(Recasts throughout, adds Walmart de Mexico statement)
By Daina Beth Solomon
MEXICO CITY, March 20 (Reuters) - Grocers including Walmart de Mexico have begun bowing to pressure to pull from stores tens of thousands of elderly workers who pack bags at checkouts as concerns grow about their vulnerability to coronavirus amid panic buying nationwide.
Some 35,000 elderly Mexicans, most between 60 and 74 years old, pack groceries at Walmart stores and other chains through a government-backed volunteer program, earning just tips.
The program, already criticized by labor activists, is under renewed scrutiny as fears about coronavirus have prompted many Mexicans to self-isolate and work from home.
On Friday afternoon, Walmart de Mexico said it would suspend the program, following a large online petition and a Reuters story about mounting pressure on the retailer, which is the largest in Mexico.
“Taking into account that elderly people are an especially vulnerable group, we’ve decided to go without the presence of the elderly people who provide valuable support as volunteer grocery baggers,” the company said in a statement.
Walmart de Mexico also said it would offer the workers “economic support,” but did not provide details.
The company previously said it would keep bag packers in its stores in line with recommendations from the government’s National Institute for Elderly People (INAPAM), which oversees the program and had been reluctant to adopt measures that would damage workers’ incomes.
Mexican grocery chain Soriana stopped using the elderly volunteers on Friday and said it would ask shoppers to leave donations for the volunteers, which the company would match.
People 65 and older account for eight out of every 10 deaths from coronavirus in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In China, where the virus first took hold, about 80% of deaths have been among people 60 and older, said the CDC, citing Chinese data.
A petition on Change.org demanding the senior workers in Mexico be allowed home with compensation had gathered more than 83,000 signatures by Friday afternoon, less than a week after going online.
At Superama, one of Walmart’s stores, the company had put hand sanitizer at cashiers, supplied cleaning wipes for checkout counters, urged frequent hand-washing and checks the temperatures of grocery baggers, several workers told Reuters earlier this week.
Walmart also recommended surgical masks, said Guillermo Valdez, 65, who packs groceries at a Superama in Mexico City’s upscale Polanco neighborhood, but added none were available.
Even so, Valdez, helping collect shopping carts outside the store, said he had few worries.
“I’m not scared of death. When it comes, it comes,” he said.
Mexico, with 164 coronavirus cases and one death, has so far fared better than countries such as China and Italy grappling with thousands of deaths. However, critics question President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s resistance to travel bans or work shutdowns.
His toughest measures have been canceling large events and suspending classes as of next week.
Before heading inside to pack more bags, Valdez joked that a traditional Mexican remedy would keep the virus at bay.
“I protect myself with alcohol. Tequila on Saturdays.” (Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Sonya Hepinstall)