There have been countless warnings about how the continued spread of the coronavirus and the disease it causes, Covid-19, could dramatically affect daily life—shattering the stock market, changing our politics, and even disrupting typical patterns of employment. But what about gig workers, who are expected to always be on-call, and aren’t considered employees by their bosses?
Across popular Uber forums and subreddits, drivers are anticipating a driver shortage that will be profitable for them—if they’re willing to take on the risk. If they depend on their gig economy work to pay rent, they may not have another choice.
On UberPeople, the largest driver forum on the internet, dedicated drivers call themselves “ants.” One thread contains a photo of a driver encased by a sterile plastic cube, boasting that “real” ants won’t let the virus deter them from completing 430 trips each month. In response, another driver posted: "Coronavirus (one word) or COVID-19 also won't stop your landlords from evicting drivers for nonpayment. Ants will make bank after many entitled drivers hide under their beds."
Posters also expressed feeling left out in the cold by everyone, from city governments to Uber itself. “All kidding aside we (the drivers) will be in big trouble in a couple of weeks with this virus,” a user wrote in another thread. “NOBODY gives a crap about us [...] We have to work even when sick because we don't make enough to ride it out for weeks & months.”
Uber and Lyft drivers Motherboard spoke to emphasized a lack of communication from the ride-share companies, which left them doubtful about what support or resources are available to them as they cart strangers around during a possible outbreak.
“I have this old habit of always having hand sanitizer nearby me and I always try to use it after every trip, but that’s normal precaution when there’s no pandemic,” said one Uber and Lyft driver. “I have no idea. Is a mask going to be enough?”
“Most drivers I’ve spoken with are confused, don’t know what to do, and actually won’t think about it because, in a sense, it makes them feel safer,” the driver went on. “We’re just hoping it doesn’t get to that point. But if it does, we have no idea what we’re going to do.”
When Mexico City's Health Department reached out to Uber about a possible carrier of Covid-19, Uber responded by temporarily suspending 240 user accounts “out of an abundance of caution” and promised to provide updates about their account status. In London, Uber suspended another driver unlucky enough to drive a coronavirus patient to the hospital—again, “out of an abundance of caution.” This strategy may work in isolated scenarios where you are trying to prevent outbreaks, but it is not clear why it would work in the midst of a full-blown pandemic.
“We are always working to help ensure the safety of our employees and everyone who uses Uber, and we continue to be concerned by the ongoing spread of coronavirus,” an Uber spokesperson said in a statement. “We have formed a dedicated global team of Uber operations, security and safety executives, guided by the advice of a consulting public health expert, to respond as needed in each market where we operate around the world. We remain in close contact with local public health organizations and will continue to follow their recommendations.”
In China, Didi Chuxing—the ride-hail company that beat Uber out of the country—suspended its service in multiple cities, and deployed special fleets of drivers to try and fill the need for transportation even under quarantine. One fleet comes equipped with protectively uniformed drivers in regularly disinfected cars to transport medical workers in Wuhan for free. Another fleet is a volunteer "community service fleet" for local authorities to try and satisfy demand despite the suspension of transportation services across the country.
Drivers in the U.S. aren’t so sure similar measures will come for them.
“They don’t really care about us,” another driver told Motherboard in between chuckles. “We drive, not them. The best case scenario is they give us advice—wear a mask, don’t shake hands—but you think they’ll spend any money on helping us?”
“If they wanted to, they could stop business on the app, sure,” the second driver continued. “But they won’t even communicate with us, so what do you think is going to happen? I don’t want to speculate about a pandemic, but we will be alone. They don't care about us.”
Lyft did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment on any plans for a possible pandemic.