I come from a small city in China’s central Hubei province. Last July, after some failed investments left me in a load of debt, I moved to the provincial capital of Wuhan to work as a deliveryman.
Early last month, I decided to stay in the city for Lunar New Year. During the holiday, delivery companies offer drivers a higher unit price and more orders, as well as cash bonuses worth 6,000 to 7,000 yuan (roughly $850 to $1,000) as long as they keep delivering. It was too tempting for me to pass up: My average monthly take-home pay is just 5,000 to 6,000 yuan.
Like everyone else in Wuhan, I didn’t think much of the COVID-19 epidemic until Zhong Nanshan revealed the virus could be transmitted between humans on Jan. 20. Things were different the next day. Early that morning, convenience stores suddenly had a deluge of pickup orders. When I read through them, each one included masks.
At 5 or 6 that evening, I received an errand order asking me to buy and deliver N95 respirator masks. At the time, I didn’t know what N95s were. I went from pharmacy to pharmacy, but none had any in stock. Thinking that a convenience store I had been to that morning might still have some disposable medical masks, I asked the customer if he wanted those instead, and he said yes. Seeing that everyone had started to take preventative measures, I also bought three boxes for myself.
Less than two days later, at about 2 a.m., Jan. 23, I saw news of Wuhan’s impending lockdown while swiping through my Weibo (social media) feed. My first reaction was that it couldn’t be true. How can you just lock down a big city with more than 10 million residents? Even the city’s public transit was being shut down. But my family and I weren’t too worried. We’d taken care of a family member who had an infectious disease before, so we knew how to protect ourselves.
I don’t know how many couriers have left Wuhan. Some might have returned home for the Lunar New Year, others may have left because of the epidemic, and some might have just been staying indoors and not working. Certainly in the three days following Lunar New Year’s Eve, there were very few couriers out and about. I’m part time, however, so I don’t get holiday pay: I have to work to get paid.
I change my mask at least twice a day. I also disinfect my scooter with rubbing alcohol and swab my riding gloves with alcohol wipes. The delivery platform has told us how to reduce our risk of infection and requires us to wear masks, disinfect our scooters, and report our physical conditions, including whether we have a fever, every day.
In my opinion, the most important thing is keeping a safe distance from others. For example, when delivering meals, I try not to talk to or touch the customer. I carefully arrange the handle of the takeout bag in advance, and when I hand it off I hold it from the bottom. That way customers can easily take it and go, and we don’t need to make physical contact. The platform I work for has also launched a “touch-free delivery” service, through which drivers can leave takeout at the entrance of a compound or apartment building for customers to pick up.
After the lockdown, many people on the streets were surprised to see me. “Is anywhere still doing takeout?” they would ask, and I would tell them yes; we can always deliver, and they can always order. To be honest, I’ve been on a sort of high since the outbreak began. Being a courier is usually considered a very low-level job, one which doesn’t require much knowledge or know-how. But now it’s different. It feels like we’re contributing to the city, even if only in a very small way. As long as you see couriers on the street, it’s proof that society is still functioning.
A day and night view of Wuhan after the lockdown, Hubei province, February 2020. From the author’s Weibo account @计六一六
On the morning of the first day of Lunar New Year, I saw an order placed by someone at Zhongnan Hospital. No one had taken it by the time I was up and dressed, so I did. Zhongnan Hospital has a big campus with 11 buildings. My destination was on the 16th floor of building four. When I arrived, I looked up at the sign: respiratory medicine.
Unexpectedly, the hospital was very quiet; it wasn’t crowded like I had imagined it would be. I guess some patients had been transferred to a centralized location somewhere else. Occasionally I passed by a few people wearing masks, but no one looked distressed. The order was placed by an elderly man. He was in an ordinary ward and looked OK to me. I put his package on the chair beside the bed, said “Hello, here’s your takeout,” and left.
In the afternoon I received an order for the outpatient department of Wuchang Hospital. It was a large one: There were more than a dozen portions of rice alone, and it filled four big bags. They couldn’t all fit into my scooter’s insulated pack, so I had to tuck some between my legs. I called the number on the ticket when I arrived, but the person who answered said he hadn’t ordered any food and wasn’t at work that day. I contacted the person who placed the order and was sent a new phone number and address — this time for a community health center.
Usually, this kind of thing is extremely irritating, troublesome, and time-consuming. When I arrived at the new address, a young medical worker wearing a mask came out to meet me. I passed him the two bags from between my legs first. Seeming shocked, he thanked me profusely and turned to leave. I stopped him and gave him the other two bags from my pack. “There’s more?” he asked. Judging by his tone, he was pleasantly surprised. I don’t know who placed the order, but I’d guess it was a netizen who wanted to support the city’s doctors and nurses.
There’s a popular saying among couriers: “Goddamn it, you’re already a driver: What do you care about some goddamn infectious disease?” The swearing makes it feel real to us, though I don’t know if nondrivers will get the self-mockery in the sentiment: the underlying “How much worse can life get?”
But while we may sound tough, most of us are still reluctant to deliver orders to hospitals. A few days ago, I was passing by the gate of Wuchang Hospital when a woman suddenly collapsed. Medical staff rushed to help her and then carried her into the hospital. Everyone I saw seemed calm, from the medics and passersby, to the security guard and the boss of a nearby shop. But I felt like a mountain was pressing down on me.
Even away from the hospitals, you can still feel subtle changes in city life. Once, I delivered takeout to a residential area. The woman who picked it up was wearing a mask and coughing. After taking the delivery, she swiped her card and went back into her building. A couple was just behind her, and the man tried to slip in without swiping his own card. The women with him saw this and shouted, “Hey!” Seeing the look in her eyes, the man immediately stopped, and they waited together for some time before going upstairs. Watching them, I wasn’t sure what to think.
Lao Ji riding his scooter, Wuhan, Hubei province, February 2020. From @计六一六 on Weibo
After the lockdown, people’s needs changed, and so did their delivery orders. There were fewer takeout deliveries and more people buying rice, noodles, eggs, snacks, and other daily necessities.
Near midnight, takeout orders pick up again. I guess with everyone isolated at home, people are going to sleep late, getting up late, and eating more late-night snacks. There are also a lot of orders for medicine. Tamiflu and TCM flu remedies are the most popular. It’s basically impossible to buy masks or disinfectant. Whenever I pass a pharmacy that has some in stock, I buy a bunch to resell in case anyone wants them later on.
Overall, there are still enough daily necessities to go around, and there haven’t been any instances of looting or panic-buying. But vegetables are scarce. Once, a customer asked me to pick up some Chinese cabbage from a supermarket. When I told them the order would be hard to complete, they misunderstood and quickly said they would give me a tip if I procured some. Sure enough, however, when I got to the supermarket, all the leafy greens were sold out — all they had left were potatoes, peppers, and onions. Fortunately, I knew about a small shop that specialized in vegetables, and I was able to buy some there. The shop’s boss told me they were unable to restock their inventory and would have to close the next day.
It’s not only people who’ve been affected by the epidemic: Animals have been hit hard, too. On the evening of Jan. 26, I took an errand order to help a woman who wasn’t in Wuhan to check on her cats. She’d been away for four days and couldn’t get back to the city because of the lockdown. I was immediately struck by the stench after opening the door. It was like a biological weapon. I saw some little things lying on the floor, but I couldn’t tell what they were through my fogged-up glasses. At first I assumed they were dead mice, but a closer look revealed them to be dead kittens — one of the woman’s cats had given birth. She cried herself hoarse when I told her.
Lao Ji trying to lure Niangao off of the roof (left), and after he finally caught it, in Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 1, 2020. From @计六一六 on Weibo
Another city resident had left his cat, Niangao, at a pet care center before leaving the city, but the cat had somehow escaped. Niangao’s owner put in an errand order asking for someone to help catch the animal, and early one morning three of us deliverymen promised to help. We scoured the 33-story building, before eventually finding the cat on the roof.
We tried using dried fish and canned cat food to lure it over, but it didn’t even look our way. We then found a pair of socks and used a wire to fashion them into a rough cat toy, but Niangao only glanced at it. Then he ran through the rooftop access door, all the way down the stairs, and into the next building over. ‘Do we still need to look for it?’ I thought to myself. ‘This goddamn building has 33 floors! I can’t climb another one!’ When we finally caught the cat that afternoon, each of us received a 180 yuan reward.
In a sense, my life now isn’t so different from how it used to be, but the restaurant that I like to eat at is closed and so is the internet café I used to visit every week. I keep hearing people say: “Let’s go, Wuhan!” to show their support for the city. I think that’s too grandiose, and I can’t really relate to it. What I like to think of are all the little, genuine things I’ve seen that have moved me.
One night, while riding my scooter, I saw a woman running up ahead of me with a miniature poodle in her arms and three stray dogs chasing after her. When I stopped and asked if she was all right, she said she was. “Thank you,” she added.
A local resident walks their dog in Wuhan, Hubei province, February 2020. From @计六一六 on Weibo
Before I could start my scooter to continue on my way, however, she repeated herself, more loudly this time: “Thank you!” People rarely treat me like this. But in this unique time, everyone in Wuhan needs special encouragement and care. I remember the feeling was like having smoke in my eyes: I almost cried.
As told to Dong Beiwang.
This article is published in cooperation with InSight, a subsection of NetEase News dedicated to nonfiction. The original can be read here.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: An original artwork featuring couriers who crossed a given road in a 15-minute span in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, Feb. 18, 2020. From @愤怒银行 on Weibo)