Shippers weather a storm of pandemic challenges

By Pham Nga   September 13, 2021 | 03:45 am PT
Shippers weather a storm of pandemic challenges
Shippers wait at a checkpoint in Go Vap District, June 3, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.
Even as they provide the most crucial service of keeping residents supplied with daily essentials, shippers struggle with stress, insecurity and the harassment of frequently changing rules.

At 5 a.m., after learning that shippers were being allowed to resume service, Vu Khac Tiep headed to the local ward medical station to test himself for Covid-19.

Tiep, who has a bachelor’s degree in business administration, took up this job more than a year ago after his coffee shop had to close down because of the outbreak. He ended up owing the bank nearly VND100 million (around $4,400).

The 27-year-old native of Dak Lak Province in the Central Highlands said he would only drive for a day or two then stop, since he doesn't like the uncomfortable feeling of having to do nasal swab tests every day.

Besides a negative rapid test result, shippers must have had at least one dose of Covid-19 vaccine and be on the approved list of the city's Department of Industry and Trade.

After meeting all these conditions come the biggest challenge for shippers: each Covid checkpoint has a different way of checking travel permits.

As a shipper in the high risk area of HCMC's Binh Tan District, Tiep has found it hard to keep up with the city's frequent changes in travel permit rules over the past two months.

A shipper waits to get vaccinated against Covid-19 in District 11, HCMC on August 2, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

A shipper waits to get vaccinated against Covid-19 in District 11, HCMC on August 2, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

After the city banned motorbike taxi drivers from picking up and dropping off passengers and delivering takeaways in early July, Tiep had switched to shipping goods instead.

At the end of that month, new guidelines only let shippersoperate in one district from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Two days later, they were allowed to make inter-district deliveries again. Then, on August 23, the city ordered shippers in high-risk areas to halt their service.

Five days after the city tasked district administrations with buying food for HCMC residents, the proxy shopping model was overloaded with orders and needed support from shippers.

HCMC has undergone a series of social distancing orders, and an ongoing lockdown has banned people from going out since August 23. Food, medications and other necessities were to be delivered to houses by local authorities instead.

However, the high demand became a burden on local authorities, so the municipal trade department proposed that the People's Committee allows 25,000 shippers to deliver goods.

On August 30, shippers were allowed to return to work on the condition that they test for Covid once a day. Eight days later, shippers were permitted to operate within the district between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m.

Last Friday, HCMC allowed shippers to work from 5 a.m to 9:30 p.m. every day from September 11.

On his first day back on the road, Tiep skipped lunch to take advantage of delivering to more customers. Even though he was already equipped with the new travel permit embedded with QR code, the company's QR travel pass code, the negative test result and the certificate of Covid vaccination, some checkpoints still didn't allow him to pass and asked him to turn around.

"Some checkpoints needed me to show just three documents, some asked for four certificates, while some just required me to fill out a medical declaration. When any post did not allow me to pass, I just complied since I was afraid of being fined," Tiep said.

The very next afternoon, Tiep’s fears came to pass and he was slapped with the fine of VND1 million because he was missing a new travel pass issued by the city's Traffic Police Department. Just earlier that day, he had been able to plass through checkpoints and had delivered more than a dozen orders.

In a Saigon shippers’ online group with about 130,000 members, many have shared similar personal experiences when making deliveries.

Better hungry than fined

Nguyen Dat, the group's administrator, said that the reason why many shippers were fined the most was the lack of road permits issued by the city's traffic police department.

"The bad thing is that you don't know the procedure for applying for that document. Many have said it is better to stay at home and suffer from hunger than to go out and be fined," Dat said.

Before being allowed to operate until 9 p.m., many drivers were fined for being on the streets after 6 p.m.

Since some orders were just a few kilometers away, many shippers thought they could make the delivery and return before the night-time restrictions took effect. But since there were many quarantine checkpoints they had to pass through, many ended up not making it back in time and were fined.

Tiep always turned the app off at around 4 p.m. But one day, on his way home, he got a flat tire and had to walk three km to find a repair shop. He yearned for a colleague to pass by so he could seek help. But that day, he did not meet any fellow shipper on that route.

He knew he couldn't get back before 6 p.m., so he took a picture of himself fixing the vehicle so checkpoint guards would let him pass after seeing his picture. Luckily, they did, that day.

Besides having to deal with problems on the streets, many shippers face rejections when they deliver ordered goods.

Kieu Van Thanh, 32, from Go Vap, said that he sometimes had to travel more than 10 km to reach a customer after finding many ways fenced or blocked.

In one instance, after multiple searches, he managed to reach the nearest blocked road that was closest to the customer's house. The house was just over 100 meters from the gate, so he called the customer to pick it up, but the customer was adamant that it was delivered right in front of the house.

"If you can't do as I ask, I will cancel," the customer said and canceled the order.

So Thanh had to return the goods back to the supermarket about 20 km away from his destination without earning a dime. Thanh said it was very upsetting when customers didn't sympathize with the work shippers were doing.

Dat said many freelance shippers and ride-hailing shippers who were Covid patients now want to work to earn a living.

Nguyen Hoai Nam, deputy director of municipal health department, said Covid recovered patients were considered a very valuable source of labor because they have antibodies, offering temporary immunity against the virus.

Tiep said that after two days of being fined at the checkpoint, he decided to resume working.

But at the checkpoint, an officer asked to turn back even though he clearly stated the reason.

Back home, Tiep submitted an application to the bank, requesting that the interest rate on his loan be reduced. But, because of late payment a few months ago, his request was denied.

He did not have any money to send back to his parents the last Tet (Lunar New Year festival) and he didn’t dare to return to his hometown.

The next Tet, Tiep said, he plans to celebrate alone, again.

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