In Bangkok, shops are mostly closed and have been for weeks. Tourist areas are quiet. It is easy to find empty bars and cafes as people are advised to stay home. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, employees are working from home and people are being advised (or even ordered) to practice social distancing.
Yet drivers from online delivery giants, including GrabFood, GoJek and FoodPanda, are forced to continue their work due to financial constraints. And they are doing so with minimal safeguards. Often when I order food or beverages, the delivery drivers either wear non-medical, fabric masks or no masks at all.
The “same happened here [in Indonesia],” said Fitria Wulandari, a 29-year-old Indonesian. “Masks are now scarce and poor people cannot afford to buy masks. Therefore, they have to make Do-It-Yourself (DIY) masks or use fabric masks.”
COVID-19 confirmed cases in Southeast Asia have been soaring since mid-March. In Indonesia, over 1,600 positive cases have been recorded as of this writing, along with 157 deaths. In the Philippines, there are a total of 2,300 confirmed cases and 96 dead. Thailand also identified 1,700 COVID-19 positive cases and 12 deaths.
All the while, delivery drivers, without sufficient medical support and protective measures, have constantly been in touch with customers, restaurant owners, and others. They have also been handling cash without the ability to apply hand sanitizer after each transaction. These delivery people, sad to say, are risking their lives to make a living.
In many cases, delivery people have been left to fend for themselves. As one 23-year-old Bangladeshi, who did not want to disclose his name, said, “As far as I know, delivery companies do not require their drivers to take protective measures at work… And many customers do not take any initiative to help those drivers.”
“I have not noticed anyone helping the delivery drivers under the health crisis,” Le Peng Tee, 25, Malaysian, echoes.
Yet there have been some small-scale efforts, often by individuals sympathizing with the hardships faced by delivery drivers.
Roseball Toledo, a Filipino in her 20s, has been offering more money to delivery people. “Since the pandemic began, I have always asked the drivers to keep the change. Unfortunately, I do not have extra medical supplies at home, so I cannot deliver protective tools such as medical masks to the drivers. Anyway, at least I am happy to give them some financial support.”
Many Indonesians have also been doing good deeds for the drivers. Wulandari, notes, “I used to give IDR 5,000 tips for drivers, but now I give at least IDR 50,000 ($3) each… I (also) ordered food for the drivers and gave them masks and hand sanitizers to protect them from coronavirus.”
“As far as I know, many of my friends have been supporting these delivery drivers through voluntarily donating financial and medical resources too,” she adds.
Earnings are very meager for delivery drivers. Yet many of them rely heavily on these limited financial resources to feed their families or make ends meet. Despite the soaring number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, they don’t have the privilege of staying home. For many customers, giving extra tips or medical tools to drivers does not affect their lives much but helps keep the more vulnerable safe.
Jason Hung is a visiting researcher at Stanford University and a freelance columnist at South China Morning Post.