February 7, 2023

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China Covid lockdowns bar delivery workers from their homes

(FILES) The Chinese flag flies near China World Trade Center Tower 3 in Beijing on November 29, 2021. (Photo by GREG BAKER / AFP)

Officials in the Chinese capital have doubled down on the country’s signature zero-Covid policy in recent weeks, one of a series of cities imposing sweeping shutdowns, mass testing and telecommuting mandates as the number of cases hit an all-time high.

Wang isn’t the only one who’s frustrated.

The ruling Communist Party’s no-compromise zero-Covid strategy – now in force for about three years – has fueled anger and resentment, with widespread and sometimes violent protests erupting in China’s major cities.

Pandemic fatigue has been on the rise for some time as a recent improvement in virus restrictions coincided with record infection numbers, resulting in a patchwork of onerous restrictions in several major cities.

China is the latest major economy to commit to a zero-Covid strategy, but maintaining a relatively low number of cases and deaths has hampered its economic recovery, disrupted supply chains and sluggish employment.

– ‘I have no choice’ –

Demand for deliveries has skyrocketed beneath the tightening curbs as millions of homebound city dwellers have turned to an army of low-paid couriers – mostly migrants from other provinces – to deliver takeaway lunches and grocery orders.

But this time, restrictions have crept deep into places where drivers live, locking many without pay and forcing others to choose between a place to sleep and enough money to survive.

Wang, who hustles through a prosperous financial district and delivers grocery orders for internet giant Meituan, said his condominium was locked down on Nov. 7 after two Covid cases were discovered.

Desperate to keep his income – about 250 yuan ($34) a day – the 20-year-old broke lockdown rules by jumping a fence to do his shifts and sneaking back under cover of darkness.

“I have no choice. If I don’t earn any money, I can’t pay rent either,” says the native of the industrial province of Shanxi in the north.

“Many delivery people have no place to stay at the moment,” he told AFP on a cold winter afternoon last week in front of an abandoned office building.

“I’m really unhappy with the Chinese government because other countries aren’t being strict about Covid anymore,” he said.

“We’re going to make such a big effort … and I don’t think it’s necessary because nobody dies from it.”

AFP withheld Wang’s full name to protect him from possible repercussions for lifting the lockdown and criticizing the state.

– Sleep badly –

When a shutdown threatened over Gu Qiang’s residential area last week, the Meituan driver chose to sleep in his car.

“Spending 30 yuan to leave the engine running all night is still cheaper than buying a hotel,” said the rugged Northeast Chinese.

“Some of my friends live outside – they don’t dare to go home.”

Several couriers interviewed by AFP described heavier workloads in recent weeks as their companies have faced labor shortages due to lockdowns.

While some said they were happy to take on extra money-making jobs, most said they had endured longer hours, added stress, and more negative interactions with customers.

They also said they had received no additional support from Meituan or the companies to which delivery services were outsourced.

Authorities last year launched an investigation into food delivery platforms after claims of exploitative labor practices, including algorithms, that effectively forced couriers to drive dangerously to meet tight delivery times.

Meituan did not respond to an AFP request for comment before publication.

But the company told state-run newspaper China Daily last week it had paid for hotel rooms for some stranded workers and welcomed calls for help from couriers in similar situations.