Ajay Kumar reached home at 4.30am on Sunday, completing his 17-hour work shift. He tiptoed straight into his bathroom, freshened up and soaked his work clothes in hot water. “Someone told me the coronavirus dies in warm temperature. I don’t know if it’s true but I do it," says Delhi-based Kumar, 40, who has been working as a delivery person for the past 18 years, and has been with a food delivery startup since 2018.
He is usually in his pyjamas by 12.30am on weekends, but this Sunday, a few last-minute orders kept him on the road longer. “Work has been down by 60% for the last two weeks. People are not ordering food, especially non-veg. There are more riders than orders, so I have been putting in more hours for the last two weeks to earn more," says Kumar, a college dropout.
The father of two is among the lakhs of food delivery persons for whom the prevalent work-from-home exercise doesn’t apply. He didn’t even plan to observe Prime Minister’s Narendra Modi’s janata curfew, a nationwide exercise on Sunday between 7am and 9pm to practise social distancing in an effort to check the spread of the Covid-19 virus.
“If people are at home, they will definitely order food. This is the time for us to get out and make more money," says Kumar, who hopped on to his work bike at 11am on 22 March. The lockdown in Delhi will not mean shorter hours or better pay for him. These days, he makes ₹1,000 a day on weekends and ₹700-800 daily from Monday to Thursday. Before people started taking precautions over Covid-19, he made between ₹1,400 and ₹1,600 a day.
Thirty minutes later, he got his first delivery order for a pizza, with “contactless delivery" as the selected option—several restaurants and online delivery operators are offering this service to prevent transmission of the virus between delivery drivers and customers. “It was the first time I have got this kind of delivery. I will have to leave the food at the doorstep and click a picture as proof that the order has been completed. It’s so much extra work," he says.
Before he could reach the customer, police stopped him at Chirag Delhi and told him all restaurants were closed. If he didn’t return home, they threatened to impound his bike. Food delivery apps, however, showed that delivery was available all day.
Kumar headed home on Sunday afternoon after informing the restaurant and his office. He was back on the road at 6pm, though. “It’s Sunday, people will definitely order food after being home all day. None of my other rider friends has received a contactless delivery order yet. I don’t think people are taking this virus seriously," he says.
Kumar, too, did not take Covid-19—the pandemic that started in China and has now affected over 300,000 people globally and caused more than 13,000 deaths, including seven in the subcontinent—seriously until the lockdown was announced in Delhi. The number of cases in India has crossed 340.
Kumar’s office WhatsApp group shared a video on the nature of the virus and the precautions to be taken only a week ago. “They didn’t give us any safety gear. It’s up to us if we want to step out and work or sit at home," says Kumar. He and his rider friends bought face masks last Monday and use hand sanitizers whenever possible. “That’s the most we can do. Staying home is not an option because we need to earn money."
Kumar owns two kiosks in south Delhi that sell waffles and sandwiches. He’d closed them for renovation and was planning to reopen at the end of this month. Given the ongoing public health crisis, he’s shifted the reopening date to April-end. Why delivery work then? “It’s quick extra money, there’s hardly any risk. And I like roaming Delhi’s streets."