Coronavirus Diaries: I’m a Migrant Food Delivery Guy in Italy

I remember the exact moment I knew things were changing.

A bike against a wall in Italy, with a Coronavirus Diaries logo over it.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

This as-told-to essay from Abou Sow, a 22-year-old migrant food delivery worker seeking asylum in Italy, has been edited and condensed for clarity from a conversation with Alessio Perrone.

I first realized that something was changing on Sunday, Feb. 23, a few days after the first confirmed coronavirus contagion in Italy.

I started working at 8 p.m. and picked up a meal at a restaurant in Milan. As I cycled toward the apartment block where I was supposed to deliver it, the customer texted me asking me to stop before arriving at his door. He asked me to tell him when I had arrived, place his meal in front of his shut door, and then leave.

The day after, when a friend texted me to say that there wasn’t any work anymore because of the coronavirus, I kind of knew it already.

I am an asylum-seeker from Guinea, who has been working as a delivery rider for a year and a half—first for Uber , and then, since September, for Glovo [a Spanish courier startup]. I love working in general, but I don’t love to work as a rider because it’s not a stable job. But it’s what I found these days.

The Glovo app tells workers which hours are available for them to work and lets us book slots a few days in advance. Before the coronavirus epidemic took hold here in Northern Italy, my days were busy. I used to work eight hours a day, delivering 10 or 12 meals per day. I made more than 40 euros (about $45) per day, sometimes even 50 euros ($57). Exactly how much we get paid depends on how many deliveries we make and how far we have to travel. There is also a bonus if you cycle instead of using a motorbike.

But then Italy passed the first measures to fight the epidemic, shutting schools and allowing restaurants and bars to stay open only until 6 p.m. between Feb. 23 and 26. My earnings and my working hours plummeted. I started to work less, sometimes four hours per day, sometimes three, sometimes as little as two. I think this is because many restaurants closed or only opened for limited hours, but also because people grew afraid of coming into contact with riders.

With these measures in place, I earned an average of 20 euros ($22) per day—four deliveries. When I managed to squeeze in a couple more, I reached 30 euros ($34).

The work itself also changed. With less work and fewer open restaurants, I found myself cycling farther and farther into Milan’s nightlife areas—up to five miles per delivery.

Customers stopped talking to us, and many don’t even say hi to us. Before the epidemic, they would open the door and sign a receipt of their order, but now they don’t want to risk to get sick by meeting us. Glovo has told us to sign receipts for customers ourselves, and we have taken to dropping meals in front of doors without asking them to open.

But I haven’t heard any safety instructions for myself from Glovo. They didn’t send me an email or any advice at all about how to work and what to be more careful about. Their office has closed because of the epidemic, but we have carried on working as usual.

In the beginning, I wasn’t scared of the coronavirus. When they called me, family and friends in Guinea told me to stay at home and not work. Then I saw that there were many contagions and deaths, and now I am afraid.

But I am also scared of remaining without a job. If I don’t work, I don’t make money—but if I need food, medicines, or anything else, I need to spend money anyway.

This fear is materializing now. Last Monday, the government announced it was putting the whole country under lockdown. When I log onto the app, there are no more hourly slots for me to book to work. You could say I’m no longer working. Now, I’m staying at home.

For more on the impact of the coronavirus in Italy, listen to Thursday’s episode of What Next.