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Delivery workers risk life daily in HCMC, Covid epicenter

By Dang Khoa, Long Nguyen   July 15, 2021 | 04:06 pm PT
Delivery workers are playing a key role in keeping Saigonese fed amid the social distancing, but they are wary of infection in what is now the country’s Covid-19 hub.

Doan Van Hung wears two masks and puts a small hand sanitizer bottle in his jacket and a bottle of alcohol in his motorbike trunk before leaving home in District 11.

As he is about to leave, his wife tells him to stop making deliveries because she fears the 52-year-old might contract Covid without him knowing and bring it home.

"I am worried too, but income goes first," he says, adding he will consider stopping temporarily if "the number of new cases is too high."

While many Saigonese barricade themselves at home amid the city’s 15-day social distancing mandate, Hung is among thousands of food and grocery delivery workers who are on the frontlines, putting their life at risk to feed people in the southern metro.

As of Friday morning, the city has recorded nearly 22,600 Covid-19 cases.

A shipper receives goods from his cusomer at a Co.op Mart supermarket branch on Truong Sa Street, July 11, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

A shipper receives goods from his cusomer at a Co.op Mart supermarket branch on HCMC's Truong Sa Street, July 11, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

HCMC is in its second social distancing campaign, this time under the more stringent Directive 16, which requires people to stay at home and only go out for basic necessities such as buying food or medicines or to work at factories or businesses that are allowed to open.

The demand for delivery of various items has surged since last Friday.

The city leads the country in the number of infections, and delivery workers, carrying food from supermarkets and other packages to places including locked-down areas, face a growing risk of contracting the disease from shops, colleagues and customers.

In the last few days supermarkets and grocery stores have been packed as people sought to hoard goods before shelves possibly ran out.

"It is impossible to stay two meters apart from others," Hung lamented.

He usually has to wait to collect customers’ orders at a counter along with dozens of other delivery people and shoppers wheeling out shopping baskets.

Many supermarkets and e-commerce platforms admit to being overwhelmed with online orders.

G Kitchen, an app that sells fresh meat and fish, announced it has run out of stock. Orders on GrabMart have increased in the last few days, a Grab spokesperson told VnExpress last Thursday.

"Though everyone wears face masks, I am still terrified of the risk of exposure." He is particularly afraid of elevators because "the small spaces can be full of viruses."

Besides, as of last July 12, more than 1,500 areas in the city were under lockdown, with 51.611 quarantined residents, according to the HCMC Center for Disease Control.

Nam Tien, a deliveryman for ride-hailing company Grab, said, "This delta variant is contagious, and so meeting customers and delivering their orders is like walking on eggshells."

Like many other shippers who have to choose between losing their livelihood and risking their health, he said he often wonders if the hand that reaches out for the bag of groceries or gives him a parcel for delivery belongs to an infected person.

"Some two out of every 10 deliveries I do contains clothing and necessities that people send to relatives living in locked-down areas."

He said he always puts the package on the ground for people to pick up instead of handing it to them.

The delivery workers know they cannot afford to get infected since they have no health insurance or other labor protections.

The more they drive around the city to serve their customers, the more risks they face.

"It can be emotionally exhausting to always worry about the exposure," Tien, who used to be a personal trainer at a local gym before the pandemic began, said.

Nguyen Thanh Huy, who lives in District 8, said his income has increased now to around VND500,000 ($21.83) for 10 hours of work.

"But who knows if they will put me in quarantine tomorrow because one of my customers was a Covid patient."

He recalled that he and many other drivers were rattled when a Grab driver with no symptoms tested positive for Covid last month.

"I was thinking about stopping, but I need the money."

He is grateful for still having a job to support his family despite the lockdown.

Nam Tien, a delivery driver, picks up a parcel for delivery in HCMCs District 3, July 13, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Dang Khoa.

Nam Tien, a delivery driver, picks up a parcel for delivery in HCMC's District 3, July 13, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Dang Khoa.

On their own

Aware of the threat and the fact they are mostly on their own without support from their employers or local authorities, they cannot be found without masks, face shields, and hand sanitizers.

Many buy bottles of alcohol and spray it all over their delivery packages.

"I even use alcohol pads to clean my motorbike after parking it in crowded supermarkets," Hung, who wears two masks and a face shield, said.

Some of his colleagues are even more cautious, refusing to serve people living in locked-down areas.

Tien last month refused to go to Binh Tan District, the city’s biggest hotspot, but in the last few days he has had no choice but to take a risk since canceling orders could negatively affect his rewards on the app.

"I spray alcohol on every single banknote they give me."

Some delivery services instruct drivers to follow safety and hygiene standards and provide financial assistance if anyone is infected or quarantined for coming into contact with Covid patients.

But not many can afford not working.

"The rent, utilities, food ... I cannot afford to get sick or be quarantined," Huy said with a sigh.

Realizing the key role delivery workers play amid the lockdown, the city Department of Transport has called for prioritizing them in the vaccination campaign.

"They help prevent people from venturing out," Tran Quang Lam, director of the department, said earlier this week.

Hung, Tien and Huy were all happy to know they might get vaccinated soon.

Hung said: "If I get the shot, I can stop thinking about quitting this job. And my wife can be at ease when I venture out."

He takes off his gloves and dumps them in a plastic bag outside his house.

"I throw away the gloves but will wash these medical masks and reuse them tomorrow until I feel they cannot protect me any more."

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