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Jab me now: Tech’s gig workers are finally getting COVID shots, but at a slow pace

Written by Brady Ng, Ursula Florene Published on     4 mins read

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With Lunar New Year celebrations—and heavy order volumes—coming up, the tech sector’s most vulnerable workers need vaccines to stay safe.

Essential workers should be vaccinated against COVID-19. There is no doubt that statement is true. But who qualifies as a frontline worker? Medical professionals who contend with slammed emergency rooms, sure. Caretakers in hospices and elderly care facilities too. Teachers, yes. Who else?

Those who have the luxury to form a limited social bubble and work from home through the pandemic, they likely rely on a mostly unseen network of warehouse staff, drivers, delivery personnel, and other gig workers to bring everything needed to the door. These personnel deserve shots too.

China’s strict lockdown and testing measures through 2020 produced an economic marvel—it was the only major world economy to grow last year. Last month, the Beijing city government mandated all ride-hailing drivers operating in the capital to be vaccinated. At the time, Didi told KrASIA that it was arranging for all its drivers to get their first shots. This plan came soon after the company and its subsidiary, Huaxiaozhu, were fined a sum of RMB 1.41 million (USD 218,300) by the Department of Transport in Beijing for inadequate pandemic prevention and lax driver oversight.

Didi sent out notifications through the app, prompting drivers to submit their personal information to make appointments for their jabs. Within just five days, 100,000 drivers, as well as workers at the company’s sanitizing stations, had new antibodies coursing through their systems, courtesy of Chinese state-owned enterprise Sinopharm. Even though China’s rollout rush has perplexed medical experts in other parts of the world—mainly because of a lack of transparency in Chinese vaccines’ trial data—the jabs give people confidence that normality may be within reach.

These company-wide vaccine drives are typically organized with government involvement and oversight. KrASIA’s parent company in Beijing, 36Kr, has registered with local authorities to prepare shots for its staff too.

The demand by Beijing’s government contrasts deeply with relatively slow action in Southeast Asia. On January 13, Indonesian President Joko Widodo walked in front of a TV camera, rolled up his white sleeve, sat down, and waited as a doctor held up a box in the lens’ direction: it read Sinovac, a Chinese biopharmaceutical company headquartered in Beijing. The dose came soon after, drawn from a vial and delivered through a needle pricking the president’s skinny arm, kicking off Indonesia’s vaccination program. In a tweet, Jokowi emphasized that Sinovac’s CoronaVac shots are halal—appropriate for Muslims.

In Southeast Asia, Indonesia has been hit the hardest by the pandemic, with more than 31,300 recorded deaths due to the disease as of February 6. It has secured nearly 330 million vaccine doses from pharmaceutical firms all over the world. Health workers and some civil servants are getting their jabs first, then vulnerable groups like the elderly will start in April, but the men and women who make lockdown living possible have not made the cut in the government’s views.

The Indonesian government plans to vaccinate all 270 million of its population by March 2022, yet it remains unclear when the essential workers of the country’s tech sector will see treatment like Didi’s drivers.

The fortunes of Indonesia’s largest tech companies rely on their consumer-facing staff being properly inoculated.

Grab, which within Southeast Asia operates in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Cambodia, will subsidize the cost of vaccinations for drivers and delivery partners if they are not covered by free national vaccination programs in their respective countries. Grab also plans to cover the cost for its employees and their immediate family members, aiming for full-vaccination status by the end of 2022 in all its active markets. Gojek still has no solid plans, but “encouraged all parties to participate in the vaccination program.”

All workers under Grab’s banner follow pandemic protocols defined by the company. Most are common sense, like wearing masks at all times and using hand sanitizer frequently. Courtesy of Grab.

One consideration is the limitation of bureaucratic inertia. Southeast Asian public officials who spearhead vaccine distribution have avoided involving private firms for now, fearing they might hoard limited supplies.

With few other options, both Grab and Gojek are implementing health protocols as a stop-gap: masks are mandatory within vehicles, drivers are equipped with hand sanitizer, hard plastic partition screens are installed on motorbikes, and their apps now provide public health information.

Even so, the broader economic downturn is devastating in terms of human cost. Whereas Singapore has reined in community transmission, Indonesia’s motorcycle-riding gig workers are facing tough times—2 million riders in the archipelagic nation, roughly 40% of this segment in the country, have lost their jobs. Some are unable to pay down the principal and interest of loans for their bikes. In many cases, losing a motorcycle means losing a livelihood—which will carry over to when the pandemic subsides. That is one immediately visible consequence of delayed inoculation in Southeast Asia.

There is a clear unevenness in how vaccines are being distributed. The World Health Organization’s director general, Tedros Adhanom, criticized the “me first” approach to COVID shots going to privileged individuals based on economic hyper-competition. Bucking that pattern, Didi is reserving USD 10 million to subsidize trips in 13 countries—not covering China. Users who hail a Didi ride to head to vaccination appointments will see reductions in their fares, but so far it is unclear how the company will allocate this money to a diverse set of places, from Japan and Australia, to Argentina and Mexico.

With the Lunar New Year on the horizon, tech frontline workers are who make it possible—even a little more comfortable—for millions to celebrate at home, in China, Singapore, or anywhere else. Withholding vaccines from them means the many people who keep our bubbled existence from deflating are being left behind.

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With assistance by Tinghe Cao of 36Kr Global Academy.

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