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Coronavirus impact: Challenges and opportunities simultaneously at play in India

While Flipkart and PhonePe have asked employees to work from home, edtech companies have lent their platform to government schools.

Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

As India grapples with the novel coronavirus that the World Health Organization has declared as the pandemic, the tech companies in the country are doing their bit to combat the virus outbreak.

Just as global tech giants like Google and Twitter have asked the majority of their global employees to work from home, many Indian companies are following the suit. Walmart-owned e-tailer Flipkart has made it mandatory for employees to work from home for three days starting Wednesday. This will affect 8,000 to 10,000 employees who work out of its Bengaluru office. In an internal memo, Flipkart told its executives who have a recent international travel history and flu-like symptoms “to not come to the office for 14 days and consult with their managers.”

Walmart’s payment arm PhonePe is also likely to see up to 60% of its 1200-people strong staff working from home starting Thursday for a week, a source told local media Economic Times. Last week, Paytm shut down all its six offices in Gurguram and Noida for a couple of days after an employee tested positive for coronavirus and asked its staff to work from home. Amazon has also relaxed internal rules reportedly and is allowing employees in India to work from home if they are feeling unwell.

This comes as COVID-19 cases shot up to over 70 in the country, which has forced the Indian government to ban foreign tourists from entering India starting March 13.

“All existing visas issued to nationals of any country except those issued to diplomats, officials, UN/international organizations, employment, project visas stand suspended till April 15, 2020,” according to the advisory issued by the Indian Bureau of Immigration.

Within India as well, travel has been impacted due to the virus scare and various states including Kerela, Jammu and Kashmir, and Delhi have issued advisories to shut down schools. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), India is among 17 countries that have “implemented localized school closures to prevent or contain the spread of COVID-19,”  which has put over 501 million students “potentially at risk”. Further, there are 22 countries including China, Italy, and South Korea that have shut schools nationwide, impacting over 350 million students.

Amidst the uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic, edtech startups have come to the rescue of homebound students. The world’s most-valued edtech startup, Byju’s, on Wednesday said it would give access to its learning app to school students for free until April.

In a statement, Bjyu’s said students across classes 1 to 12 can access learning programs for free until the end of April. This includes Maths and English lessons for classes 1 to 3, and Maths and Science programs for students from class 4 to 12.

“Considering the rigor of the exam season, access to the learning program will further assist and help students continue with their preparation for the year-end examinations,” Byju’s said.

“With 250 million school-going students in India, it is of paramount importance that their health is protected while also ensuring that their learning does not get interrupted,” it added.

Vedantu, a Bengaluru-based edtech firm backed by GGV Capital, said it is partnering with schools across Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Delhi, and parts of Kerala–cities where coronavirus cases are rising the fastest–to enable them to conduct the classes online.

“We’re anticipating a spike in users as we go into the new school year in April. It’s understandable that parents would not want to send their children to any group setting for fear of contracting the virus,” Vamsi Krishna, co-founder and CEO of Vedantu told local media Economic Times.

Meanwhile, Bengaluru-based online tutoring startup Unacademy said on Thursday it will conduct close to 20,000 free live classes across categories like Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), banking, and railways on its platform to ensure learners’ education continues without any hiccups.

“We are bringing together our entire network of educators to conduct free live classes for learners across the nation to help them crack their goals unobstructed,” said Gaurav Munjal, co-founder and CEO, Unacademy, adding that the company wants learners to “utilize this time to take precautions against the coronavirus outbreak and learn from the comfort of their homes.”

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“We will support the education system in every way possible to weather the storm and provide these classes to each learner who wants to utilize Unacademy to study,” he added. “If the situation persists beyond March, we will look at extending these free live classes to April and May as well.”

According to Anil Joshi, managing partner at early-stage venture firm Unicorn Ventures, these challenging times will drive many startups to come up with innovative ideas to serve their clients and cut costs.

“We expect to see a lot of startups to come up with new use cases and innovate to find ways to do business,” Joshi told KrASIA in a recent interview. However, given that the global pandemic is expected to constrict overseas as well as domestic funding in the country, he expects startups looking to raise investments to have a hard time.

“Indian startup ecosystem is not too dependent on foreign funding. But people are hesitating to travel within India as well, to places like Bengaluru, Hyderabad, and Kerala,” he said. “So funds may not be easily accessible to startups at present.”

Joshi said startups that are looking for investment may see lower valuation and get smaller cheques from investors than what they would have received if there was no virus outbreak.