Despite government calls to relax restrictions, Covid-19 prevention still puts a toll on China’s truckers
In all his 28 years hauling freight on China’s highways, Mr. Zhang had never seen such a bad traffic jam.
It had been 3 p.m. on April 7 when the 46-year-old truck driver from Jiangsu province had arrived at the gridlocked toll leading off the expressway into the town of Hai’an. By the time he finally got through the tollbooth, it was 1 a.m. on April 8. The checkpoint leading into the city, one of thousands on Chinese highways where drivers pay tolls and get their IDs checked before entering a city, had closed in order to administer nucleic acid tests for arriving drivers. Despite being sleep-deprived after a long day on the road, “there was no chance to rest,” Zhang, who wanted to be known only by his surname, tells TWOC, ”because the trucks in front [of me] were still moving,” albeit at a snail’s pace. There was nothing to do but wait.
For the past month, China’s commercial arteries have clogged up as cities erected a barrier of complex travel restrictions to contain the highly contagious Covid-19 omicron variant. Though the central government has made it clear that those arteries need to flow again, China’s freight drivers, whose livelihoods are precarious at the best of times, are still experiencing monumental barriers to make a living and serve customers around the country—as well as locked down city residents in desperate need of supplies.
With the Covid-19 outbreaks early last month in Shanghai and Jilin, the possibility that they could spread via China’s roads was obvious. There was also a lack of a centralized set of guidelines to coordinate a complex mass of differing provincial and municipal policies for freight entering their areas by road.
Some regulations have been incredibly strict. Trucker Family, a WeChat account focusing on the logistics industry, reported that Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, implemented a new policy on April 7 saying truck drivers entering and leaving the city should have two negative nucleic acid within 48 hours. On April 4, Ningbo, Zhejiang province, required truckers entering the city to have a nucleic acid test every day.
Others cities have closed numerous tollbooths to traffic, leading to miles-long traffic jams at the handful that remain open. On social media and video-sharing platforms like WeChat, Kuaishou, and Douyin, drivers like Zhang have shared viral footage of their daily ordeals, such as being denied access to cities despite having the necessary paperwork, having to turn back or be stranded on expressways, and even “quarantined” inside their vehicles—unable to leave their cabs, even to get food or to use the bathroom.
Trucks are China’s main form of freight transport. According to the Ministry of Transport, 3.9 million kilotons of cargo was hauled on China’s roads last year. But in a paper called ”The Economic Cost of Locking Down Like China: Evidence from City-to-City Truck Flows,” four researchers from the Chinese University of Hong Kong found that national truck flows excluding Shanghai fell by 72 percent at the beginning of April compared to the start of March. The South China Morning Post reported that road freight flow in Jilin province had fallen by 87 percent in early April compared to the same period last year.
Truckers have been affected differently. Some are employed by companies that will process entry permits and survey routes in advance to check for traffic jams. Song Yantao, a 36-year-old driver from Shandong province who plies the 1,600-kilometer route from Xuzhou, Jiangsu province, to Dongguan in Guangdong province, tells TWOC his company issues him an entry permit to the city ahead of time, leaving him responsible only for getting the Covid-19 tests required to leave the highway. A company representative then escorts him to a warehouse at his destination (as required by local rules), where he unloads and immediately leaves again.
However, 71 percent of China’s trucks are owned by freelancing individuals and small businesses, according to a 2018 report by Tsinghua University and the Transfar Foundation, with comparatively less energy and resources to obtain the necessary paperwork compared to freight corporations, and fewer safety nets if they have no work. Tian Bo, owner of a small transportation business currently employing three drivers in Jiangsu province, tells TWOC one of his employees spent 92 hours between April 11 and 13 making a delivery to a nearby town, a trip that usually takes 12 hours. The driver waited for so long at the checkpoint into the city of Changzhou that his nucleic acid test expired, meaning he had to leave the queue, wait 10 hours for the results of another test, and go back to the checkpoint to queue for another 10 hours.
For some, the wait has been fatal. Chinese media outlet The Cover confirmed reports that a truck driver had died on March 30 at a service station outside of Songyuan, Jilin province, where he and 40 other trucks were stopped after the city closed its checkpoints on March 24. The service station allegedly hung up on the reporter when they tried to confirm rumors that the driver had either starved to death, or had died of a sudden illness, while Songyuan’s Center for Disease Control did not respond to reporters’ questions.
“It was normal for private vehicles to be stuck from two to five days [on the highway],” Song recalls of scenes he witnessed on the road in the past week, where drivers would simply rest by the side of the road if their permits weren’t accepted or if they weren’t willing to queue. When Zhang, who owns his own truck, finally got off the highway after his ten-hour traffic jam, he had to wait for five hours in his cab till dawn before the cargo’s owners arrived to escort him—thankfully, he’d packed food and water, and plastic bottles for when he needed to relieve himself.
Central government policy now calls for balance between controlling the pandemic and keeping the economy running. On April 11, the State Council forbid any provinces or cities from blocking expressways, having more than two Covid-19 checkpoints on an expressway, or refusing entry to drivers based on the location they came from. It also stipulated that drivers must be provided with “basic living conditions” like food and toilets. As of April 19, the Ministry of Transport reported the reopening of 573 tollbooths and 316 highway service stations compared to the week before, with less than 1 percent of both tollbooths and service stations still closed across the country.
Yet all the drivers TWOC spoke to say their journeys are still slow and cumbersome. Now, when Song exits the highway to enter a city, he is escorted by traffic police to a car park. The cab is sealed up with a paper sticker over the door while the police hand antigen and nucleic acid kits to the driver through the window. Drivers are allowed out of their trucks only once tests are complete, which can sometimes be a three-hour wait. Either the owners of the cargo, or else the driver’s logistics company, must provide an entry permit. They must also send a representative to meet the driver, and escort them to the drop-off point to unload cargo. All this takes time, and “it’s quite inconvenient,” says Song.
Some routes also now require detours that can reach into hundreds of kilometers, either to avoid stricter policies or a closed route. As a result, all truckers TWOC spoke to have noted a big time increase on their journeys. “Now, whether you do long distance or short distance, it basically takes an extra day,” says Song. Costs increase as a result, not just in fuel. Song notes that whereas some trucks used to avoid expressways, preferring provincial roads to avoid paying toll fees, many smaller roads are now closed, leaving drivers with no choice but to pay to go on the expressways.
Song gets a basic salary from his company, and earns commissions from each haul he delivers. But drivers who are independent owner-operators are typically paid by the job, and usually paying back the loan on their vehicles at the same time. Last August, Tian took out a loan to buy three large vans. He is still making monthly payments on this loan, along with paying driver salaries and his apartment mortgage.
Tian says he lost 15,500 yuan in total this past month from expenses, and has yet to pay his drivers’ salaries. Three of his previous roster of six drivers have quit in the past month due to exhaustion—of the remaining three, two are in isolation at the time of writing, and only one still able to make deliveries.
He also tells TWOC officials in his county have tried to obstruct his business, taking longer than usual to return the vehicle registration certificate (one of the required documents for the vehicle to enter an expressway) handed over as part of a routine inspection. He also says an official tried to persuade him to halt his business for the sake of epidemic prevention, which he refused.“If I didn’t have to repay my house and car loans, I’d be willing to do it,” he says.
Some drivers, intimidated by these restrictions, have simply chosen to stop working during this time, putting further pressure on China’s supply chains while squeezing their own income. Others who are still on the road are reluctant to return home for fear of quarantine by their local community. Song’s hometown requires a 14-day quarantine for any arrivals that have an asterisk in their State Council-issued “travel code” application, indicating they’ve been to a city with an outbreak. Song lost 6,000 yuan in income due to lost work when he had one such quarantine on April 2, and does not want to repeat the loss, so he doesn’t plan on returning home in between deliveries until at least mid-May.
Protocols still vary wildly, changing day by day. Guangdong province does not require entry permits, for example, while many parts of Jiangsu still do. Jilin province implemented a “pass” system in coordination with several provinces, allowing drivers to upload their trip information, personal details, and travel documents from different provinces to obtain an electronic travel permit valid for one month.
At the time of writing Jiangsu, China’s wealthiest province by GDP, remains the biggest gauntlet, with the largest number of closed tollbooths in the country according to the Ministry of Transport. Zhang is regularly taking three tests each day, as there are two districts in one Jiangsu city that only accept their own district’s nucleic acid test as proof. He also has to wait in the cab the whole time while his clients come to escort him off the highway and unload the goods, with officials removing the sticker over his door only when he’s on his way out of the city. “We truck drivers basically go from point to point and come in contact with very few people. Why do you still want to seal me up?” he demands, calling the process “unreasonable and inhumane.”
But for those drivers who have families to feed and loans to repay, there is no other option at the moment but to keep on trucking.
Additional reporting by Zheng Yiwen (郑怡雯), Yang Tingting (杨婷婷), and Sam Davies
Some names in this story have been changed to protect the drivers’ privacy.