Jul 2

How COVID-19 Changed Our Idea of Essential Work

Editorial Staff
Jul 7, 2020

Image: Possible Group

A new monument honouring delivery workers in Russia points to changing views on key employees in the post-COVID economy

At the onset of the coronavirus outbreak, as Moscow streets emptied out under the start of self-isolation measures, one group of people remained conspicuously present on the roads: the fleets of couriers who fanned out across the city on bicycles and vans to deliver everything from home goods to ice cream cones ordered by city residents under lockdown.

Now, these delivery men and women are being recognised with a new monument in the city – and potentially the first of its kind – in a sign of changing global attitudes towards what may constitute as high-value work in the post-COVID economy.

The new frontline workers

The coronavirus pandemic brought workers who often remain in the background front and center – and they are now receiving their due recognition in a series of public works. Most of the focus has been, deservedly, on healthcare workers, whose dedication and difficult labor conditions became visible to all during the pandemic. The capital of Latvia has unveiled a 20-ft tall statue to commemorate global medical workers battling on the frontlines of the pandemic, while London will soon have a monument to National Health Service workers who lost their lives during the fight with COVID-19.

The Moscow monument brings attention to a very different frontline worker: delivery employees who ramped up their efforts to bring food and everyday essentials to a population that was driven to shop online during lockdown. It was commissioned by five of Russia’s top retailers – the leading e-commerce platform Ozon, (the online supermarket of Russia’s largest food retailer X5 Retail Group), the supermarket chain Azbuka Vkusa, Dodo Pizza and the Delivery Club service – and pays tribute to more than 60,000 couriers whose work made it possible for people to remain in the safety of their homes during the pandemic. In a separate initiative, the Russian tech giant Yandex, whose taxi delivery service thrived during lockdown, launched a feature on its food delivery app that allows users to thank their courier through social media.

This recognition of delivery workers underscores the shifting importance of occupations that help to connect people and products in an increasingly digital world. As the pandemic caused massive disruptions to global supply chains and offline retail, consumers around the world turned to online sellers to continue meeting their needs amid imposed isolation. But someone still had to bring the order to the customer, which made delivery workers essential, particularly in a time of crisis. And the importance of their work was especially visible in Russia, where the pandemic created an online shopping boom that looks like it is here to stay.

E-commerce in the time of corona

The Russian e-commerce market was exploding even before the pandemic. While online sales accounted for only 4.5% of total retail turnover in 2019, e-commerce was estimated to be growing at ten times the rate of the real economy. The rise of online shopping has been a game-changer in Russia, a country spanning 11 times zones where residents of remote locations typically have little access to a wide selection of goods. The recent investments made by Russian retailers to expand their online platforms and logistics infrastructure put them in a good position to handle the massive increase in demand for online sales once the coronavirus hit.

After the start of lockdown, the e-retail giant Ozon, one of the five commissioners of the courier monument, saw its gross merchandise value double in the first quarter of 2020 and triple in April as Russians flocked to e-commerce. The online supermarket, another sponsor of the monument, saw its orders nearly triple in April 2020 and more than quadruple in May versus the same periods last year. The convenience and safety of online shopping during self-isolation fueled the rise of a new generation of Russian consumers who are likely to stick with e-commerce long after COVID restrictions end.

Russian retailers moved quickly to accommodate the rise in online demand during the pandemic, with expanded delivery service as a top priority. X5 Retail Group, the parent company of, carried out a fast-track rollout of its express delivery service  and launched courier deliveries directly from stores to local residents. Meanwhile, Ozon partnered with companies in hard-hit sectors to hire more than 500 workers at its delivery, logistics and fulfilment centers, and aims to create more than 1,500 additional positions before years’ end to better meet customer needs. The men and women working behind the scenes to fulfil and deliver customer orders became some of the new heroes in the country’s battle with coronavirus.

The strong reliance on delivery workers during the crisis made employee safety a central concern. Companies rushed to adopt measures to protect employees and ensure social distancing during delivery work. For example, Ozon intensified the morning pre-trip inspections it conducted before couriers began their routes and regularly disinfected delivery vehicles. Couriers were also provided with antiseptics, gloves and masks for interacting with customers, and used a contactless payment system in order to limit the spread of infection.

The safety measures adopted to protect couriers highlights the recognition of these individuals as frontline workers in the new digital economy. It also underscores the increasing focus on employee and customer wellbeing by corporate players in Russia and abroad in the wake of the pandemic.

Unsung heroes

By cutting off much of Western society from its traditional lifestyle habits, the coronavirus pandemic led to a profound rethinking of the types of occupations that remain irreplaceable even as many services migrate online. The Moscow monument to delivery workers suggests that occupations not typically seen as prestigious in the modern economy have a vital role to play when times get hard.

But there is still much work to be done to recognize the full range of essential workers – including grocery store clerks, security guards and home health workers – who risked their personal safety to continue carrying out jobs that could not be transferred online. It also remains to be seen whether the heroes of the lockdown will receive greater pay – an issue that some see as the true litmus test for the shifting labor hierarchy.

Amid the global transition to a digital economy, the pandemic has highlighted the value of often overlooked workers whose physical labor continues to serve as an irreplaceable link between people and products. If the world learned its lesson, the importance of these workers will continue to grow as we recover from COVID-19.

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