Viral fervour

THE WEEK presents stories of resilience—the silver lining to the Covid-19 cloud

coronaoven Oven fresh: Akshay Singhal (left) and Kartik Hajela, cofounders of Log9, with the CoronaOven that uses ultraviolet rays for sterilisation of items | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

Never since Lady Macbeth has hand washing become such an obsession. And opportunity. Once an accessory of just health care professionals and, perhaps, hypochondriacs, the hand sanitiser today comes Modi-endorsed, up there in the list of essential commodities for offices, shops and homes.

So, just as well, that from a handful of brands, as many as 152 new companies entered the sanitiser manufacturing market in the month of March alone, according to Nielsen India. Scores more followed suit in the ensuing months, ranging from startups and pharmaceuticals to liquor manufacturers and sugar mills.

Rahm Emanuel, who was chief of staff in Obama’s White House, put it succinctly. “Never let a serious crisis go to waste,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to do things you could not do before!”

So it was when the pandemic-lockdown lethal duo sucker-punched India. While most of us withdrew to the safety of the four walls of homes, an intrepid bunch decided to unleash its ingenuity. From Bengaluru’s Log9, which came up with a CoronaOven to sterilise anything from milk packets to a wad of cash, to the Gollar robot employed in Covid-19 wards in Mumbai to serve food and medicines to patients, to the IIT Madras wrist-band that tracks early Covid-19 symptoms and notifies the result via Bluetooth, the examples are plenty.

Shashank N D, cofounder and CEO of Practo | Bhanu Prakash Chandra Shashank N D, cofounder and CEO of Practo | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

As their ‘normal’ business models fell by the wayside overnight, companies far and wide had to pivot. The giant Tata Consultancy Services nimbly adapted to a work-from-home model overnight. When restaurants and food delivery came to a halt, Wow! Momo, a pan-Indian takeaway, switched to delivering essentials. With passenger flights banned, SpiceJet scaled up cargo services, ran repatriation flights for stranded Indians, and even launched an insurance scheme offering test, medication, consultation and hospitalisation cover for Covid-19 patients. Kolkata’s Agarwal Industries, which makes cement bags, got into making bags to store grain and dry rations; it added an ultraviolet additive to ensure cereals are not damaged even stored in open sunlight.

“You are now seeing instances where auto manufacturers are producing ventilators, sanitary napkin manufacturers are producing surgical masks and sugar industries are manufacturing hand sanitisers,” NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant told THE WEEK. “There is absolutely no dearth of innovation in India, and going forward, businesses must not only innovate but also adapt to the changes in demand that have been brought about by this crisis.”

Then there are companies that reinvented themselves overnight. Mukesh Ambani was probably the busiest man in the past few months, as he sewed up deals left, right and centre. He is in a process of rebuilding the conglomerate that his father, Dhirubhai, built on oil and petrochemicals. The new focus? Digital commerce, with a vengeance.

Yes, there is fear. And yes, there is uncertainty. Yet, one of the many lessons India—and the world—is learning from this pandemic panic is that there is hope, and opportunity. As scientist Raghunath Mashelkar asked recently, “What better way to innovate than in the time of a crisis?”


Looking back, it is rather funny. In April and May, alarm bells had started ringing as Covid-19 cases started spiking and the country stared at an acute shortage of ventilators. While India’s hospitals cumulatively had less than half a lakh ventilators, worst-case scenarios projected that it may end up with two lakh Covid-19 cases requiring ventilator support. By August, that story had come full circle. A stream of intrepid innovations has now left the country with a problem of plenty. With ventilator production rising from roughly 5,000 per month in March to 50,000 in just a few months, the government had to authorise their exports from August 1.

While the likes of Bharat Electronics, along with Skanray and DRDO, did their bit by churning out 30,000 ICU ventilators by Independence Day, the role of India’s auto industry in this dramatic turnaround is no less impressive. After a communique from the heavy industries ministry, auto companies hooked up with ventilator makers.

It soon became clear that the issue was two-fold. With ventilator demand till then limited to big hospitals, there were just a handful of companies making it. The numbers were small and the cost high. The auto companies had more than just the task of production at hand.

MG Motor, for instance, tied up with Vadodara-based ventilator maker MAX to scale up production. MG’s plant is in Halol in Gujarat. The collaboration focused on scaling up production by addressing issues in the supply chain, IT system and manufacturing process.

The production capacity was increased five times, to 300 ventilators per month, in the first phase, which was completed by June, with an eventual enhancement up to 1,000 ventilators a month. “We are committed to supporting our country’s fight against Covid-19. This collaboration is designed to work towards the common goal of serving the community,” said Rajeev Chaba, president and managing director, MG Motor India.

Maruti Suzuki tied up with Delhi-based ventilator maker AgVa to scale up production, source components, help in financing and also with upgrading systems. Hyundai collaborated with French company Air Liquide Medical Systems to make and supply hospital ventilators, targetting 1,000 in the first phase. Skoda-Volkswagen used 3D printers to convert snorkelling masks, and use them for surgical procedures. It also helped in manufacturing intubation boxes for doctors as well as mechanical Ambu bags. Mahindra & Mahindra has been even more ambitious, and developed a ventilator that costs just Rs7,500, even while working on developing an automated Ambu bag.

Doctor will ‘see’ you now

Dr Joyeeta Basu is precise in her instructions. “Press two fingers down just below your sternum,” she guides, as I lie down on my bed. “Do you feel any discomfort, any pain?” she asks, before telling me to do the same on the stomach and lower abdomen. Then she asks me to stick my tongue out, shakes her head and pronounces the golden words that soothe my frayed nerves. “No, it’s not Covid,” she says. “Seems like a belly infection that sparked off this fever.”

A regular day at the doctor’s? Not quite. Basu did her diagnosis over a WhatsApp video call, and sent the prescription over email. The payment was done over net banking, though there was an option of UPI as well.

Harvesting happiness: Vasudevan Chinnathambi, cofounder of Ninjacart, with a farmer. Ninjacart used its logistics technology to link farmers to consumers in the locked-down cities | Bhanu Prakash Chandra Harvesting happiness: Vasudevan Chinnathambi, cofounder of Ninjacart, with a farmer. Ninjacart used its logistics technology to link farmers to consumers in the locked-down cities | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

Telemedicine, for long viewed suspiciously by patients and the government as a tech-fangled option that could never replace a hands-on consultation, became a life-saver, as patients and medics finally took to it as the ‘new normal’. It is now the boom story of 2020—as per RedSeer Consulting, India’s digital health market will jump from Rs9,000 crore last year to Rs33,000 crore this year.

Practo Technologies, one of the leading players in the space, says online consultations went up 500 per cent since March. Apollo Hospitals’ tele-consultations reportedly have gone up three-fold since March; it expects 40 per cent of its consultations to move online in the next three years. Another player, 1mg, had 150 doctors on its platform, but come lockdown, it says 10,000 doctors wanted to sign up!

It also helped that the government changed rules, accepting tele-consultation as an essential service. As per a report by the US-based Centre for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy, India has a shortage of six lakh doctors and 20 lakh nurses. While the government operates telemedicine services like eSanjeevani, a part of Ayushman Bharat, it is evident that a rapid scaling up by private operators will speed up coverage.

Practo has been on an overdrive, getting on board more doctors and clinics and training them on protocols, even while launching subscription-based health plans for customers. “For long, telemedicine remained a luxury for many. Today, it’s a necessity. More so for the two-thirds of the country’s population that resides in villages,” said Shashank N.D., cofounder and CEO of Practo. “Imagine what having access to a doctor on the phone could do to this population!”

Hotel families

Quarantine, which directly translates into ‘40 days’, turned out to be literally that for Bhima Sankar Raju—that is how many days he got stuck in a hotel when lockdown was announced. An oil rig engineer with GE, Raju was on his way to his hometown, Rajamundhry in Andhra Pradesh, from an offshore oil rig off Mumbai, when he got stuck in transit in Hyderabad. “Flights to smaller cities were cancelled in advance,” he recalled.

Stuck at the Novotel Hyderabad Airport hotel, Raju slowly adapted to a life in quarantine amid strangers. “I quickly became friends with some pilots and expats who were also stuck,” he said. The hotel tried to keep its quarantined guests engaged with a novel concept—guests were given a patch in the hotel’s herb and vegetable garden to tend, to pass time playing ‘farmer’.

“They guided us, and we spent an hour every day tending to ‘our’ garden,” Raju said. “It was quite satisfying, it kept us active and made us cheerful. And now I feel like there is a part of me in a corner of that hotel forever.”

From ‘DIY kits’ of restaurant-grade ingredients, discount vouchers that could be redeemed in the future and social media gigs and cooking classes, big hotel chains left no stone unturned to engage their patrons, despite being pummelled in the first wave of the pandemic’s aftermath.

“The pandemic gave us an opportunity to innovate and engage with our consumers through newer avenues,” said Kerrie Hannaford, India head of Accor, the world’s second largest hotel chain which runs brands like Novotel, Fairmont, Ibis and Sofitel. Many hotels put on their thinking hats trying to figure out how to ride it out, ranging from offering properties as Covid-19 treatment or isolation facilities, as well as giving packages for ‘work from hotel’ for those tired of hibernating in their apartments.

Many hotels tried to make up for the guest restrictions for weddings by throwing in packages for a honeymoon stay for the couple. While the Sarovar group actively courted MNC executives who were forced to leave their company guest houses, the Taj group came up with packages like 4D and Urban Getaways for guests who want staycations.

First day, first show

Over-the-top, or OTT, the web-based streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, have consistently maintained their buzz factor over the past year or so. Yet, even by this measure, their lockdown innovations were truly over the top.

Take Disney+ Hotstar, the OTT market leader, for instance. ‘First Day First Show ki home delivery’ was the ambitious tag line it gave to premiering an array of Bollywood films, skipping the traditional modes that normally preceded an OTT appearance, like theatre release, DVD and satellite TV telecast. With cinemas across the country shut down for the fifth month running, it could not have been better timed.

“People want pictures, and they are locked up at home. There are only 52 weeks for movie releases. So we thought, why not use the pandemic to create a big, big alternative world of a virtual, private theatre in everybody’s homes,” said Uday Shankar, chairman, Star & Disney India. Disney+ Hotstar’s plan is to premiere Bollywood films that could not make it to theatre due to the lockdown, one every Friday. This includes big ticket titles like Sushant Singh Rajput’s last film Dil Bechara, Laxmmi Bomb (Akshay Kumar) and Bhuj: The Pride of India (Ajay Devgn).

Online shift; Big-ticket films that have moved on to Disney+ Hotstar for a digital release Online shift; Big-ticket films that have moved on to Disney+ Hotstar for a digital release

Going by economics, it makes sense to most filmmakers. The longer they wait for theatres to open, the bigger is the interest burden on their investment, not to forget the ever-present threat of prints being leaked on the internet. There were also worries that once cinemas open, the prized slots will be gobbled up by releases from big production houses and A-list stars, leaving other films at a disadvantage.

For a movie going straight to OTT, the money paid by the platform forms the biggest chunk of its revenue, followed by satellite and audio rights. But it also saves on the massive promotional and distribution costs a theatrical release would have incurred. Of course, this would mean that the makers will never find out if it could have been a 0100 crore film or bigger, but producers call it a ‘risk-free deal’, especially for an off-beat or non-superstar film.

For streaming platforms, too, movies are what ‘mega soaps’ were to satellite TV. The average time spent by OTT subscribers went up from around 20 minutes to an hour, as per reports. And, with more than 40 OTT platforms, the competition is also rife. This is where movie premieres come in.

Unlike satellite TV channels that buy rights to a film and then recoup it from selling ad space during the movie telecast, OTT players depend on subscription. Having a line-up of new films and serials—particularly premiering movies directly on the platform—becomes a USP to increase the subscription. That most subscription packs are annual, or renewed automatically, helps the platforms to retain the subscriber for a longer period.

While the powerful distribution-multiplex lobby is not exactly thrilled, for the film industry, there is no other option. Even if the government greenlights the opening of movie halls, surveys show that a vast majority of the public would still be wary of going to cinemas.

But for OTT, it is another step in its upward trajectory. “If we can beam films on the 50 crore smartphones in this country… it is going to make the industry much, much bigger,” said Uday Shankar. “We should not see this as a short-term tactical compromise, we should see this as a big leap. It is not an ‘either’ or ‘or’ question, it is a multiplier.” The only issue, as actor Varun Dhawan quipped, would be, “popcorn khud banana padega! (one needs to make one’s own popcorn).”

Clean kindly light

A few hours before Prime Minister Narendra Modi put India into a lockdown on March 24 midnight, a bunch of entrepreneurs and innovators in Bengaluru went into a huddle. The men at Log9 were mostly working on nanotechnology and new energy solutions like fuel cells. But that day, they had a more pressing problem.

“We were facing problems in our own houses in sanitising stuff,” said Akshay Singhal, founder & CEO of Log9. “That’s when we realised there should be something which helps us sanitise objects much more easily and with complete assurance.”

Their solution? The CoronaOven, which uses ultraviolet rays in the wavelength of 253.7 nanometre, a threshold at which germs and bacteria lose their infecting capabilities. It can be used to sterilise anything from a quart of milk to jewellery to gadgets.

There was already scientific research that proved that UV light at this wavelength could kill coronavirus which caused SARS back in 2002. Singhal and his team adapted the technology with other parameters and made it easy to use by launching it in a microwave-like format for public use within two weeks of lockdown. “We also realised there was a dire shortage of PPE kits and masks in the country and if you can use this to sanitise them and use them longer, it would help,” he said.

“From idea to dispatch, we were quick, despite the lockdown requiring permissions for movement and manufacturing,” said Singhal. Considering the lockdown restrictions, the team tried a mix of institutional sales or sales through public service organisations, as well as through e-commerce platforms like Amazon and 1mg. It is also available on the Central government’s e-marketplace. The oven has 10 variants, with the smallest one retailing at Rs11,000.

ICMR-empanelled Central Scientific Instruments Organisation’s (CSIR-CSIO) certification proved to be a shot in the arm. Bengaluru’s Indian Institute of Science (IISc) is jointly working with the firm to carry out further research and optimisation. The technology’s adaptability is perhaps its greatest strength—while the microwave-shaped product fits household purposes, variants include the tunnel installed at the Kempegowda International Airport in Bengaluru to sanitise airport trolleys and a handrail sanitising format for airport escalators. For Ola cabs, the team came up with a device which can be attached to the roof of the car to sanitise interiors between rides. “A car can be sanitised in two minutes,” said Singhal.

Reaping the benefit

Ninjacart, the business-to-business (B2B) fruit and vegetable supply chain company, faced a unique prospect when the pandemic hit. On the one hand, it was faced with a sudden drying up of business as cities went into the lockdown. On the other, it found its suppliers, farmers across the heartland, left with millions of tonnes of veggies rotting away.

When the farmers sent out SOS messages, the company had to do something. “While the supply side was a challenge, there was a hit on the demand side, too,” said Vasudevan Chinnathambi, cofounder of Ninjacart. “Though vegetables and fruits were part of essential items and allowed, city markets were not active in many places, and there were restrictions on how much we can sell. In some places, markets were moved to other locations.”

For Ninjacart, it was clear that it had to develop a whole new system between the B2B model it had, with a direct link between farmers and consumers. The solution was ‘Harvest the Farms’; the company used its logistics technology to link farmers to consumers in the locked-down cities. “We identified vegetables in excess supply as well as those going unharvested within our farmer networks,” said Chinnathambi. To handle the last mile, Ninjacart roped in Swiggy, Zomato and Dunzo.

After running the scheme till the end of July, Ninjacart is now back to its original B2B model, with orders back to the pre-Covid-19 level. “We did it purely as a problem-solving exercise,” said Chinnathambi.

Genies on bikes

When the pandemic brought its food delivery business to a grinding halt, restaurant aggregator Swiggy unleashed the Genie. Simply put, the Genie hyperlocal service is like a dabbawalla on steroids, where delivery agents pick up and drop off anything and everything. From a home-cooked meal for a health care professional on duty to a birthday gift for a dear one you cannot meet in person, Genie was a quickly-thought-of and executed idea, and the quick adaptability made the difference.

“The pandemic presented businesses with a rare opportunity to reinvent and build solutions that are needed and aligned to ground realities,” said Vivek Sundar, COO, Swiggy. “We have dealt with several unprecedented challenges to keep essential services operational for customers in need, and, at the same time, made a diverse range of offerings available to them through partnerships.”

Genie, which was scaled up to 60 cities in no time, was not a one-off. The pandemic also prompted Swiggy to aggressively pursue its plans to deliver grocery and essential services, something which was till then treated as an afterthought to its restaurant delivery model. Besides tying up with FMCG brands like Unilever and ITC and supermarkets, it also partnered with some 100 hotels and premium restaurants to deliver curated meals to customers.

Joint venture: Rajeev Chaba, president and managing director, MG Motor India, at the Auto Expo early this year. MG Motor tied up with Vadodara-based ventilator maker MAX to scale up production | Sanjay Ahlawat Joint venture: Rajeev Chaba, president and managing director, MG Motor India, at the Auto Expo early this year. MG Motor tied up with Vadodara-based ventilator maker MAX to scale up production | Sanjay Ahlawat

To wash it all down, Swiggy also tied up with some state governments for home delivery of alcohol. Odisha, Jharkhand and West Bengal used the service. Swiggy hired a tech firm to develop artificial intelligence face recognition for the mandatory age verification, which compares a government ID with an uploaded selfie. “Alcohol e-commerce is an effective way to comply with physical distancing norms, which is the new normal across the globe,” said Amar Sinha, chief operating officer of liquor maker Radico Khaitan.

Seeing is believing

Before the lockdown, zoom was the function of a camera lens. Today, it is both a verb and a noun, with a plethora of terms like ‘Zoom bombing’ and ‘Zoom shirts’ lighting up the trend-o-meter. Blame it all on the video call phenomenon.

It is not like video calling and conferencing facilities did not exist before the pandemic. Yet, as most of the world retreated into the four walls of their homes, video calls and webinars suddenly became our only link to the outside world—and a semblance of life as ‘normal’ as it could be.

The harbinger of this video call revolution was Zoom, an app that has been around from 2013, but saw its popularity skyrocketing as a world in quarantine turned to it for anything from school lessons to office conferences to even friends and families catching up with each other. The statistics say it all—Zoom went up from one crore video calls a day to 30 crore in just three months, with Indians making up a significant chunk of it.

“Life after Covid-19 is going to be different,” said Sameer Raje, Zoom’s India head in a recent interview. “People are going to change the way they do business, the way they travel, the way they interact. It’s going to be more and more of a virtual world.”

But do not think Zoom is going to have it easy. As if its security travails (the home ministry even released an advisory restricting official meetings on Zoom), links with China (probably stemming from its big operational team in the mainland as well as the fact that its founder is a Chinese-American) and the flak it had to face due to its deal with Facebook were not enough, it faces tough competition from the likes of Cisco Webex, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet, as well as WhatsApp, which promptly updated the messaging app to double the number of participants in a video call.

A spate of Indian apps is also in the fray, hoping to grab an ‘atmanirbhar’ chunk of the trend. The most famous among them all is Mukesh Ambani’s JioMeet, an app that aims to steal not just Zoom’s thunder, but its lightning and showers, too, with a host of features that promise to outdo Zoom, like no time limit, HD audio and participants up to 100. Not surprisingly, Zoom cried foul, alleging that JioMeet was a clone. Other contenders include Say Namaste and Airtel’s Blue Jeans app.

Tourism reimagined

Nivedita would have probably termed it ‘unimaginable’ if you had told her in the second week of March—while she was on an experiential tourist visit to Orchha—that flights, resorts, parks and tourist spots would be shut down worldwide in a few days. Orchha, a town in Madhya Pradesh which boasts a palace resort and a music festival as its main attractions, is among a string of tourist centres the leading travel and lifestyle writer and blogger would call her natural habitat. Little did she know that Orchha would be the last of her jaunts in the foreseeable future.

Nivedita has, since the lockdown started, been cooped up in her Mumbai pad, wistfully re-posting images from her earlier outings on her social media feeds, wondering when her virus-enforced grounding will end. After posting the lockdown de rigeuer photos of food dishes, gardens and views from balconies, she went back to what she does best—writing about the places she visited. Only this time, it was memories, or as social media hashtags it, #throwback. “Memories of a wonderful time come flooding in,” she wrote on a post of a tourist attraction in Italy that she had visited recently.

If travel writers and influencers are feeling the angst, the pain is more exacerbated and pretty existential when it comes to the travel and tourism industry. Analysts say the leisure industry will be back on its feet a long time after things limp back to normal, most probably only after a global vaccination drive.

But you have to give it to their ‘best foot forward’ optimism. Tourism boards and other ancillaries of the travel and tour industry have adopted a digital route to ensure they remain relevant. The Maldives government actually kicked off a tourism campaign in April, even as most of the world went into various modes of quarantine. The only difference—they billed it ‘Visit Maldives Later’.

In fact, ‘Travel later’ or ‘Dream now, visit later’ have been popular hashtags used by tourism boards, travel agencies and sites on social media, as people across the world remained indoors. The lockdown has also seen the more intrepid of them getting mighty creative.

The tourism board of Vienna, for example, shared access links on the internet that would help users take a virtual tour of the city’s famous palaces and museums, aptly titling it ‘armchair tourism’. In fact, virtual tours virtually came into their own, and today there is no limit to the sights and sounds you can partake in at the click of a button—from checking out masterpieces at The Louvre in Paris to visiting a winery in South Africa.

Kruger National Park has used drones, balloons, remote cams and even guides on foot to bring out a live online safari for viewers across the world, including a real-time interaction with a game ranger!

Many state tourism boards have run campaigns on Instagram and other online channels on the themes of ‘don’t travel now, so you can tomorrow.’ Nearer home, an agency associated with Kerala released a video of a Kathakali dancer greeting visitors and using a hand sanitiser. The message, it seems, is clear.

Innovative service delivery


Sakshi and Mayank Jain had to shift their wedding from the Doon valley to The Westin Gurgaon because of Covid-19. The couple said the hotel ensured that they had an “elegant engagement and an intimate ceremony”. Rahul Puri, multi property general manager at the hotel, said that apart from the standard safety measures, guests are offered contact-less valet, mobile check-in and check-out, key-less entry, QR code menus and digital payment options. All hotel staff wear PPE kits and housekeeping entry into rooms is negligible/minimal, unless specifically requested. Puri said that the wedding segment had remained resilient and is helping the recovery of hotels. “We hosted 60-70 weddings events (in two properties) from June to August,” he said, adding that there is round-the-clock attention on health and safety. “The focus has shifted from aesthetic cleanliness to clinical cleanliness.”