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AFP
April 30, 2020

Unsung ‘second-line’ virus workers

World

AFP
April 30, 2020

Shopkeepers, dustmen, delivery people, cleaners, postmen -- they’re some of the jobs making life under lockdown possible.

Often low paid, sometimes invisible or even scorned, these roles have today become essential in a world gripped by the coronavirus pandemic. AFP photographers have taken portraits of workers doing these jobs, whether to stave off hunger, or out of a sense of duty, feeling sacrificed or valued.

They’re not applauded every night from balconies in France or Italy like medics on the front line, but they have gained a new recognition as "second-line" workers in the fight against Covid-19. And sometimes they receive a "thank you" scribbled on a bin left out for pickup or a supermarket shopfront in appreciation.

Without them, there would be nothing to eat, no communicating or getting around, no sanitisation or burials. For the most part, it’s done without more than a mask, hand gel and distancing measures. Around 50 workers in 25 countries agreed to be photographed by AFP between April 18 and 25 at their workplace.

From between grocery shelves, outside a butcher’s or baker’s, beside a bus or rubbish bin, in a kitchen or at a cemetery, they conveyed their vulnerability, anger, sense of mission or pride. For some, it’s about not going hungry at a time when the pandemic has torpedoed economies, sending millions into unemployment across the globe.

Afghan Zainab Sharifi, a 45-year-old mother-of-seven working at a Kabul bakery, said she didn’t have a choice. "Hunger will kill my family before the coronavirus if I do not work," she told AFP. Some go despite the fear in their heart.

"The risk is everywhere, it’s a risk for everyone, because you’re afraid to get infected and infect the others," said Ivorian Fatou Traore, 43, a cleaner at the Cremona hospital in northern Italy. In Portugal, fishmonger Emilia Lomba, 64, talks of all the people with whom she interacts and the banknotes she touches every day at the market in Lisbon. She has to pay her bills, she said.

Others fear they’re being sacrificed by society. "Who wants to work under these conditions?" asked Larissa Santana, 26, who sells a popular snack called acaraje from a street food stall in Salvador, northeastern Brazil.

"But there is no other way. Work is at a shortage," said the mother of a three-year-old son. Dressed in orange overalls, French rubbish collector Thierry Pauly, 54, continues his rounds in the eastern city of Mulhouse because of what he describes as his "professional conscience".

But he’s angry. His job is "still at risk but not recognised", he said. Others feel duty-bound, such as those keeping public services running, like Bulgarian tram driver Stoyanka Dimitrova.

"Someone has to do this," the 49-year-old told AFP in Sofia. "Everyone chooses his profession on his own and should carry his cross." People still need their mail, 53-year-old Aline Alemi, a postwoman in Hayange in eastern France, says bluntly. But she has adjusted her hours to run into fewer people and never hands over packages in person now. Pulling up the shutters can feel like a personal act of civic responsibility in troubled times.