Cao Hua delivers groceries in the coastal Chinese city of Qingdao.

Coronavirus: China’s delivery drivers are now basically first responders

Mar 16, 2020

Without regular access to food and groceries, cooped-in residents have become increasingly reliant on delivery, making drivers the unsung heroes of the coronavirus epidemic in China. Here are two of their stories.

As the Covid-19 coronavirus spreads across the world, countries are taking drastic measures to contain the virus. Some governments, such as those in New York and Italy, have taken the extreme step of closing all restaurants, bars, and music venues.

But in China, that has already been the case for months.

An empty street in the financial district of Beijing as China is hit by an outbreak of a novel coronavirus in February.
An empty street in the financial district of Beijing as China is hit by an outbreak of a novel coronavirus in February. / Photo: Reuters

At least 700 million people—accounting for nearly half the country’s population—still face some form of lockdown. That means people are advised to stay at home, and security guards in residential complexes keep track of when residents enter and exit.

This has altered the lives of millions of people. Without regular access to food and groceries, cooped-in residents have become increasingly reliant on delivery, making delivery workers the unsung heroes of the coronavirus epidemic in China.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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For many, they have become the sole gateway to the outside world, keeping daily necessities flowing in and out—and acting as a bridge between quarantined loved ones who can’t visit each other. Here are the stories of two delivery workers in China.

The van camper

As some of the only people still out on the streets, delivery workers are especially vulnerable. Cao Hua, who delivers groceries for supermarkets in the coastal city of Qingdao, slept in a van every day for a month to avoid the risk of infecting his family.

“A friend of mine lent me his van,” Cao says. “It’s just a place where I can lie down at night. I have a toothbrush and towels, just enough to get by for a while.”

But he admits it’s hard to get a good night’s rest, especially when it’s cold at night.

Cao Hua in his van.
Cao Hua in his van. / Photo: Ele.me

Cao works from 7 am to 8 pm and completes about 40 orders every day on his motorbike. Many of his customers are people who can’t get to the nearest supermarket. He makes about $1,200 per month with the job.

“We get a bonus for this period of time” because of the coronavirus, he says, “sometimes several hundred yuan [up to $150] every day.”

(Read more: One hectic day in the life of a deliveryman in China)

His family tried to talk him out of returning to work after the weeklong Chinese New Year break in February, but he couldn’t let go of the opportunity to make extra money.

“If we don’t go back to work now, who is going to deliver daily necessities?”

Cao Hua, delivery driver

“The demand is high because no one goes out for groceries now,” he says. “If we don’t go back to work now, who is going to deliver daily necessities?”

The increasing amount of orders has taken a toll on his body. Both of his hands have blisters from working in chilly conditions.

Cao Hua’s hands have developed blisters from the cold.
Cao Hua’s hands have developed blisters from the cold. / Photo: Ele.me

But Cao says he has nothing to complain about because he feels that his customers depend on him now more than ever.

He no longer sleeps in the van, but he recently moved into a friend’s store, where he’s allowed to stay the night to avoid possibly contaminating his family.

A sense of duty

In the capital of Beijing, Yao Penghui has been working nonstop since the outbreak began in late December.

He works for the online shopping site Tmall and is one of the company’s 12 delivery workers serving Laojuntang, one of Beijing’s last shantytowns. Most of the residents are migrant workers from other poorer provinces.

“There is no way for them to get rice or even water at this point, so they totally depend on delivery.”

Yao Penghui, delivery driver

“There is no way for them to get rice or even water at this point,” he says, “so they totally depend on delivery.”

Delivery drivers are some of the few people still working on the streets of China.
Delivery drivers are some of the few people still working on the streets of China. / Photo: Ele.me

Yao delivers hundreds of parcels, mostly food, every day from Tmall’s processing center in the center of Beijing to Laojuntang, about 4 miles away. (Tmall is a product of Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post, the parent company of Goldthread.)

The trip normally takes two to three hours by motorbike, but lately, it’s required more time because his body temperature is taken at roadside checkpoints.

(Read more: With no customers, restaurants hit by the coronavirus are finding new ways to make money)

In an effort to contain the spread of the virus, Beijing was one of the first cities to introduce “contactless delivery” to minimize interactions between workers and customers.

Delivery workers leave packages at a designated location, usually the main entrance of residential complexes, and residents can come pick up their orders.

Cao Hua picks up a parcel for delivery in Qingdao.
Cao Hua picks up a parcel for delivery in Qingdao. / Photo: Ele.me

Despite the new measure, Yao is still worried. He has to handle hundreds of boxes coming from different parts of the country every day and doesn’t know whether any of them might be contaminated. On his trips, he wears a mask and goggles provided by the company.

Like Cao, Yao feels a newfound sense of duty in his work. When a senior citizen ordered six water dispenser bottles, he offered to carry them up to his apartment even though the new regulations on contactless delivery barred him from doing so.

“He then gave me an apple and mask, and told me to take care of himself,” Yao says, his voice cracking. “I am not fearless, since running around definitely increases the risk and I have a 3-year-old kid at home.”

(Read more: Addicted to delivery in Beijing)

Yao says one of his colleagues quit last month out of fear of contracting the disease, and the strain is only causing more to leave.

“My parents are very worried about my situation here,” he says. “But they are supportive of my work. Because if our delivery service can help people stay indoors, away from crowded public spaces, then that is one contribution that I am proud of.”

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