[By Edward Ongweso Jr]
Uber has a body count. On Tuesday morning, Anil Subba, a Nepalese immigrant and Uber driver, died from coronavirus, the first known Uber driver to die of the disease. Subba had stopped driving two weeks ago to avoid catching the disease. His death makes clear that Uber must shut down its normal operations, now, before more people die.
Subba stopped driving, despite Uber being his household’s sole income source, after realizing he transported a sick passenger from JFK Airport to Westchester County. He was unlucky—randomly selected by an algorithm to die. He died alone, hooked up to a ventilator for two days before passing away just after midnight.
For its past decade of operation, Uber’s global achievements have oscillated between leaving a trail of bodies in its wake and weaving a path of destruction through countless cities. In Brazil, at least 16 drivers were murdered because Uber refused to choose between basic safety protocols and growth. In London, Uber’s license to operate was revoked after it made the same choice: regulators discovered more than 14,000 trips were completed by unauthorized, uninsured, unlicensed, or previously suspended drivers. After years of covering up sexual violence on its platform, Uber reported there were 3,045 sexual assaults during its U.S. rides in 2018, along with nine murders and 58 fatal crashes. In 2017, there were 2,936 sexual assaults, 49 fatal crashes, and 10 murders. This too was because Uber made a simple calculation: growth before safety.
While most every other business has been forced to significantly alter how it works during the coronavirus pandemic, Uber has continued more or less unchanged. It is offering drivers paid sick leave if they catch coronavirus, but its efforts to prevent them from getting it are negligible. For more than a week, its website has noted that it is “working to” give drivers cleaning supplies. This is the extent of the safety advice its website is currently giving drivers:
Drivers, forced to decide between feeding their family and catching a deadly virus, are continuing to drive, and they are largely flying blind.
For months, Uber offered nothing but radio silence to drivers concerned about coronavirus. In the early weeks of March, it sent emails to drivers offering vague advice to stay sick then eventually promising to distribute hand sanitizer to drivers. This was before it closed its Greenlight Hubs, where drivers could actually get in-person support and guidance, but after it had spent years refusing to ensure drivers had reliable access to clean bathrooms stocked with toilet paper, running water, or hand sanitizer. When drivers realized Uber would not be offering more support, they began to demand sick paid leave and Uber promised to temporarily offer it if they tested positive for Covid-19 until April 6. An investigation by CNET, however, found that it was nearly impossible for drivers to actually claim it: tests are hard to come by and even when a positive result or a doctor’s note to self-isolate are obtained, Uber delays payment even as the sick pay deadline approaches.
In China, DiDi—the ride-hail company that Uber sold its Chinese operation to in exchange for an equity stake—suspended service in provinces and cities hardest hit by the coronavirus. It then created multiple special fleets, including a fleet of constantly sanitized vehicles for medical workers who were properly suited and a volunteer fleet to still meet local demand needs. Uber should not be allowed to operate at all during this crisis if it will not meet or exceed this standard.
In all cities and states entering lockdowns, Uber must suspend its normal services because they pose a public health risk and provide its drivers with a liveable wage and adequate healthcare benefits. In the interim, it should operate special fleets comparable to DiDi that are constantly sanitized, provide hazmat suits and driver partitions, compensate drivers with hazard pay, and give enough supplies and resources to disinfect their cars if they believe a sick passenger was in them. Anything less is trying to profit from a pandemic that is ravaging the people of the U.S.
So far, there is no indication Uber will do any of this. When Uber began to face calls to suspend its service entirely, the company responded by dragging its feet on cutting its UberPool option before relenting and spinning the move as a bid “to help flatten the curve of community spread in the cities we serve.” UberPool’s suspension was anything but. Standard Uber service is still an incredibly dangerous contagion vector, so much so that Uber will suspend hundreds of accounts if even one sick passenger or driver is discovered—flattening the curve would call for suspending Uber completely.
In the midst of this disaster, Uber needs to fight for drivers who can’t join the pandemic fleet—at the bare minimum, they must continue to get a paycheck, ideally from Uber and its investors like SoftBank, who have lit tens of billions of dollars on fire and put countless drivers and passengers in harm’s way this past decade while chasing a transportation monopoly.
Uber cannot be trusted to do the right thing. Nearly every serious gain drivers have realized is because of their activism or activism they’ve inspired. Uber will only concede the bare minimum, as it must, because any more would reveal the fact that Uber’s entire business model is to take advantage of our extremely weak labor laws long enough to legitimize itself while institutionalizing its exploitation. If Uber does not suspend its service or step up to support drivers during this pandemic, the bare minimum we can do is help drivers reclassify as employees, extract their pound of flesh, unionize their workforces, and stop this from gross disregard for human life from ever happening again.