A Question Of Responsibility: Will Indian Startups Stand Up To The Pandemic Challenge?

A Question Of Responsibility: Will Indian Startups Stand Up To The Pandemic Challenge?


With over 107 confirmed cases in India, Covid-19 is well and truly a huge threat for India

While Indian companies have taken steps, they are limited to advisories and free access to sanitisers or face masks

It's time that tech companies and startups promote a culture of resilience and responsibility

As doctors, researchers and governments around the world team up to fight the global threat to humanity from coronavirus, the people with power such as business leaders, community heads and politicians bear a little more responsibility than others. 

What business leaders say and how they conduct themselves will inspire the masses who follow them or earn their employment from them. It also impacts the lives of thousands of consumers who use their services and are directly affected by irresponsible business decisions. 

As Reihem Roy, Partner at Omnivore Partners, puts it, “Startups are well positioned in these uncertain times to lead by example. Allowing and encouraging employees to work from home while leveraging the countless digital tools available to us for collaboration is the need of the hour.”

As more and more people self-quarantine themselves at homes, the number of online orders is bound to grow. This increases the risk of infection spreading through delivery partners for food, grocery and hyperlocal delivery startups. Many of these unicorns and well-funded companies have finally instituted precautionary measures after the slow response in the initial phase. 

Beyond their slow response to the crisis, many brands have been criticised for using the pandemic as a publicity platform. Whether it is Grofers’s questionable promotion of its private label hand wash or Dunzo’s memes about government-run alerts — the pandemic has raised many questions about the responsibility of brands in the way they use their reach in these times. 

Ramesh Loganthan, professor co-Innovation at IIIT Hyderabad and former chief innovation officer at Telangana State Innovation Cell said, “While panic wouldn’t help, the other extreme i.e. making fun of a potentially very grave situation reeks of apathy.”

Abhishek Rungta, President of TiE Kolkata agreed. “All special support to clients at this time should be by default and not to make extra money. I appreciate how Zoom (video conferencing startup) has instructed their team to not push sales on top of the current health situation. This is the time to show the values and culture of your team and company.”

Thankfully, after turning a blind eye at the beginning of the outbreak, startups have now started aggressively educating delivery-partners and drivers on ways to minimise exposure to the virus. For instance, Ola is offering masks and sanitisers and Uber went a step ahead by offering financial support to any driver-partner who tests positive for coronavirus or is affected by quarantines. Food delivery unicorns Zomato and Swiggy are also piloting blind deliveries, where partners leave the package by the door for paid orders. 

“The unfortunate fallout of encouraging people to stay at home includes increased dependence on home-delivered solutions. We have seen delivery startups in the west already experimenting with contactless deliveries or leave-at-door deliveries. Minimising contact needs to be prioritised, but the viability of contactless deliveries needs to be tested here first,” said Omnivore’s Roy. 

Are These Measures Any Good? 

Given the woeful state of personal hygiene among most Indians, we cannot be sure how effective these company recommendations and advisories have been. Are these measures really going to limit the spread of the disease, when research indicates that coronavirus can survive in the air for several hours? 

Most businesses claimed that they are cutting down on inter-state travel and instituting mandatory work-from-home, but that’s only for the top and middle-level employees. What about the blue-collar workforce? 

All that’s been offered to the delivery partners and drivers is the education/training on ways to minimise the exposure to the virus which includes following precautionary measures and maintaining good hygiene. Along with the less-than-assuring assurance that if anything is to happen to them the company will bear the cost of their treatment.

But here’s the catch, there is no vaccine for coronavirus. Over 5K lives have been lost to this pandemic worldwide and even if one infected person recovers, it does not ensure that every other person infected by them will also be saved. 

Every time we step out of our homes, we are not only risking our lives and also the lives of many others, and in India, with many adults staying with parents or senior citizen, the most vulnerable group, the threat is very grave. 

Delivery service and driver-partners of multiple online businesses are constantly on the road enabling consumers to get essentials, food and rides, coming into contact with hundreds of people each day across cities as they go about their work. With such a ground reality, how can one expect social distancing to be effective? Is India ready to cut down on deliveries?   

Shubhargshu Sanyal, CEO of IIM Calcutta Innovation Park believes that essentials need to be prioritised over non-essential deliveries. “I believe that the show must go on in sectors which deal with the basic necessities. But adequate risk mitigation measures should be implemented. All risks cannot be eliminated and prioritization is important.”

With many cases in the national capital, Delhi is on high alert too. TiE Kolkata’s Rungta said, “If a region has reported infections, then the delivery partners should be advised to stay off the road. They can harm themselves as well as their customers.” He said businesses need to think about safeguarding financial security of daily wage earners who will be worst hit in a lockdown, either by loss of employment or through greater exposure to potential infection.

Of course, businesses cannot afford to shut down operations at this point, nor can the citizens. But the government can. In the times of such a pandemic, the onus will always be on the state to minimize the incentive of risking lives. That’s an only imaginable post we accept that coronavirus is more than just the flu and cannot be treated by homemade remedies. 

Learn From The Italians

“Keeping schools open; following through with your holiday travel plans and going into the office daily — this is what we did in Italy. We kept the economy going, pointed fingers at China and urged tourists to keep travelling. The majority of us told ourselves and each other: this isn’t so bad. We’re young, we’re fit, we’ll be fine even if we catch it. Fast-forward two months, and we are drowning,” wrote a doctor in Europe’s worst-affected country. 

India currently has over 107 confirmed cases of coronavirus and two deaths. This is just official data and we all can agree that data gathering is not one of India’s strongest suits, and testing rate in India is one of the lowest in the world. The official number of coronavirus cases and deaths in India could also be under-reported just as it has happened in many other countries in the initial wave before the epidemic spread far and wide.

Even if one considers the conservative estimates, there are serious doubts about India being able to handle the inflow of suspected cases over the next few weeks.

With a creaking healthcare system, India’s foremost thought must be to slow down the infection rates. The idea is to keep the number of sick people down at any given time lower than the capacity of the healthcare system. While hand sanitisers and face masks are equally important, there’s no guaranteed way to contain coronavirus except practising social distancing. 

As inhabitants of this world, it is the moral responsibility of every citizen, and business owner to join the global effort to contain the spread of coronavirus. We all need to minimise our movement, postpone any and all travel plans — however, vital they may be for business — and ensure that the threat of coronavirus is mitigated or slowed down as much as humanly possible. 

Correction Note | 18:27, March 15, 2020

An earlier version of this article erroneously mentioned the designation of Abhishek Rungta as CEO of TiE Delhi. We apologise for the mistake.

Note: We at Inc42 take our ethics very seriously. More information about it can be found here.

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