The onslaught of the Coronavirus outbreak continues across the globe with the number of positive cases rising each day. While there are various reporting hinting at a lockdown extension in India to flatten the curve and protect the citizens of the country from being infected, businesses around the world are naturally concerned about the negative impact on the economy.
The 21-days lockdown has already shown a noticeable effect on the Indian economy. Apart from businesses, daily wage workers and low-income households have been largely affected. “The pandemic and the subsequent lockdown have affected the socioeconomically marginalized sections disproportionately and impacted the development sector drastically. We are already seeing instances of lost income, lost school days, and the deepening of existing gender inequalities in communities. There is a possible gender divide due to lockdown where men are going out to get provisions as handling ‘dangerous’ work is seen as more masculine. The gender gap in nutrition may also get intensified due to the increased challenge of getting food supplies and provisions,” says Jayant Rastogi, Global CEO, Magic Bus.
“While upper-middle-class families have seamlessly transitioned to online learning during absence at school, this cannot be done immediately for low-income families. There is also a possibility of increased school dropout movement to child labor. Social distancing also becomes a challenge due to the lack of space in low-income households. These gender inequalities, loss of income and disruption in education will see a ripple effect and deepen the poverty crisis in India,” he adds.
Apart from the society in general, sectors such as logistics and the ones dealing with perishable items have been impacted the most. “The impact has varied in severity from sector to sector. While dairy, fruits and vegetables suffered in the beginning, focused remedies have made the situation slightly better. However, the animal proteins - fish, eggs, poultry and meat - have been more severely disrupted and continue to remain so. For our clients, most of whom are exporters or have multi-country operations, the lockdown has been amplified by the global shutting down of logistics. The impact on perishables has been immediate. For something like cotton, the harvest season is still a few months away. The impact will depend on when the lockdown in those geographies is lifted,” says Om Routray, VP Marketing, SourceTrace.
21 Days Lockdown in India: Opportunity in Adversity
It is in undisputed fact that the Coronavirus pandemic has had and will continue to have an adverse impact on the economy. Nevertheless, industry leaders believe that this calamity has taught organizations a lesson, and may give rise to new opportunities as well. “The lockdown will have a significant impact on the economy, and not just India's economy, but the global economy. However, in times of crisis, new opportunities arise as well. This is the time for businesses across all sectors to reinvent and question the “old way” of doing things. Businesses that are quicker to adapt will come out stronger and be more dynamic. The economy will revive, and flourish, as we all adjust to the 'new normal',” says Akshay Munjal, President, BML Munjal University.
Furthermore, the government collaborating with startups during this calamity may help in bringing the economy back on track, feels Maruthi Medisetti, CEO and Co-Founder, MetroMedi. “With all the data model predictions and the patterns in the way cases are increasing in each state, it looks like the extension of lockdown for another 15 days is inevitable. Orissa government has declared it and I'm confident that other state governments will take a similar path. During this lockdown, the government should work with startups to track quarantine zones and track more suspects. We should look at lockdown as an opportunity to stop the spread of the virus and be prepared to open business as usual after the lockdown. This is very critical to bring back our economy,” he says
Apart from businesses using technology to keep their work from suffering, the education sector has seen a rise in students opting for e-learning, which is a welcome change as well. “Education today is always a high importance category, and with changing consumer behavior it will reshape the Indian learning system. This phase is certainly seeing the surge in digital education/ content. This period would lead to an acceleration of education Technology for sure. Education blended with technology would become a “new normal”. It would see an emergence of new patterns on education and related Industry. It’s time to adopt technology faster than watching from the side-lines. If rightly supported by regulators and stakeholders, it would be a milestone for change in the education system in India,” says Sumeet Verma, Co-founder and CEO, KopyKitab.
Work From Home: A New Reality
Industry leaders also believe that the crisis may have given rise to new trends and a future work model. As the lockdown has forced people to stay at home, the work from home culture has flourished and the power of technology has been truly felt like never before.
“The 21-day lockdown has shaken up interpersonal connections, both personal and professional. While social distancing has kept us at arm’s length, we've warmly embraced technology. Virtual closeness has improved our access to quality training, made meetings productive and helped us make better use of our time. Being in the warmer and more conducive environment of home, has also made us temperamentally better disposed to be creative and empathetic at work. I expect a calibrated transition back to normalcy, but we will certainly take several technology-fuelled aspects of the new WFH culture back into our professional spheres in the second half of 2020, giving rise to workplace 2.0,” says Kaustubh Sonalkar, President, HR - ESSAR Group and CEO - ESSAR Foundation.
With the work from home trend set to become a part of the way organizations across the globe function, it may now be a good time to experiment and execute the infrastructure needed for this. “We are currently executing against our pre-established business continuity plans. We started transitioning our employees to work from home before the country-wide lockdown was announced. We successfully transitioned 100% of our employees to operate from our homes by 25th March. We have two offices in India and we collaborate extensively with our offices in the US. So, part of our business team has experience of working in remote teams. However, this situation is different because we have moved our entire teams to work from their respective homes. We have 4000 employees globally and 700 employees in India. This includes 300 of our customer support employees in India,” said Manish Dalal, Senior Vice President and General Manager, Endurance APAC.
“We are ready and prepared to continue to operate from home through any lockdown extension. In fact, what this crisis has taught us is that our future modes of working can be very different. In the longer run, we may find that working from home may deliver substantial benefits to companies including an improvement in employee productivity through commute cut downs as well as hiring of better candidates who prefer working from home in their native cities – all this while saving substantial office rental costs and other expenses. However, there is a human challenge of working from home to consider. This includes the challenge of building a unique company culture which is often done through in-person interactions like impromptu brainstorming and networking sessions, mentoring workshops, team building exercises, etc.,” he adds.
That said, companies may have to experiment with a hybrid model to ensure that businesses don’t lose the human touch while deriving the benefits from an employee base working from home, says Manish Dalal. An example of this could include splitting time (days or weeks) between home and the workplace in order to get maximum value from both environments. Or, encouraging social visits and interactions between employees (perhaps even after work hours) to help create those bonds that are critical for a collaborative team.
Lockdown Extension could be Inevitable but Contingency Plan Needed
As saving precious lives is undoubtedly the need of the hour, an extension of the lockdown in India may be inevitable and necessary despite the negative impacts it may have on the economy. Nevertheless, with a contingency plan in place and relief measures from the government of India, businesses will be able to overcome this emergency, say industry leaders.
“The three-week pan India lockdown initiated to curb the transmission of the novel Coronavirus has now entered the next phase. We have witnessed a burst of positive cases in the last few days and the number is only rising up. This atmosphere is concerning and an extension is imminent and unavoidable. Understandably, the government's focus is on virus control measures and vaccination development. However, the government will also need to undertake a series of steps to help enterprises prepare and sustain the economic cold wave that is about to hit us all. We anticipate a short term hit from a top-line as well as cash flow perspective. We hope that the government releases a special package or relief measures targeted at the SMEs and mid-size startups addressing our working capital issue,” says Pankit Desai, Co-founder and CEO, Sequretek.
Also, while leaders of organizations agree with the point that there may be a valid reason to extend the lockdown, the issue of slowing economy should be taken into consideration as well. “With a spike in numbers of COVID-19 cases across the country, an extension of lockdown seems like a very real scenario and rightly so. While this lockdown period will help curb the transmission rate of the virus, there is also the matter of a rapidly slowing economy that needs to be addressed. All businesses are eventually connected with each other and this pandemic has just accelerated the dip in businesses across the globe. Safety and lives are more important than anything else, but it is also providing new opportunities for lots of businesses in Education, health and sectors related to connecting,” says Sumeet Verma, Co-founder and CEO, KopyKitab.
“With WFH enforced during this lockdown, all efforts are being made to adapt to the situation with offers, collaborations, and few stop-gap arrangements for businesses, but is it sustainable in long term? In start-up ecosystem, while funding might be delayed for some, it is forcing companies to rethink their business model, examine if it is robust and safe enough to generate cash flow, to sustain and avoid opening the door to pay cuts and layoffs. Hopefully, we will emerge stronger from this crisis; however, the government needs to come up with few safety measures to build business confidence and steer clear of the sharp economic downturn we are headed toward,” he adds.
Along the same lines, Om Routray, VP Marketing, SourceTrace says that the lockdown should be extended until the curve is flattened. “However, given that we have no idea how long this will continue, we need to take contingency measures to ensure that food production and supply chains continue to deliver. This includes not just farming and logistics but food processing too.”
Besides that, “the government needs to have a clear plan, which needs to be communicated to all on the opening up parameters as it can’t be a zero-to-one,” says Bhaskar Majumdar Managing Partner, Unicorn India Ventures.
All said and done, the government is the best judge here. “While deliberation on the extension and what the second phase would entail is ongoing, we, as an organisation, are supportive of any step that the Government of India takes,” says Akshay Munjal, President, BML Munjal University.