[The Outline by Inc42 Plus] Startups’ Battle With Pandemic Grief


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Dear Reader, 

Every morning, I wake up to tweets looking for leads on oxygen cylinders and hospital beds. At times, these tweets come with a timer. “Only 45 mins of oxygen left in XYZ hospital,” most of them say. I retweet, like and quote them, hoping that help will come. Sometimes it does, and lives are saved. Sometimes there is a leak in an oxygen tank, and dozens of people die. 

India is fighting an all-too-harsh second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the falling oxygen saturation level is a critical symptom that must not be ignored at any cost. Such patients need supplemental oxygen therapy to survive the virus, but India’s health infrastructure cannot fulfill this demand surge. Therefore, people die in ambulances, in auto-rickshaws and at home while waiting for basic medical resources. 

Twitter feeds are mirroring this sense of despair and grief felt by the entire nation. Startup founders, investors and teams have also used social media platforms as a sounding board, venting their frustration and sharing their grief. Donating to Covid-relief fundraisers and starting volunteer efforts to fill the massive demand-supply gap across the country are just a few ways of coping with the anger and grief. 

The startup community has been consistently making time (even though they all have full-time jobs) to find resources for patients, raise millions to procure oxygen concentrators from abroad, create an online and up-to-date database of Covid-related information and do much more. 

The Covid-19 Bereavement Multiplier

Last year, the startup community spoke about a V-shaped economic recovery, war-time CEOs and conserving cash through layoffs, furloughs and salary cuts. This time around, most companies are dealing with a human resource crunch because too many team members have tested positive or they are taking care of their Covid-affected relatives. 

“The second wave has hit everyone badly. Every second person I speak to is directly or indirectly impacted by Covid. Some of our team members are affected, and we are trying to help them as much as possible. There is definitely shared grief among the startup community,” says Hemanshu Jain, founder and CEO of Thane-based Khyaal.com. The startup focusses on making the lives of the elderly more comfortable by assisting them in various chores like paying bills, buying groceries and more.

The road to business recovery for sectors like travel and hospitality seems to be getting murkier now. But there will be no business if their team members do not survive the current crisis. With daily cases mounting over 3 Lakh, concerns about business uncertainty may have taken a backseat right now, but that is a talk left for some other day.

“Honestly, I have never seen so many deaths so closely. I have seen a lot of tweets from fellow-founders sharing the news of the passing away of young team members, and I cannot imagine how to process these situations,” says Viraj Seth, cofounder of Mumbai-based Monk Entertainment (Monk-E). The company describes itself as a confluence of talent management, video production, social media management and influencer marketing.

According to a recent study by Ashton Verdery, an associate professor of sociology and demography at Pennsylvania State University, nine loved ones are left behind for every person who dies of Covid-19. It is called the Covid-19 Bereavement Multiplier. Bereavement is what one experiences after losing a loved one. The word means ‘to be deprived by death’.

The researchers came up with the number ‘nine’ by factoring in the loss felt by spouses, siblings, parents, children and grandparents. “If we also include the grief felt by nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, stepparents and friends — this would account for 10 times or more people in grief,” Verdery told The New York Times. With 2,08,313 official Covid-19 deaths till April 29, India will have a vast grieving population.

Lest We Forget

But just putting a number to the Covid deaths and generalising the context cannot help us cope with the pain. These are the people with whom we once shared the office space, joked about favourite TV shows and sometimes offered a shoulder to cry on. We owe it to ourselves to remember the faces behind the numbers. 

Six days ago, Snapdeal founder Kunal Bahl mourned the death of Avijit Basu. A Snapdeal team member for the past nine years, Basu passed away on April 24 due to Covid complications. Bahl remembers him as an outstanding, loyal team member and an integral part of Snapdeal’s journey. Ankit Malhotra, who has worked with Basu for about two years, says, “We used to sit next to each other. He was the sweetest and most helpful person I ever met. You will be missed, Dada!”  

Basu studied BBA (Marketing) at Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies (NMIMS) and worked as an assistant manager (supply chain) at Snapdeal.

Delhi-NCR-based Urban Company, a newly minted unicorn operating in the home services space, also lost a team member of six years. Cofounder Abhiraj Singh Bhal remembers late Mohit Agrawal as a dear friend who fought bravely against the virus till the afternoon of April 24. He was the director of engineering at Urban Company, and his colleagues remember Agrawal as a great mentor and leader. The company has also set up a Covid-relief fund in his name; it is called Mohit Agrawal COVID-19 Relief Fund. It will provide medical assistance and support to the company’s service partners and their families.

Serial entrepreneur Rammohan Sundaram, who worked with Agrawal at IbiboAds, says, “He was a bright engineer who was extremely committed and focussed. Very sad to hear this. May his soul rest in peace.” 

Delhi-based SaaS startup Wingify has also lost a member of its engineering team. Siddarth is remembered by his colleagues and friends as an enthusiastic traveller and a fun person. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of people that the startup community has lost to Covid-19. There are more lives to celebrate. But for now, we remember these three. May they rest in peace! 

Staying Resilient

It is tough to find hope when there is so much loss around us, but people need to survive these challenging times. Abhay Jani of The Product Folks finds hope when a volunteer can find Covid resources for a patient. “Seeing strangers helping other strangers gives immense hope to me,” he adds. The Product Folk is a voluntary group of product enthusiasts. Along with Creators of Products and Kavir Kaycee, it has started a Covid-relief initiative called India Covid Resources

Varun Mayya, founder and CEO of Bengaluru-based edtech startup Avalon Meta, has put his hope in America’s vaccination results. “Since vaccines provide some immunity against variants, it will stop the pandemic quickly or at least slow it down to the point when oxygen, hospital beds and medicines will be available. I am looking forward to the 18-45 age group getting vaccinated,” he says. 

There is also hope to be found in the generous donations made by people worldwide. Sheth of Monk Entertainment says that he has been able to raise funds for a friend’s father within 15 minutes of posting a social media appeal.

In fact, several fundraisers have been launched by Covid-relief groups. Startup community members have also shown up in huge numbers to campaign for these fundraisers. In the past few days, startup founders have pledged to share career advice and product building knowledge with donors contributing to Covid-relief fundraisers, and many tech experts have promised to spend an entire day writing codes for the donors’ projects/companies, among other initiatives.

Startups are also putting more effort into Covid fights to ensure the safety of their team members. While companies like upGrad have announced free vaccines for their teams, others actively share the burden of finding medicines and oxygen concentrators for team members and their families.

For instance, Paytm has set up a 150-member emergency response team to help Covid-affected team members and their families. The company has helped 35 people working with them (along with their families) to provide them access to oxygen concentrators. The company is also working on securing 20 more oxygen concentrators to extend pandemic relief.

As people come together over the internet and startup founders show up for their teams, the feeling of togetherness gives strength and hope to many in the community. But it does not mean that the crisis can be stopped in its tracks because everyone has joined the fight. The online repositories, donations, WhatsApp groups, Twitter threads — all have their limits. The demand-supply gap is too vast this time, and the leads shared by volunteers tend to run out in minutes. 

“We cannot be wishy-washy and positive, saying that just because all of us got together, nothing bad is gonna happen. It is more about reducing the damage that is already happening,” says Nikhil Jois, member of the founding team at San Francisco- and Bengaluru-based fintech company Bureau.

Collective Anger 

Faced with the collapsing healthcare infrastructure and overburdened crematoriums, social media users from India targeted their anger at the government. Twitter had already seen hashtags like #ResignModi ranked among the top 10 trends in the country. 

Reacting to the growing discontent, the Indian government reportedly asked Twitter to take down certain tweets critical of the government’s management of the pandemic. The Twitter accounts affected by this takedown request included those of Revanth Reddy (a Member of Parliament), Moloy Ghatak (a minister in West Bengal), Vineet Kumar Singh (actor) and filmmakers Vinod Kapri and Avinash Das, among others. 

Later, Facebook was also found blocking some posts containing the hashtag #ResignModi. However, the Facebook blackout was only for a few hours, and the posts were soon restored. The social media giant claimed that it ‘accidentally’ blocked the posts. The Indian government also denied requesting a Facebook block.

Meanwhile, the pandemic seems to have a positive impact on the food delivery business. For instance, the IPO-bound foodtech unicorn Zomato reported a considerable improvement in its unit economics compared to Dec 2020. The foodtech company is looking to raise $1.1 Bn through its initial public offering. 

Besides Zomato’s improved performance, the Tata Group’s super app dream also seems to be falling into place. The Competition Commission of India (CCI) has recently approved the Tata Group’s plan to acquire a 64.3% stake in the grocery delivery unicorn BigBasket. The acquisition will be carried out through the group’s digital arm Tata Digital. 

Collective Healthcare 

While the first Covid wave highlighted the need to trace and track Covid patients, the second wave highlights all the gaps in India’s healthcare infrastructure. With Covid-19 cases mounting every day, the key issues that concern healthtech startups are monitoring Covid patients and providing adequate home care to meet their medical needs. Enabling home monitoring and care for patients will help reduce the burden on the country’s hospitals and break the infection chain.

Realising the growing demand, many startups are now working on several monitoring solutions. For instance, Bengaluru-based Dozee has developed a contactless health monitoring system that helps doctors, patients and hospitals maintain the social distancing protocol without impacting the quality of treatment. 

Other startups have their Covid-related products in clinical trials, and these are expected to be launched in a few weeks. Covid-19 monitoring mechanisms at workplaces happen to be another key offering that leading healthtech startups are currently focussing on

However, healthtech funding trends in recent years show investors’ clear preference for epharmacy and fitness startups. Inc42 Plus data showed that $1.5 Bn (out of $2.5 Bn) had been invested in the ehealth startups (which includes segments such as online pharmacy, telemedicine and fitness and wellness) between 2014 and November 2020. Maybe healthtech investment strategies also need reconsideration in these rapidly changing times.

Unlike last year when the Covid-19 pandemic first struck, the year 2021 is more critical as the situation is rapidly worsening despite a pool of vaccines being developed all over the world in the shortest period.

In the recent PM-CMs meeting on the coronavirus situation, the government think tank NITI Aayog’s V.K. Paul projected that the ongoing surge in Covid-19 cases would peak in mid-May, and daily new cases might hit the 5 Lakh mark. Armed with this information, we all must continue to follow Covid-appropriate behaviour. Also, if you have the means, consider donating to the ongoing Covid-relief fundraisers. A crowdsourced list of nationwide fundraisers has been collated by Mutual Aid here.

From NGOs to startups, individual artists and even crypto enthusiasts have come up with ways to raise funds for Covid-relief efforts in India. For instance, a group called Fable is auctioning digital artworks as non-fungible tokens (NFTs) to raise funds through cryptocurrency and support the country’s fight against the pandemic. People are helping in any way they can, possibly to fight the feeling of helplessness that comes with today’s grim reality. 

A lot has been written about the Covid second wave and the bereavement that comes with it. But for us, Tanmoy Goswami’s (founding editor of an independent mental health journalism platform) recent piece on radical hope stands out. Radical hope is a concept that says no matter how bad the world looks right now, there is always a possibility that a better world will exist. Although we may not be able to picture it right now (after all, who thought of Covid a year ago), having the belief that a turnaround is possible often gives us hope and strength. Cheers to keeping that radical hope alive as we battle out this pandemic en masse. 

Stay safe and mask up,

Yatti Soni

Leverage cloud technology to grow your business at scale, build strategies to enhance your operations, and get inspired by success stories of businesses and individuals alike. Register for AWS Summit Online 2021!





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