Battling Covid-19 with digital armour

January 18, 2021 5:20 AM

How technology helped the humankind overcome the biggest disruption in recent history

With the closure of theatres, digital has become the platform of choice for people, and the OTT sector witnessed an upsurge.With the closure of theatres, digital has become the platform of choice for people, and the OTT sector witnessed an upsurge.

By Dhanendra Kumar

Bill Gates had forecast in 1999 in his book ‘Business @ the Speed of Thought’ how using a digital nervous system technology will transform the nature of new businesses. Indeed fortuitous, it was the digital nervous system that survived the daily life and economy during the pandemic. Quite appropriately, the President of India, while rounding off 2020 at the Digital India Awards, said, “Technological advances are often termed as disruptions but this year they helped us overcome the big disruption to a great extent.”

When the first lockdown was clamped in March 2020, unsuspecting people were stunned, daily lives frozen, airports shut, planes grounded, trains stopped, shutters downed in markets and theatres, schools closed, and it was the digital technology that came to the rescue. In the new normal, socialisation got curbed, work-from-home (WFH) became routine, needs curtailed to essentials, e-commerce with hyperlocal home delivery, schools and education, medical consultation, entertainment, financial services, everything turned online. New business models evolved to survive; others became history.

The Digital India initiative came in quite handy and got a big fillip. With the investment under various programmes by government and private agencies, there is now a robust infrastructure, with 500 million internet users, 95% connected through mobile. The BharatNet project (Rs 8,000 crore) is planned to provide broadband services to 2.5 lakh gram panchayats, and 5 lakh Wi-Fi hotspots for providing broadband service to 5 crore rural people will help expand digital services across the country. The number of smartphones, currently 80 crore, is expected to grow to 120 crore, and will give a big boost to m-commerce, including fintech. India’s monthly usage per smartphone of 15.7 GB (up 16.3% from 2019), which is the highest in the world, is likely to touch 37 GB soon.

The sector that saw a big spurt after some hiccups during the initial lockdown shocks was e-commerce. Consumers’ need for safety and convenience resulted in an inflexion in shopping trends. There was an upsurge in sales of e-tail biggies like Flipkart and Amazon during the festival season. There were also supportive linkages to boost digitisation of retailers and kirana merchants and helping artisans and handicrafts. With coverage of 95% of India’s PIN codes, much of the new incremental growth is now being driven by tier-2 and tier-3 towns and rural areas. According to a report by StoreHippo (tinyurl.com/389x07q8), the growth of B2B e-commerce segment was 200% faster than B2C, and hyperlocal e-commerce model and m-commerce have come to the centre-stage. According to a recent study (tinyurl.com/u3mgcugj), technology and e-commerce will be the silver bullets for businesses in 2021. E-retail has really benefited consumers, suppliers and MSMEs, and there have been heart-warming stories of such support by Flipkart (tinyurl.com/1otdjd9h). A similar report elaborates benefits to a million SMBs working with Amazon in India (tinyurl.com/1n81ld45). Infusion of technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR) is slated to give customers a virtual close-to-real experience, driving growth.

Covid-19 changed the entire scenario for the fintech industry, with innovations that will facilitate holistic financial services over a single mobile interface. A plethora of wallets grew as payment options like Paytm, Amazon Pay, Mobikwik, Freecharge, Razorpay, Airtel Money, Jio Pay, PayZippy, etc.

Innovations stemmed from players like Paytm with concept of business hardware like Soundbox verbally conveying payment confirmation along with amount when multiple buyers are making payments on a shop in multiple language options—English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada—helpful in a multilingual country.
Teleconsultation with doctors and telemedicine have come in handy. According to an EY study, telemedicine in India is expected to grow at a CAGR of 31% during 2020-25 and reach $5.5 billion. Teleconsultation and e-pharmacy account for 90% of this market. The Aarogya Setu app was developed for Covid-19 contact tracing. A digital ecosystem soon evolved around healthcare. Several players have emerged like Practo, Docprime, Mfine, Call health, Lybrate, Pharmeasy, 1mg, Medlife, Medplus, Wellness Forever, Netmeds, etc. E-pharmacies are diversifying their offerings into constituent areas like diagnostic tests, in-house doctor consultations, and lifestyle blogs.

Education, which was severely disrupted during Covid-19, got a big boost to due to edtech. Byju’s is reportedly acquiring bricks-and-mortar test prep leader Aakash Educational Services for $1 billion. Start-up Unacademy, which recently turned unicorn, made five acquisitions and raised three rounds of funding, is looking at 2021 with a focus on ‘building things for India’. Now valued at $2 billion, it aims to build Graphy, which allows users to explore stories, ideas and original content through video, audio and quizzes. Amazon is foraying into edtech with Amazon Academy, which will help students prepare for JEE. There are many other learning platforms such as Vedantu, Toppr, Coursera, Meritnation and Gradeup. Government platforms like Diksha, e-pathshala, the National Repository of Open Educational Resources (NROER), Swayam and Swayam Prabha have also been widely used. Firms in exam expertise like Orion Innovation are betting on evaluation and assessment solutions to provide uninterrupted exams during the pandemic.

With the closure of theatres, digital has become the platform of choice for people, and the OTT sector witnessed a tremendous upsurge. According to a report by MoffettNathanson, Disney+ had expected to gain 20 million subscribers by October 2020, but after raking in 10 million subscribers on their very first day, the streaming platform continued its meteoric rise through the New Year and the pandemic. As it celebrated its first birthday in November 2020, Disney+ boasted over 73 million subscribers. Similar is the trend with other OTT platforms that have all hosted new film releases.

With the disruption in travel and tourism, a new firm tourHQ.com, which earlier provided a platform to connect tourists with its 35,000 guides around the globe, was facing a near death, but with technology pivoted (tinyurl.com/1cxgxv3d) to bring online experiences of virtual visits of global destinations and activities like music, dance, culinary skills, all within the comfort of homes, it provided virtual excursions to home-stuck children and families.

Services platforms like Urban Company (formerly UrbanClap) are providing home services such as haircut, beauty salon, carpenter, electrician, etc. They are upgrading skills of these gig workers, providing them modern tools and market linkages. Similarly, food delivery services like Zomato and Swiggy have seen phenomenal growth.

In the new normal, people prefer hiring personal transport services like OLA and Uber or low-cost solutions like ‘auto’ and ‘moto’, which include scooter sharing firm Vogo, bike-taxi company Rapido, or scooter sharing firm Bounce, etc.

As India is gearing up for the world’s largest vaccination drive, it is hoped that 2021 will be much safer, benign, gentler and kinder to everyone.

The author is former chairman, CCI and ED, World Bank. Views are personal

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