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As most people stay inside, delivery drivers are on the front lines of the battle against coronavirus in Wuhan. This week, TechNode’s translation column brings you a gripping article profiling the volunteers, translated in full by courtesy of GQ Reports. This article was co-authored by Jordan Schneider.

The 2019 novel coronavirus exposed the fragility of various Chinese institutions. Local government and Wuhan hospitals have found themselves overwhelmed and unable to rise to the occasion.

Private logistics firms, on the other hand, have proven themselves essential. In a state of lockdown, the state has largely turned to the private sector to provide life’s necessities for those under order to stay inside. 

A team effort, this article published by GQ Reports profiles the experience and sacrifice of those individuals delivering food, opening their hotels to medical staff people. It describes at a human level the heroism and trauma of those caught in Wuhan. Given the strength and importance of this article, we’re running it at full length.  

On the ninth day of the city’s lockdown, food delivery workers, taxi drivers, express delivery workers, and volunteers maintain Wuhan’s lifeblood

Liu Chuchu, Ouyang Shilei, Zhang Jiajing, Luo Fangdan, Ge Shurun, Chen Rubing

GQ Reports, Feb. 3, 2020

At the request of interviewees, some of the names in this article are pseudonyms.

The people who move supplies

Since the city was sealed off, Wuhan has been like a movie playing on mute. Most delivery companies have stopped operation, and a large number of goods from other regions are languishing in warehouses. A small number of Tmall Express, emergency medical services, and Shun Feng delivery workers [Tmall is an ecommerce platform and Shun Feng is a delivery service] are still active. Sometimes one delivery worker has to deliver to two different districts, thus the mountains of accumulated goods are slow to be disseminated from the warehouses.

On Jan. 26, a volunteer named Zhang Che called Xiao Wang, a deliveryman, to help him find a box of surgical masks from Cangzhou, Hebei that had arrived four days prior. Zhang Che promised to give Xiao Wang a bag of face masks in exchange for helping him find the package.

(Image credit: GQ Reports)

Upon receiving the face masks, Zhang immediately rushed to the hospital. As an individual volunteer, the amount of supplies he is able to get his hands on is limited. From Jan. 25 to 26, he only found 200 sets of protective clothing, 100 masks, and 100 goggles. The limited supply must be divided for a hospital with more than five different departments. No matter how much they get, doctors and hospital staff are very grateful. Each additional item is a lifesaver.

Almost all of the shops in the formerly bustling streets have closed. In the supermarket, most vegetables are gone. Only one convenience store in Wuhan’s main shopping street is open. The doorframe is filled with instant hot pot kits, instant noodles, and other easy-to-cook foods. Many blue-helmeted delivery drivers were at the door, waiting to grab a meal [Trans: Blue helmets are the uniform of delivery service Eleme]. A number of people are not brave enough, or even able, to go out. They rely completely on the delivery workers shuttling throughout the city. 

Since becoming a delivery driver, this is the first time deliveryman Wu Bang has been asked by a customer to be added on WeChat. Every few days the customer sent Wu a list of dishes and daily necessities, paying him RMB 20 (about $2.87) for the errands. Wu walks slowly, with a crutch, because of a previous knee fracture. On Jan. 28, Wu Bang spends two hours in the Zhongbai supermarket to buy all the goods the customer needs. That night after returning home Wu Bang is so tired he “couldn’t even keep his eyes open”.  

While the city is sealed off, Wu’s errand-running fee does not change. The money he earns in a day is no more than normal. However, different platforms have different policies. According to a report by inSight, a young delivery rider said that delivery fees have risen by at least RMB 12 since Jan. 21. He calculated that he could earn RMB 3,000 to 5,000 in three days. However, many delivery drivers are still afraid to go out, and when the delivery workers who do continue working receive an order to a hospital, few are willing to accept it.

When delivery worker Liu Gang delivered abalone rice to Wuhan University’s Zhongnan hospital, he was surprised at how lonely the hospital was. Remembering a Weibo post stating that New Year’s dinner in the hospital was only instant noodles, Liu decided to make more deliveries to the hospital. Liu felt that to those still working during the lockdown, the motivation to help people others outweighs fear of infection. On Jan. 29, Liu photographed a sanitation worker in orange overalls he encounters on the road, a traffic policeman in a fluorescent green vest under an overpass, a rider eating a meal on the side of the road in a yellow hazmat suit, and a pharmacy still open. “They are superheroes,” he says. 

A hotel from the ‘Wuhan hotel support group’ (Image credit: Zhi Zhu Hou Mian Bao)

Express delivery within the city is still running. Li Zaigui, a delivery worker with Dada Zhongbao [a crowdsourcing-based delivery company] has been working around the clock for the last few days.  Of the original nine delivery workers at his site, three returned home for the New Year holiday, but none of the remaining workers left because of the outbreak. On the third or fourth day of the city being sealed, several unscheduled local colleagues felt bored staying at home and also came out to run deliveries.

Currently, Li delivers goods for Jingdong, daily necessities such as masks, rice, noodles, oil, instant noodles, and mineral water. The platform specifically asked the delivery workers to not come in contact with customers when delivering goods, but instead to let the customers come down and pick them up themselves or place the goods in delivery cabinets. 

Every day, Li receives a mask from Jingdong. Sometimes it is an N95 mask [Note: an N95 mask is one that blocks at least 95% of very small test particles], sometimes it is a surgical mask. This is considered very good in the industry. In fact, many of these service workers who are carrying people their life necessities and medical supplies have very little protection of their own. Lin Chen, a video blogger who has been shooting outside for several days, said that most delivery drivers on streets were not wearing masks. Wu Bang, mentioned above, wears a face mask and changes it daily, but doesn’t disinfect his clothes when he gets home even though he often delivers to the hospital.

Some lack access to and screening for the latest outbreak information. On the fourth day of Wuhan’s lockdown, volunteer Zhang Che added a RMB 10 tip to get a driver to accept his request for a rideshare. When he got in the taxi, he found that the driver was wearing no mask but a scarf looped twice around her face. He quickly gave her the mask in his bag. Seeing him so nervous, the driver asked, “Is the current situation dangerous? I heard two hundred people were infected?”

The dark cloud of inadequate supplies hangs over everyone in the city. Every time Zhang went to the hospital to give doctors and nurses supplies, he communicated with the doctors for a very short time, left physical space between them, and repeated one agreement over and over—an agreement he had made with more than 30 doctors: “We will come out to eat together after we are well!” No one dares to think about whether those agreements can be fulfilled. Among Zhang ‘s doctor friends, there have been a lot of people infected.

The people who help spontaneously

“The medical staff are fighting for their lives and I want to help them with logistics as much as possible,” said hotel volunteer Wang Hongyun.

When they began to seal off Wuhan’s, so did the battle of logistics to support frontline medical staff. On the second day of the new year, when the city was closed, the hotel industry in Wuhan organized the “Wuhan Medical Hotel Support Group” to provide free accommodation for medical staff.

Wang Huan is one of the leaders in the group, working as the hotel’s “clinical inspector.” In recent days, she felt more and more frustrated. At the same time, bills are piling up, disinfection and protection materials are increasingly scarce, and there is a service personnel shortage. Businesses wanted to help medical workers struggling to get home in the event of a traffic shutdown, but only for a few days. They hoped that a government or charity would take over after that.

Early in the morning, blogger Zhi Zhu Hou Mian Bao drives a doctor to work. (Image credit: GQ Reports)

It turns out that civilian-originated support will last longer than anticipated. More and more medical staff are checking into these hotels.

Wang Hongyun is the only hotel staff staying at the Aisikai Fine Hotel in Wuchang district. Now employees can’t be found even for three times the pay. He simultaneously serves as receptionist, cleaner, store manager, and manager. Every day, he disinfects public areas every three hours. The rooms are furnished and the sheets are changed by the medical staff themselves—as is the case at most of the hotels in the cluster.

This raises the question: How to disinfect? Lack of sufficient protective equipment for cleaning has become the most serious problem that these hotels face. Wang only wears a mask. He doesn’t have professional disinfection required isolation clothing, isolation shoes, or spray instrument, not to mention an ultraviolet lamp, or an air sterilizer. The medical staff sent him two pairs of disposable gloves, which he still refuses to use.

How the frontline medical staff travel has also become one of the most concerned issues. Zhou Xianwang, the mayor of Wuhan, said the government initially tried to provide three to five taxis for each community to pick up medical workers, but this effort failed.

Currently, some medical workers have solved the commuting problem by staying in hotels near the hospital, while others drive themselves to work. The rest of the medical workers mainly solve the commuting problem through a volunteer team organized by Didi Express and a private volunteer fleet.

After the city sealed-off, Wuhan-based vlog blogger Zhi Zhu Hou Mian Bao joined the volunteer group. He also recorded an instructional video about getting out of a car which describes disinfection processes.

The people who protect their jobs

After the lockdown, the number of people going out dropped. For the Wuhan police, the people calling 110 [Note: This is the police emergency number] also dropped. On Jan. 27, the Wuhan public security bureau received 165 calls to the 110 number, down 67.8% from normal. 

“There’s no one who wants to start with those trivial issues.” Wang Xing, a Hankou police officer said that in the past the police often had to solve fights that broke out due to trifles. But under the epidemic, there are fewer thieves. On the second day of sealing off, Hankou had zero police alerts. Even accidental deaths are declining, as there are no traffic accidents that used to happen daily.

(Image credit: GQ Reports)

The police are still on duty. As the epidemic situation took a downward turn, the police took on the responsibility of picking up and dropping off patients. 

There are still many problems to be solved in the community. Chronically ill and the elderly are worried about how to go to the doctor on time and how to buy food and supplies. At present, the voluntary fleet of municipal taxis does some of the supporting work for such situations. Yu Huahui, a taxi driver, is one of those who has volunteered to join the 6,000 taxis in the community scheme. 

The night before, Yu told his family “If I don’t do this, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.” His wife and daughter finally showed their support and told him to take precautions.

Every day, the community committee investigates the purpose of travel, location and test results of its residents and informs the drivers. Before getting on the cars, temperatures are checked. Passengers with fevers cannot get on.

A portion of the vehicles go to the hospital, taking pregnant women for physical examinations, dialysis patients to get dialysis, and the elderly for physical examinations. The other portion goes to help old people who have no children to buy things for them. On a regular basis, community workers keep a list of the food and supplies they need and go out with drivers to do their shopping. Sometimes Yu Huahui and his colleagues have to run a few supermarkets and pharmacies to buy what residents need.

The taxi company provided only surgical masks and 84-brand disinfectant for the drivers, while Yu added gloves, disposable raincoats and plenty of Chinese medicine. Mr. Yu felt that the company should do more to keep drivers safe. He suggested to the company that he “can provide as many N95 professional masks as the company needs,” and tried to convince the leader that he “has at least a few hundred in stock that can be used by everyone for the time being.” But the leader ignored him.

The volunteer fleet organized by ride-hailing company Didi is fully equipped, and the yellow protective suits are dazzling. This makes Mr. Hu bitter. (Image credit: IPTV) 

The people who defend the city

Zhang Che decided to have a rest. While volunteering at hospitals to deliver supplies, he thought he had developed symptoms of PTSD. Sometimes when he closed his eyes, he saw thousands of hands looking for a mask, and he had only one bag.

The road used to transport supplies is blocked. Zhang ’s friends from Fuyang, Anhui Province sent more than 1,000 sets of protective clothing and some face masks over. In the middle of the night the car drove to Wuhan entrance gate, but wasn’t allowed to enter as the road was broken with a several meters wide deep hole, the goods could only be sent back to the factory. Zhang didn’t tell anyone close to him he was a volunteer and had to deal with his personal anxieties himself. 

This only made Zhang more anxious. A doctor friend at People’s Hospital has been diagnosed with a strong positive infection and is being quarantined. Another doctor friend decided to go back to work when he should have been quarantined because of a shortage of staff.

(Image credit: GQ Reports)

Zhang never expected to become a volunteer. On New Year’s Eve, he was chatting with a doctor friend who casually said the hospital did not have food for New Year’s Eve. Zhang went to send them food. On Jan. 24, at the height of the panic, huge crowds rushed to hospitals to be tested for infection. Zhang was in the hospital hall and saw all the elderly, some people close to the body, some people not wearing masks, some people wearing cloth masks. Zhang was about to make a detour to leave when a pair of hands seized him, a scarf wrapped around the mouth and nose of a middle-aged woman almost kneeling: “Please sell me the mask.” Then another pair of hands caught him. Soon, Zhang ’s bag of masks was finished.

People getting the masks were ecstatic, and Zhang’s heart clenched as he saw red-faced patients interspersed throughout the hospital. Before leaving, the doctor advised him not to deliver things. He nodded, turned, and drove back up the road, calling contacts to let them know he’d deliver things. 

“We want to live, too.” Said Zhou Qinghui, owner of the Yishang Garden Hotel. The cost of rent, water and electricity is about RMB 6,500 a day. “Our current situation cannot maintain long-term free service. It’s not clear how long we can last.” Zhou said. All the hotel staff in Wuhan that Wang Hongyun knew were not comfortable. “Most of the owners are not fully invested, and many of them are simultaneously paying off their loans while operating their stores. They are paying off that money each month.”

In the early morning of Jan. 29, the fifth day after its establishment, the “Wuhan 123 Rescue Convoy” published a “Letter to Drivers,” announcing that due to a shortage of protective resources such as protective clothing and masks, it would suspend order collection. In the past five days, the 123 aid convoy faced the risk of infection to pick up nearly 1,000 medical staff and deliver more than 100 supplies. 

On Jan. 30, Wuhan Union Hospital made a post on Weibo asking for help. “We defend Wuhan, we ask you to support us! We just got the news that we’re running out of supplies!” Seeing this message, Zhang decided not to rest and soon set out to find supplies.

(Image credit: GQ Reports)

They keep rushing around, they keep waiting, waiting for the Huoshen Shan and Leishen Shan hospitals to be built, waiting for the turning point in the epidemic, waiting for the lockdown of the city to end, waiting for the moment this city grows brightly and comes back to life. 

[Translator: As of Feb. 8, both of the hospitals mentioned above have been completed. Wuhan is still battling the epidemic.]

Lakshmi Iyengar is a Yenching Scholar studying Economics and Management at Peking University.

Jordan Schneider is a freelancer based in Beijing and the host of the ChinaEconTalk podcast.

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