciated; they had never received any support or encouragement from the authorities.

Epilogue: When we wrote our paper, Peru had the most COVID deaths per capita of any country. That ranking has now fallen slightly, to fifth-most globally, but Peru’s death rate remains highest within Latin America ( Despite the severity of the pandemic and ongoing restrictions, elements of “normal” life have returned in Arequipa little by little, including more people returning to shop in traditional markets and an increase of app-based grocery delivery services. The mobile food vendors profiled in our paper remain a visible presence on city streets, but their numbers seem to be declining. It is difficult to predict whether mobile vendors will remain a permanent feature or will eventually disappear in post-pandemic Arequipa.

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