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Delivery bikers can't cope with COVID-19

Amien Essif
March 23, 2020

With cities around the world on partial or total coronavirus lockdown, delivery services have become a lifeline for customers. But delivery workers are raising alarms, as Amien Essif reports.

Lieferando biker in Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Zinken

While thousands of Berliners practice self-isolation to protect themselves from the COVID-19 outbreak, Martin goes from restaurant to restaurant, door to door. He's working for the tech company Lieferando, delivering food from restaurants to customers' homes.

Is he worried he will be exposed to the virus? "Not so much," he says. "I'm young." But he wears his scarf around his face as a precaution. He doesn't know how much worse things will get.

New hygiene standards

Delivery companies have responded to the evolving situation with new hygiene regulations as well as incentives for customers, delivery workers, and restaurants to promote the continued use of their platforms.

Takeaway.com — the parent company of Lieferando, which dominates the web-based food delivery market in Germany — responded to the outbreak by issuing a statement to its customers and workers in Europe. The company is encouraging "contactless delivery," meaning the customer should prepay and delivery workers will leave the delivery in front of the customer's door and step a safe distance away. The precaution is not a requirement, however, and cash delivery was still available on Lieferando's website at the time of publication.

Other international delivery companies such as Grubhub and UberEats, which together account for over 50% of the US market, have suspended delivery fees for independent businesses. The two delivery companies do not have a contactless option integrated into their app, but they are encouraging customers to enter a delivery note for the worker if they want their food dropped off at the door.

Italian delivery workers at the end of their rope

Whether or not this supply chain is sustainable, however, is anyone's guess. And in Italy, it shows signs of breaking.

Italy currently has more active cases of the COVID-19 infection than any other country in the world and while the government has ordered nonessential businesses to close, restaurants are allowed to remain open for food delivery. This has made delivery workers the key link between restaurants and consumers. But the bikers and drivers who handle the food say that this policy is not healthy for them nor for the consumer.

"Delivery companies have no way to guarantee that the system is safe," says Angelo Avelli, spokesperson for Deliverance Milan, a delivery worker collective. He points out that top online delivery companies in Italy — Deliveroo, UberEats, Just Eat, and Glovo - operate as third-party platforms that have no personal contact with their workers and little, if any, oversight of their hygiene.

For example, UberEats provides a small sum of money to their workers to buy protective gear such as hand sanitizer and face masks. "Where are we supposed to get those things?" asks Avelli. "At the moment it is impossible to buy these things."

Many delivery companies have also provided exceptional funding for sick workers. UberEats, an offshoot of Uber, is offering 14 days paid leave for "drivers and delivery people who are diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed in quarantine by a public health authority."

Ermano Steri, Restaurant Bottega Nr. 6
Ermano Steri, co-owner of Bottega Nr. 6 in Berlin, prepares food for dinnerImage: DW/A. Essif

'Sushi is not a right!'

For the delivery unions of Italy, these measures are not enough. Deliverance Milan, along with similar collectives from Rome and Bologna, are organizing a campaign under the motto "Sushi is not a right!" They are demanding the government put a stop to nonessential food delivery and allow bikers and drivers the option to collect a basic income for the month on par with other laid off or furloughed service workers — about €600 ($644).

The collectives have been talking about striking, but Avelli admits that a strike would be difficult to organize under these conditions. "We are all under quarantine unless we are working or shopping," he said, remarking that staging a protest would be illegal. For now they intend to put pressure on the government through an online information campaign.

"The companies want to tell another story," says Avelli. "They're treating the riders as heroes that carry happiness and joy to the people in quarantine, but it's crazy. Because it's very dangerous for the people."

Is it safe to dine on delivery?

It's a familiar story in cities across the world: Brittany Smith has been working from home in self-isolation for a week, and has ordered food to her Chicago apartment two or three times. "We were good about cooking in the beginning," Smith laughs, "but then we got kind of lazy."

She received offers on her phone for free delivery from UberEats and DoorDash along with reassurances that the companies were "taking precautions" in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. Smith opted for contactless delivery, but because of a miscommunication with the delivery person, she still ended up talking to them at the door. The worker wasn't wearing any protective gear that she could see.

"I was concerned," says Smith. But she didn't see it as any reason to panic.

An expert weighs in

When asked whether it's safe to order food for delivery during a pandemic, virologist Karin Mölling of the Max Planck Institute gives a clear answer: "It's better than starving." Mölling explains that "there is always the possibility of a virus attaching to any surface, but I don't believe this is a reason to panic." She points out that even if those in self-isolation cook food for themselves, they still need to go to the grocery store to buy supplies, which also possibly exposes them to the virus.

No other choice for some restaurants

For small restaurants across Europe and the US, offering delivery could be their only chance to stay in business. Ermano Steri, co-owner of Bottega Nr. 6 in Berlin, Germany, says they had never thought of delivering food until the coronavirus crisis hit Germany. The hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant is behind the curve, but they've started the process of registering with the delivery platform Lieferando. In the meantime, they plan to deliver food themselves in a Smart car.

"We'll do whatever it takes to survive these next few weeks or months," says Steri. "We can't just wait until things go back to normal."

The foot soldiers in the food delivery wars