A small stratum of Chinese society is being thrown on the scrap heap simply because they once had the coronavirus.
Photo from CFP
By ZHOU Shuqi, WANG Yuezhu
In late July, Shanghai’s temperature hit a sweltering 40 degrees Celsius. REN Qiang walked to the west side of Hongqiao Railway Station under the flyover and took out his phone with a cracked screen to see what odd jobs were available.
He soon quit a group conversation in disappointment. “I tried to find a job but was always refused as I ‘was once infected,’” said Ren.
Ren is not the only one. A small group of people in China are being viciously discriminated against because they once had Covid. Some of them even contracted it when they were volunteering to help others during the height of the pandemic.
Several migrant workers in Shanghai, along with Ren, who have recovered from Covid, have been left jobless and homeless in the city and have all stayed together in Hongqiao Railway Station for over a month to have “companions.” They leave their quilts and luggage in a small corridor in the railway station and wash in the toilets. They have previously been diagnosed with Covid.
A'Fen is a young woman who is part of the group. Unable to afford a hotel room in Shanghai, she stayed for nearly a month, practically living in a bathroom cubicle. After her story spread on the Internet, a leading logistics company in the city recruited her as a sorter. Her story had a happy ending, but what about others?
Discrimination persists despite the State Council and Shanghai government issuing regulations to ban discrimination against Covid patients. Except for Pegatron and Dafeng, two major electronics factories, companies in Shanghai refused to hire people with a history of Covid infection, several labor agents have claimed.
The case of A'Fen has not brought about a marked improvement in discrimination against former Covid patients. As of July 18, nearly 4.5 million people across the country have been diagnosed with Covid, and they have faced repeated obstacles either in job hunting or finding work. There is still a long way to go to break the fear and eliminate discrimination and workplace prejudice against ex-patients.
Ren came to Shanghai to help serve patients at the Shanghai Gaoqiao Petrochemical makeshift hospital in April. He heard he could earn 600 yuan ($88.8) daily, a “high-paying” job. He came despite having to work 12 hours a day and risk of infection. Ten days later, however, he tested positive and was quarantined at Lingang.
However, when he left the makeshift hospital in May, the labor agency that introduced him to Shanghai did not allow him to return to work as promised.
Ren and his companions were sent to the Zhoupu East-South Kindergarten in Pudong New Area, which was used as a temporary settlement for people stranded as the city went under lockdown.
He also hesitated about returning to Nanjing as the city required returnees from Shanghai to stay under centralized quarantine at their own expense. He worked out that if he went to Chuzhou, Anhui Province, for centralized quarantine, the cost would only be 1,048 yuan ($155), and he could find a cheap hotel for the remaining seven days of home quarantine.
After the lockdown was lifted on June 1, the temporary relocation site was demolished, leaving Ren scrambling for a living again. He and his companions were desperate to find a job with food and accommodation, even if it only paid them a few hundred yuan a day. They were happy if they could just save enough money to afford the cost of their isolation back in Nanjing. But to his surprise, the jobs he applied for all excluded applicants with a history of Covid-19.
He did not dare hide the truth. “My medical record would be clear by checking my ID,” he said.
Shanghai requires nucleic acid tests from those recovered from the virus, which they must participate in within three months with a “single-tube test” at designated sites. Previous infection records are kept in the Suishenban app, which is easy to verify.
Ren was ready for a temporary place at the subway entrance, but his friend found a daily rental in Sanlin Town for 20 yuan a night, a one-hour drive away.
When they finally arrived, workers were being recruited to demolish the nearby shelter hospital. They only needed to provide information such as name, ID card and a negative nucleic acid certificate. It paid 300 yuan ($44.4) per day.
Early the following day, Ren and his friends rushed to work but found they refused to hire people who were once infected.
“We’re all at our wits’ end,” he said.
He recalled that many people gathered that day, and some even came by taxi. Finally, the fierce quarrel between both sides ended. The two sides agreed that those who did not meet the job requirements would leave on their own after receiving 300-yuan compensation. Ren’s hard-won job didn’t work out.
Considering there might be more job opportunities near the railway station, Ren headed for Hongqiao Railway Station on June 4 with his co-workers who had also been “eliminated,” though he was hardly expecting to live there.
At first, Ren was a stranger, buying a 2.5 yuan steamed stuffed bun and a 3.5-yuan cup of soy milk at Lawson in the morning and having 6-yuan instant noodles for lunch.
In early June, people stranded at the station introduced Ren to a cheap restaurant nearby, offering a daily serving of shredded potatoes for 5 yuan and a bowl of rice for 3 yuan with free refills.
He had sent almost all his savings home, leaving only the 300 yuan in compensation. The 47-year-old Gansu native needs to save money to pay for college tuition for his eldest daughter, who has just finished the college entrance examination. His youngest daughter is only in the third grade. He bears the burden of the whole family.
Ren is not telling his family about the past infection or that he is stranded at the station. “I’m afraid if I return to my hometown, my family will treat me differently if they know about it,” he said.
He desperately wants a job but is getting no response.
More than a month later, he had less than 100 yuan in cash. The labor agent did not pay him the promised 2,000-yuan travel fare after the city reopened. Despite his complaint to the labor inspection division, this matter hasn’t been resolved.
“With that money, I would return to the familiar labor market in Nanjing, where I worked for two years,” he said. “I feel uneasy doing nothing every day.”
In previous years, he could earn 30,000 to 40,000 yuan a year, but during the first half of this year, he only saved a few thousand yuan.
When he “settled down” at Hongqiao Railway Station, he felt like he was fighting a “guerrilla war.” At 5 am, he washes in the bathroom before the cleaners arrive. He wipes himself down with a 2.5 liter bottle of water (an old Sprite bottle) and a wet towel. “It is embarrassing to leave my jeans unwashed for so long they got sweaty, dried, and torn,” he said.
At 11:30 pm, because of the place's regular environmental cleaning and disinfection, he has to go outside until midnight and then come back to sleep.
In a press conference on July 11, Shanghai government spokesperson YIN Xin said all local departments and companies should treat recovered Covid patients equally and without discrimination as per law.
Chinese Premier LI Keqiang stressed equal rights of employment and no recruitment discrimination against recovered Covid patients during a meeting of the State Council on July 13. Nevertheless, Ren’s labor agent refuses to hire people with previous Covid infections.
Ren is not alone. According to Shanghai Morning Post, some labor agencies in Songjiang District and the Pudong New Area said that Disney security positions required candidates with “no infection records, and no makeshift hospital records.”
Daikin Air Condition also clarified that “those who have been in the makeshift hospital, with a history of Covid-19 infection, would not be welcomed.”
An HR manager in charge of Shanghai direct recruitment for a large new retail platform said that no job opportunities could be offered to those who have tested positive in the past three months.
When asked why discrimination persists despite the State Council’s ban, a Shanghai HR company employee said: “I don’t know. Personally, I’m in favor of the rule, but we can’t help it if the factory doesn’t want it.”
Some companies are somehow concerned with applicants with a Covid infection history. They worry that some patients will test positive after recovering and infect others.
Employment discrimination in the workplace also occur in white-collar groups. In a video posted at the end of May, a Bilibili vlogger said she had just signed a contract to become a Russian teacher but was suddenly fired after being asked if she had ever had the coronavirus.
The school said they feared the virus might be transmitted – a risk that would affect students and their families and might even have consequences for the entire school.
Many social media users claim their colleagues avoided them like the plague when they returned to the office after a bout of the coronavirus.
“My boss and colleagues did not allow me back to work after returning from the quarantine facility. The psychological damage I suffered was far greater than the physical damage I endured when I was diagnosed,” one netizen shared.
LU Ming, distinguished professor at Shanghai Jiaotong University and executive director of the China Development Institute, pointed out that society lacks a scientific attitude in the face of infectious diseases.
“If we don’t treat recovered patients equally today, then at some future time when you are infected with Covid or another virus, how will you be treated?” he said.