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Illustration: Henry Wong

Coronavirus: How China’s army of food delivery drivers helped keep country going during outbreak

  • Buying and paying for meals and supplies online was already second nature for many Chinese before the Covid-19 lockdown
  • The supply and delivery networks that were already in place were able to work with the authorities in cities like Wuhan
When Liu Yilin, a retired middle schoolteacher in Wuhan, first heard rumours of a highly contagious disease spreading in the central Chinese city he started to stock up on supplies such as rice, oil, noodles and dried pork and fish.
These preparations spared the 66-year-old from some of the early panic when the city went into lockdown in late January and shoppers flooded to the markets and malls to snap up supplies.

But as time went on and with residents banned from leaving their homes, he became increasingly concerned about getting hold of fresh supplies of vegetables, fruit and meat until the nation’s vast network of delivery drivers came to the rescue.

“It was such a relief that several necessity purchasing groups organised by community workers and volunteers suddenly emerged on WeChat [a leading social media app] days after the lockdown,” Liu said. “China’s powerful home delivery service makes life much easier at a time of crisis.”

Hu Xingdou, a Beijing-based independent political economist said: “Home delivery played a very important role amid the coronavirus outbreak. To some extent, it prevented people from starving especially in cases when local governments took extreme measures to isolate people.”

According to Liu, people in Wuhan during the lockdown had to stay within their residential communities, with community workers guarding the exits.

Human contact was limited to the internet. Residents placed orders online with farmers, small merchants or supermarkets to buy daily necessities, and community workers helped distribute the goods from deliverymen.

Every morning, Liu passed a piece of paper with his name, phone number and order number to a community worker who would collect the items from a courier at the gate of the residential area.

Thanks to a high population density in urban areas, affluent labour force and people’s openness to digital life, China has built a well-developed home delivery network.

Extensive funding from technology companies has been invested in hardware infrastructure, software to improve logistics and big data and cloud computing to help predict consumers’ behaviour.

Mark Greeven, professor of innovation and strategy at IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland, said: “Whether it is delivery of products, air parcels or fresh food or even medicine or materials for medical use, China has a very well developed system. Much better developed than I think almost any other places in the world.

“Well before the crisis, China had started to embrace digital technology in daily life whether it is in consumption, business, government and smart cities and use of third party payments. All of these things have been in place for a long time and the crisis tested its agility and capability to deal with peak demand.”

China’s e-commerce giants help revive sales of farm goods from Hubei

According to e-commerce giant, demands for e-commerce and delivery services spiked during the outbreak of Covid-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.

It sold around 220 million items between January 20 and February 28, mainly grains and dairy products with the value of beef orders trebling and chicken deliveries quadrupling compared with a year ago.

Tang Yishen, head of JD Fresh, its fresh foods subsidiary, said: “The surge of online demand for fresh merchandise shows the pandemic helped e-commerce providers further penetrate into the life of customers. It also helped upstream farm producers to know and trust us.”

The authorities in Wuhan worked with delivery firms to keep people fed. Photo: EPA-EFE

Meituan Dianping, a leading e-commerce platform, said its grocery retail service Meituan Instashopping reported a 400 per cent growth in sales from a year ago in February from local supermarkets.

The most popular items ordered between January 26 and February 8 were face masks, disinfectant, tangerines, packed fresh-cut fruits and potatoes.

The food delivery service said that, between January 21 and February 8, deliveries of frozen food surged more than 600 per cent year on year, followed by a nearly 500 per cent growth in delivery of pet-care products. Fresh food deliveries rose by 181 per cent while drink and snack deliveries climbed by 101 per cent and 82 per cent, respectively. is owned by Alibaba, the parent company of the South China Morning Post.

E-commerce providers used the opportunity to show goodwill and improve their relationship with customers and partners, analysts say.

Sofya Bakhta, marketing strategy analyst at the Shanghai-based Daxue Consulting, said the food delivery sector had made significant headway in reducing physical contact during the outbreak.

Delivery staff left orders in front of buildings, in lifts or temporary shelters as instructed by the clients as most properties no longer allowed them inside.

Some companies also adopted more hi-tech strategies.

In Beijing, Meituan used self-driving vehicles to deliver meals to contactless pickup stations. It also offered cardboard boxes to be used as shields aimed at preventing the spread of droplets among its clients while they ate in their workplaces. In Shanghai, employed delivery drones to serve people under quarantine in the most affected regions.

Some companies even “shared” employees to meet the growing labour demand in the food delivery industry that could not be satisfied with their ordinary workforce, Bakhta said.

More employees from restaurants, general retail and other service businesses were “loaned” to food delivery companies, which faced manpower shortages during the outbreak, according to Sandy Shen, senior research director at global consultancy Gartner.

“These arrangements not only ensured the continuity of the delivery service but also helped businesses to retain employees during the shutdown,” she said.

A delivery man takes a break between orders in Wuhan, central China, during the lockdown. Photo: AFP

Mo Xinsheng became one such “on-loan” worker after customers stopped coming to the Beijing restaurant where he worked as a kitchen assistant.

“I wanted to earn some money and meanwhile help people who are trapped at home,” said Mo, who was hired as a delivery man.

But before he could start work he had to go through lengthy health checks before he was allowed into residential compounds.

He also had to work long hours battling the wind and cold of a Beijing winter and carrying heavy loads.

“I work about 10 hours every day just to earn several thousand yuan [several hundred US dollars] a month,” he said.

“Sometimes I almost couldn’t breathe while my hands were fully loaded with packages of rice, oil and other things.

“But I know I’m doing an important job, especially at a time of crisis,” Mo said, “It was not until then that I realised people have become so reliant on the home delivery system.”

The delivery system has been improved by an effective combination of private sector innovation and public sector coordination, said Li Chen, assistant professor at the Centre for China Studies at Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“[In China,] government units and the Communist Party grass roots organisations have maintained fairly strong mobilisation capabilities to cope with emergencies, which has worked well in the crisis,” he said.

However, Liu, the Wuhan resident, said prices had gone up and vegetables were three times more expensive than they had been over Lunar New Year in 2019.

“There were few varieties that we could choose from, apart from potatoes, cabbage and carrots,” he said.

“But I’m not complaining. It’s good we can still get fresh vegetables at a difficult time. Isn’t it? After all, we are just ordinary people,” he said.

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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: China delivers the goods