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In India, “Normal doesn’t exist”

By Alison Buckholtz

Bad news is the only news that Manuela de Souza, an IFC Communications Officer in Goa, India, hears these days.

Since a highly transmissible second wave of COVID-19 infections began coursing through India, causing a record number of deaths, de Souza has watched the virus wreak havoc across the country—including her home state of Goa. The state recently recorded the highest positivity rate in the country, along with an unprecedented rise in deaths due to interruptions in the supply of oxygen.

“We see scenes of funeral pyres, graves, visuals of people outside of hospitals gasping for breath,” she said. “It’s humbling and devastating…it is really quite something to deal with on a daily basis.”

In an audio story from IFC, de Souza describes how real-time messaging, including SOS messages, has changed the nature of the national response to the crisis. Now, it’s personal: “If I'm up at 3:00 AM and I have an SOS message, I can respond because I have access to WhatsApp groups [where] people are spending their days and their nights updating verified leads for everything from oxygen to ICU beds, to ambulances, to the people who are willing to feed you if everyone in your family has COVID.” Technology, she said, has emerged as “a parallel system” of aid.

Technology also makes it possible for de Souza to keep in touch with friends and former colleagues in Delhi and Mumbai, cities where she used to live and work. She checked in with them recently to find out how their businesses and industries have responded to the stresses of the past year. She spoke to a producer who has reinvented his approach to media production, a serial entrepreneur who has turned his attention to supporting others’ sustainable businesses, and the founder of an organic food start-up. Together, they describe the variety of ways that agile businesses are trying to build back.

As de Souza learned about these different paths to resilience, she was struck by the “kindness and ingenuity” of others. “The fact that we're all in it together,” she said, “that’s really the one thing that's keeping everybody going.”


John Donnelly [host]: The COVID-19 pandemic has affected almost all parts of the world. And there’s been incredibly difficult moments over the last year. But what we’re seeing in India right now is among the worst so far.

News clip: Despite the number of cases dropping in about half of India’s states, including the worst affected regions of Maharashtra and Delhi, one in five people testing for COVID-19 gets a positive result.

News clip: Nationwide, the number of new cases has exceeded 400,000 for four consecutive days, bringing the total number of confirmed infections at over 22 million, about 15 percent of the cases worldwide.

Manuela de Souza [IFC Communications Officer for India]: I've heard it described as a bad dystopian novel because at the moment we could lose anybody. Everybody is affected. I don't think there's any one of us across the country that hasn't lost friends and family to COVID, that hasn't been personally affected by it, and continues to be a year on.

JD: So, we’d like to go a little deeper and learn more about how this pandemic is affecting not only people on a personal level, but also businesses in India.

That’s what we’ll be talking about in this audio story from IFC Insights. My name is John Donnelly. I’ll be your host. And I’m joined by my colleague, Ela de Souza.

ES: I'm Ela. I am the Communications Officer for IFC in India. And I'm here to tell the story of what India is going through.

I'm in Goa, which is India’s tiniest state. It's a huge holiday destination. Everybody loves to come here except now they can't anymore, because we're in lockdown, as is the rest of the country.

News clip: One of the most famous destinations for holiday, not just in India, but also abroad. Goa is facing the deadly coronavirus. The cases are much higher and the death ratio is continuously increasing. The positivity rate is over 50 percent.

JD: Just a quick heads-up. I talked to Ela on May 12th. Back then, it'd been several weeks that people in Goa had started to isolate at home to stay safe.

ES: ...Or at least safer. But that's, that's really not all there is to it. It's been so long since any of us really met each other. We can't even console each other if my neighbor passes away, which has happened. Almost all of my neighbors are COVID positive.

And if anything happens or if we lose anybody, our friends and our family, there's nothing we can do. We can't go over. We can't help. We can try it remotely. But I live with my folks. They're older. I'm petrified to expose them, but there's only so much we can do. So as much as I want to be helping, the best I can do is to send SOS messages and to coordinate between people I know in Goa and Delhi, where I've worked for so many years, and in Bombay, where I lived for so many years.

So I think all of us are just trying to do whatever we can from wherever we are. And of course, not all people have the luxury that we do, to work from home and to coordinate remotely. There’s people that need to go to work, to feed their families.

It's complicated.

JD: So, right before we talked, Ela had reached out to friends who own businesses to see how they're coping with all of this. They sent some voice messages, and you'll hear a few of those today. What she found out, in many ways, surprised her -- both about the depths of the difficulties, as well as examples of people going out of the way, sometimes far from their homes, to help others.

But first I wanted to know how she was doing.

ES: Well, most of the time we're hearing bad news.

News clip: Helpless patients inside Goa’s biggest government COVID hospital, scrambling for oxygen and beds. Some even lying on the floor as beds are at full capacity.

ES: We're seeing bad news everywhere. When you look at funeral pyres, graves, visuals of people outside of hospitals, begging, gasping for breath, that's a really humbling and devastating thing to look at. And to know that it's all around you is really quite something to deal with on a daily basis.

Some of us are very privileged. The majority of India is not. They can't afford care. They can't afford to travel long distances. They're not well-connected to health systems. So it's a very real and very big problem that I think all of us are reckoning with personally.

JD: It sounds incredibly complicated on a personal level.

But we do hear stories of people in India who are going out of their way to help each other a lot. I mean, I've seen some stories about rickshaw drivers who are turning their rickshaws into ambulances.

News clip: Kumar is one of many drivers in India's capital who are using their auto rickshaws as ambulances and ferrying patients and their families for free.

News clip: Obviously one is scared, but if everyone's children will stay inside their homes, then who will go out and fight at the borders. We all will have to help each other.

JD: Have you heard similar stories of people you've been reaching out to in the last few days?

ES: Yes, absolutely. The one thing that jumped out to me from all of the conversations that I think any of us are having, whether it's with friends, family, acquaintances, people at work, is that everyone's really come together.

It's incredible, the kind of support and the kind of adaptability that people have started to employ. So, everything from, as you said, repurposing vehicles to repurposing bungalows and facilities to actually set up care centers, to our business leaders, you know, stalwarts of the industry, sort of loaning out oxygen because they know that that is the need of the hour, to corporates, just giving money to help support interventions on the ground because people are hungry.

On a personal level, I know people that are cooking for each other. I think everyone's really stepped up and done so much more than I've ever seen.

I think it also speaks to the humanity that people are bringing to this.

JD: It sounds like everyone's in a bit of a crisis mode around you, but also I would assume, that that a lot of companies are trying to also think about the longer term, about how they stay resilient during the hardest times, and then build back to make sure that they don't lose all these jobs for people, that they continue to stay afloat.

Have you heard stories about people, you know, companies just trying to figure out how to be resilient over the long term after they get through this.

ES: Well, definitely, yes. With the staggered and the phased lockdowns that have happened over the last year, businesses just couldn't function as normal. Normal doesn't exist.

But for businesses, what that meant was to completely change the way that they approach their day-to-day.

I spoke with Varun Chawla who is the co-founder of 91springboard and one of the key founders of build3. And those two are connected because, while Varun and his counterparts founded 91springboard several years ago, it morphed and developed into this beautiful coworking community space, where lots of entrepreneurs and startups and independent sort of mainly thinkers would come together and work to create products and innovate in one communal space. So, they had to change everything about the way they worked.

Varun Chawla (91springboard): One of the things that really changed was, we started to realize that companies wanted solutions, where their teams could work much closer to home and potentially from home. And they asked us for these hybrid solutions, and we decided to build a product offering around that. And that's been very well received.

ES: And what was even more interesting in addition to the flexibility that they gave their customers was the fact that the founders of this place decided to start a new business build3. It was born of COVID. Build3 is, I guess, his crisis of conscience.

The build3 team connects with its core advisors at the build3 Office in Goa.
The build3 team connects with its core advisors at the build3 Office in Goa. Photo by: Nikit Gupta

VC: When COVID hit India, it was a time for deep introspection, good side and bad side sort of really came to light and just helped me accelerate the personal journey of understanding what was important.

And I realized, I wanted to play a meaningful role in helping build businesses that are going to make for a better tomorrow, businesses that will shape or create a better world tomorrow. And I figured I love building businesses. I have deep knowledge. I’ve built nine businesses to date, not all successful, but yeah.

And so I felt, if I can take this knowledge and expertise I have and put it to service for entrepreneurs going their first or second time around and together, we’re improving their chances of success and the size of impact. That would be something magical. So I put together a business plan where we would work with companies that will have impact.

We will support them financially. We will support them with our time and bandwidth. We have a five-person team that we work actively with the startup as their co-founding team. We will help connect them with experts in various areas. We will, of course, give them a lovely villa in Goa to call their office and work out of.

We intend to work deeply with startups where it's only two per year. So we are truly the co-founding team and not advisors or mentors or investors.

JD: That's so interesting that someone will be inspired by the depths of despair during COVID to actually try to help build back better. So, that sounds pretty amazing.

You know, one thing that’s been on my mind that I've wondered about a lot during this crisis is how, you know, people who depend upon their livelihoods of being outside, you know, just, even like people who make movies in India. How are they dealing with this now?

ES: So a friend of mine, Vikram (Nath Gupta), runs Carbon Black Films, which is a media production company out of Mumbai, one of the worst affected cities with the second wave. They're still grappling with the cases there. His entire business basically shut down when COVID happened, because they could not effectively get out of the house.

They couldn't endanger their talent. They couldn't endanger their crew. So, what they had to do is buckle down without any financial security and just wait it out. And then as soon as the window opened, as soon as the lockdowns would ease, they started doing pro bono work. So it really, I think forced them to be more agile, cut down operational costs and like so many other sectors also digitize. So what they would have normally done with multiple people coming onto a set, including directors, including clients, was to have them sign in remotely and have them watch a screen, give real-time feedback and watch them produce in, in sort of real time.

So I think they've had to, they've had to change the format of their business. And Vikram tells me that it's revolutionized the way they work.

Vikram Nath Gupta (Carbon Black Films): I think the media industry is forever changed. I think, remote shoots and livestreaming has really weaved itself into filmmaking, now. And that's definitely going to be there for a much, much longer time. It's turning out to be cost-effective and at least, let's say, like, let's say a student, a couple of students can get together now from different countries and they can actually shoot something.

And I mean, that's amazing. And even on bigger levels, feature films can be shot like that. Of course, I mean, there was an internet lag and whatnot, but more or less this system works.

In Mumbai, producer Vikram Nath Gupta discusses a shoot with a client.
In Mumbai, producer Vikram Nath Gupta discusses a shoot with a client. Photo by: Carbon Black Films

JD: That sounds like just incredibly creative to try to keep, keep going.

I also wonder about, how do farmers actually get their food to market now? How are our transportation systems going? How are people, you know, trying to feed their fellow people around them?

ES: Well, farmers are going through a hard time. Let’s just say that, it's been a really rough year or so for them.

I mean, the food infrastructure was anyway, overwhelmed. And it continues to be. One of the people I spoke with, an old friend who now runs an organic food startup, he mentioned to me, something really interesting, which is the food security is akin to national security.

Kunal Arora (Norea Organics): Only if the farmers prosper can India really prosper. That is very important. Also, I personally believe food security is very important to our nation.

Ela: And he's had to completely pivot the way he does business again, because a lot of what he did along with these farmers across India, I think he's in 10 states now, was to ship across state lines, perishable items, really, really unique products that most Indians don't get because they're directly exported. That's something that happens a lot in India. So he's had to completely change his business model.

They nearly shut shop because their supply chain was affected. They couldn't get their orders to their customers. They couldn't reach their customers. And a lot of his own team quit their jobs because nobody knew what was going to happen. And they had bikes. They got on their bikes and they drove home, when the first wave hit.

Kunal: So since COVID hit, our entire system was thrown off like almost all businesses across the country.

Logistics became a huge issue from the farm to our office. And from our office to our customers, both, extremely hampered. We also were forced to work from home -- most of our staff, which they were not equipped for. We really had to restructure the entire organization and processes.

Kunal Arora founded Norea Organics, an organic food start-up dedicated to sustainability.
Kunal Arora founded Norea Organics, an organic food start-up dedicated to sustainability. Photo by: Norea Organics

ES: So, the way he decided to change this was by looking at companies like Amazon and Big Basket, that seemed to have cracked the code, and to digitize. Again, completely overhauling his business, completely overhauling that model devising apps and online platforms, changing their entire marketing model, investing in software that helps predict consumer demand.

And then also changing their stock, picking their inventory, training their staff to be tech proficient. Even setting up logistics chains, because in some of these cases, with some of the farmers, there were no supply chains anymore. So yeah, a lot of people have done really interesting things.

JD: I wonder, you're in such a dark period there it's just so difficult.

You know, with so many people contracting COVID and so many people dying, I just wonder how you think people are trying to keep going, what are you hearing?

ES: I think, it's just hope and humanity at this point, but at the same time, there's more and more of us reaching out. And we're blessed with technology which has come to the rescue and we are able to utilize this technology to be able to reach out in, in real time.

I've never before seen or even myself reached out to as many people and been contacted by as many people while those things are spiraling out of control, and I mean, real, real time. It doesn't matter if I'm up at 3:00 AM and I have an SOS message. I can respond because I have access to WhatsApp groups.

I have access to people that are spending their days and their nights updating verified leads for everything from oxygen to ICU beds, to ambulances, to the people who are willing to feed you if everyone in your family has COVID.

I think that's really the thing that's keeping us going in many ways, it's like a parallel system in addition to those that exist. That's really the hope, right? The fact that we're all in it together, the fact that we're trying to get through it, the fact that there's so much kindness and ingenuity that is being applied to fixing this at this time. And I think that's really the one thing that's keeping everybody going.

Obviously, I don't think we can really revel in it just yet. Maybe, maybe next year, we'll be able to look back on it and actually celebrate all the things that we've seen.

JD: Thank you, Ela. Thanks for sharing all that with us and please, take good care of yourself.

And that's it for our IFC Insights audio story from India. This story is one of several first-person stories and the most recent IFC Insights newsletter. If you want to subscribe, there's a link in the description. Thank you, Ela, for taking the time to talk and thank you to all the people who sent voice messages to let us know what's going on in their business.

This audio story was produced by the IFC communications team. Script and sound designed by Jasmin Bauomy. I'm John Donnelly. Thanks for listening. Stay safe and healthy.

Published in May 2021