Riders risk catching COVID-19 so people will be safe in their homes

ILIGAN CITY (MindaNews / 11 Sept) – In this pandemic, when one says he follows the stay-at-home advice to the letter and does everything online, he can say so because someone is doing the errands for him. Someone else is taking the risk of getting infected so others will be safe in their homes.

Even in First World countries, there are things that just can’t be done digitally all the way –moving physical things essential for survival like food and medicine among them – so a frontliner will usually do the tasks for the “digital savvy.”

In Third World Philippines, among those errands include going to the market, buying groceries and medicines, paying bills for backward utilities that still haven’t adopted digital payment systems, and processing documents in government offices that still require paper to be moved around.

AJ Cagoy on his way to deliver goods to a client in Iligan City. MindaNews photo by BOBBY TIMONERA

That’s where the riders or delivery guys come in, usually in motorcycles, facing two major threats every time they go out the streets and mingle with the crowd: the chaotic traffic and COVID-19.

The traffic Al John Cagoy can handle. The 29-year-old rider had previously worked as a delivery guy for Jollibee.

“But with COVID, I’m worried because we can’t see the enemy,” AJ said, even though he is already vaccinated, having gotten his second dose on Aug. 3 as part of the A4 category —  “frontline personnel in essential sectors.”

The main reason that scares this single man who lives with his parents – his mother remains unvaccinated because of allergies. He is aware that despite the vaccine, he may still get infected and pass it on to his mother.

“That’s why as much as possible, we don’t let her get out the house,” he said.

AJ himself said he would go out the house only for work and to do essential things.

And when he’s out, especially now with the spread of the Delta variant, he usually double-masks: surgical mask underneath, covered with a bandana folded a few times, as many motorbike riders are used to do.

He very rarely takes the masks off, he said. Usually he would postpone eating or drinking water until he gets home. If he really needs to eat while out at work, he would choose a quiet spot and carefully take the mask off by the ear string.

AJ said he follows minimum health standard always, like washing his hands with soap and water or alcohol every time he touches anything he is not sure is clean.

When doing errands in crowded places like the market or grocery shops, he would first distance himself and wait until the big crowd is gone. “Sometimes I’d get delayed because of this, but it’s okay. If someone would come too close, I’d step away,” AJ narrated.

AJ Cagoy delivers rice and other items to a client in Iligan City. MindaNews photo by BOBBY TIMONERA

Early this year, AJ joined the pool of riders for Paleehug, a small local startup that offered to do errands for those too scared to go out, using the Messenger app and its website for booking. But it folded up a few months later.

AJ took the initiative of contacting Paleehug clients he had served and offered the same service. Some took the offer, others did not.

“You really can’t earn much from this,” he lamented.

To augment his meager income as a rider, he would sometimes help his uncle do house painting jobs. “He taught me how to paint, and he used to have a lot of big projects. They’re much lesser now in this pandemic,” AJ added.

He now juggles his time between doing errands and helping out his uncle painting houses.

AJ is now comforted by the fact that he is vaccinated. “It was scary before vaccination because I felt I didn’t have anything to defend myself with. It’s like joining a fight but you already know you’d lose,” he said.

Marmar Balanay, 26, is among those frontliners who are not vaccinated yet.

“I haven’t really given this much thought. But now that there’s a call for pregnant women to get vaccinated, I might as well join my wife,” he said. They tied the knot only last December, a happy occasion in this otherwise gloomy pandemic.

Marmar Balanay of Areyba in the market in Iligan City. Photo courtesy of Marmar Balanay

In the early part of the lockdowns last year, Marmar enlisted as one of the riders for Areyba, which offers to do purchasing for people who are afraid to enter the public markets. A client would send a market list via Messenger, and Areyba would do the pamalengke for them, delivered to their doorsteps, with reasonable marketing and delivery fees added.

Because they needed to mingle with the market crowd, Marmar was already aware of the dangers of COVID-19. But with the danger comes opportunity – in the first few months of the lockdowns, business was brisk when people were so afraid to go inside public markets.

“I’m very conscious with social distancing, and I wear my mask always. But I can’t wear the face shield in the hot environment of the market because it makes me dizzy,” he said.

“I have developed the instinct that when the crowd gets too tight, I’d back out immediately. And if others are not wearing their masks, I’d back out even more,” Marmar said.

Like AJ, Marmar never lets his guards down. He would not lower his mask, and he would often wash his hands. He would wash even more thoroughly upon arriving home, now that Mary Joy, his college sweetheart, is pregnant. (Marmar did not finish college because when the war broke out in Marawi City in 2017, he left the Mindanao State University main campus for good, and started finding ways to make a living.)

When the lockdowns eased and people started going back to the market, Areyba’s client base lessened.

This forced Marmar to seek more ways to earn income. He went up the remote farm areas of Iligan and neighboring municipalities to purchase vegetables in bulk, and sell them to the market in Iligan.

Aside from that, he has a small printing shop for T-shirts, posters, mugs and others. But he says demand is low during pandemic, especially that the schools are closed. His wife, meanwhile, is doing online work on Facebook.

“While I don’t earn much from Areyba, it’s much more stable because we have a steady stream of customers. People will always need food, pandemic or not,” Marmar said. Iligan is now under General Community Quarantine, limiting people’s movements.

The demand for riders is picking up now because the highly contagious Delta variant is forcing more people to stay home and to let riders do the grocery and medicine runs for them.

Both AJ and Marmar say income from their service largely depends on the number of deliveries they make a day and the generosity of their clients.

Despite the risks, AJ and Marmar will be out there on their motorcycles, braving the crowd, endangering their lives so that the rest of us can have our food, our medicines, and other basic necessities – even luxurious items as ice cream in the hot weather and durian to satisfy our cravings – as we sit in the comfort of our homes. (Bobby Timonera / MindaNews)