The lifelines of food delivery endure a hectic existence

Zhou Anna
Shanghai has been trying to improve amenities for deliverymen, but they still work long hours and often forgo meals.
Zhou Anna

A video of Shanghai deliverymen spending the night under Wuning Road Bridge recently went viral, highlighting the difficulties of the city's food-distribution network during the coronavirus lockdown that began in late March.

Enforcing pandemic control and prevention measures while guaranteeing food supplies has proven a delicate balance for city authorities.

Under the lockdown, an estimated 90 percent of deliverymen are confined to their residential compounds, complicating the logistics of getting food to households in the same situation.

Among the mobile few in the city are nearly 20,000 food and parcel delivery personnel allowed out of lockdown, Shanghai authorities said on April 22. Most are housed in hotel rooms booked by their employers. Some sleep rough.

The lifelines of food delivery endure a hectic existence

JD Express deliveryman Luo Ming delivers goods in Hongkou District.

The video of deliverymen sleeping under the bridge struck a chord with the public. One enthusiastic resident in Changning District ordered 150 bento boxes from a nearby convenience store and delivered them to the bridge site, according to shnews990.

And a company in the district converted one of its meeting rooms into a temporary lounge. Deliverymen who stay there purchased an electric hot pot and can now do some modest cooking.

Shanghai Daily talked with two deliverymen to find out how they are coping.

The lifelines of food delivery endure a hectic existence

A resident in Changning District ordered 150 bento boxes from a convenience store and delivered them to the Wuning Road Bridge site.

Xu Dawei spent four nights under Wuning Road Bridge until his employer, food delivery giant Meituan, lodged him in a hotel room near Shanghai Railway Station.

The 22-year-old came to Shanghai last month from his hometown of Suqian in Jiangsu Province to work as a full-time deliveryman for Meituan. Before that, he had unsuccessfully tried to start a business.

"I chose to come to Shanghai as a deliveryman because it seemed like a job where the payoff was proportional to the reward, and there were more opportunities here," he explained. "But I didn't expect to be in this situation so soon after arriving."

Unfamiliar with Shanghai and unaware at first that Meituan was providing hotel accommodation, Xu began work with only his cellphone, charging equipment and pandemic prevention materials provided by the company.

"I didn't bring anything heavy," he explained. "When I noticed some neighborhoods had cardboard boxes leftover from unloaded supplies, I thought I could use them as a mattress at night."

When he got off work at midnight on his first day, he had to find a place to sleep. He remembered passing Wuning Road Bridge earlier and found a niche there to curl up in.

"There were more buildings around there," he said. "So I thought it might be warmer than other locations."

The lifelines of food delivery endure a hectic existence
Ti Gong

The hotel room where Xu Dawei is staying now.

Sleeping under the bridge on cardboard, with his arm a pillow, lasted for several days. On April 5, his manager phoned him to ask about his welfare. When she learned he was sleeping rough, she booked him into a hotel.

"Seeing a tidy room and recalling the cardboard box I had slept on for four days, I wanted to both laugh and cry," he said.

With so many deliverymen off the job, Xu has a heavy workload. He often delivers 150 takeout orders a day and frequently works until 1am.

"And contrary to rumors online," he said, "we don't make tens of thousands of yuan a day in income. I've been earning around 800 or 900 yuan (US$123-138) per day lately – the normal range for deliverymen."

According to Xu, most of the orders are for food, but medicine is also in high demand.

"It frequently takes half an hour to stand in line to pick up medicine at the pharmacy," he said.

Regardless of how late he arrives for a neighborhood delivery, local volunteers assisting in the lockdown are waiting at the compound entrance to receive the delivery and disinfect the parcel, he said.

The lifelines of food delivery endure a hectic existence
Ti Gong

A recent photo taken by Xu of an empty street in Shanghai at night.

Meituan said the company's platform has 500 hotels, dormitories and other venues to accommodate deliverymen. All are vetted by authorities. For those unable to stay in a hotel, Meituan provides sleeping bags and tents.

According to Xu, the hotel where he's staying has a designated disinfection area for deliverymen and undergoes daily sanitization.

"Every day, I get a nucleic acid test," Xu said.

Another deliveryman, Qu Rizhuo, who is in his 20s, hails from Shanxi Province and works for One of the first deliverymen to return to work after full lockdown, he has been staying in a Yangpu District hotel.

"Before we came to work, the manager had booked hotel rooms for us," Qu explained. "The accommodation is good, but we find it hard to eat properly."

Qu leaves the hotel at 7am and works until 11pm. He said it's a relief that the platform no longer is terribly strict about meeting delivery times due to current circumstances. Customers are also very understanding when deliveries are late.

Qu said he is exhausted by the end of each day and doesn't have enough food for himself. He's been surviving on instant noodles.

"I buy 12 boxes of instant noodles at the hotel for nearly 100 yuan (US$15.40)," he said. "There isn't anything else that I can get there."

Xu told Shanghai Daily that he has received meals from kind-hearted residents.

"A lady I used to deliver to has been buying me meals for days," he explained. "She places an order in advance and tells me to pick it up. And she doesn't ask anything in return. "

An spokesperson said the platform has arranged with dozens of hotels to accommodate deliverymen for free during the lockdown. A 24-hour service line is available for deliverymen to get information on accommodation, nucleic acid testing and any other issues pertaining to their work and the lockdown.

Another popular e-commerce platform, Freshippo, recently announced a partnership with China online travel agency Fliggy and third-party hotel platforms to provide hundreds of rooms for deliverymen.

The lifelines of food delivery endure a hectic existence

A temporary accommodation area for deliverymen in Xuhui District

The lifelines of food delivery endure a hectic existence

A deliveryman shows his health code to medical staff before entering the temporary rest area.

Meanwhile, Shanghai officials announced on April 22 that the city is promoting the construction of contemporary accommodation areas to improve deliverymen's access to meals, showers, rest and nucleic acid testing. The city currently has 143 such areas.

Ten of the areas are in the downtown district of Xuhui, housing more than 800 deliverymen. A poster at one area thanked deliverymen for "connecting the city."

The first group of 11 such areas in Huangpu District can accommodate more than 500 people.

In Minhang District, the government arranged for professional staff to train deliverymen on pandemic prevention, including disinfection measures and proper use of protective clothing.

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