For the first time in generations, the world is besieged by a crisis that has shuttered dozens of countries and hundreds of cities. Globally, over 2.5 billion people are confined to their homes, as governments race to contain the deadly Novel Coronavirus. For a developing nation such as India, which started a 21-day country-wide lockdown on March 25, the choice couldn’t have been clearer. The country of 1.3 billion people is densely packed — which increases chances of a rapid transmission of the virus. Social distancing, a concept alien to many, became a reality overnight.
So what does it take to keep 1.3 billion people indoors for a prolonged period, without fanning any unrest? By ensuring three things: 1) essential products continue to be produced, 2) continue to be transported, and 3) continue to be delivered to people at their homes.
The government has taken steps to ensure continuity in production by manufacturers, 24/7 customs clearance for imports, and keeping freight traffic moving on roads and railways to keep the movement of goods sustained. And by exempting e-commerce deliveries of groceries and essential supplies from the restrictions of the nationwide lockdown, it has provided customers with a much-needed option to enable social distancing at this time. The growth of e-commerce in India in the last decade has provided a unique advantage to make this lockdown and social distancing phase a success. E-commerce players in India have built an excellent supply chain infrastructure of hundreds of warehouses, fulfilment centres and thousands of hubs dotting the entire country. It is imperative that we leverage that infrastructure at this critical hour.
Take, for example, an apartment complex in Mumbai – India’s worst-hit city in terms of the number of COVID-19 positive cases. And let’s say it houses 100 families or 500 people in total. If e-commerce were to function without any impediments, just 1 or 2 people could ensure timely delivery of supplies to the entire apartment helping keep over 200 people indoors.
In Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the Coronavirus outbreak, a similar tactic was followed to enforce the lockdown. China’s massive e-commerce infrastructure is built for fast fulfilment. The country’s leading e-commerce and food delivery apps have invested heavily in warehouse automation, delivery drones, and unmanned delivery robots — moves that, while perhaps intended to reduce long-term costs, also make the companies less vulnerable to potential labour shortages.
Beyond the fact that e-commerce helps people stay indoors, it is crucial to understand the strategic importance of the sector since it intertwines technology, supply chain and consumer connect, along with a well-oiled, ground-level logistics network. E-commerce can play a significant role if integrated into national disaster management and relief frameworks, not just for the current outbreak but for future calamities too. It provides many distinct advantages.
Sufficient/ Uninterrupted supplies
Due to inherent demand analysis capabilities of large e-commerce platforms, they are best suited to respond to emerging healthcare crises by planning sufficient amounts of supplies from sellers and manufacturers. E-commerce operators have the infrastructure to ensure storage, transportation and delivery services to Food Business Operators (“FBO”) – critical in India given the lack of cold chain facilities. They also have the best distribution networks to ensure last-mile deliveries on a scale that offline retail or local stores cannot match.
Distribution of medical supplies and aid
The government can also leverage the mobilization and network capabilities of e-commerce platforms for effective delivery of medical supplies. E-commerce can reach the remotest corners of the country, places that may even lack roads, hospitals or medical infrastructure. By leveraging e-commerce platforms, the government can scale up its distribution of medical supplies into the hinterlands in a cost-effective manner.
Driven by technology, e-commerce platforms can ensure price stability of essential products. Any disaster/crisis typically results in substantial retail price spikes for essential commodities resulting in products becoming unaffordable for people. For e-commerce platforms, ensuring price stability is feasible with tech capabilities, and hence customers are protected to a large extent from the vagaries of uncertain prices.
Despite India being in lockdown, e-commerce can help keep consumption, and by extension manufacturing and distribution, in a low but steady state of operation. In turn, preventing the entire economy from shutting down completely, enabling the government to keep earning much-needed taxes, while ensuring that economic activity picks up rapidly once the restrictions are lifted.
Leveraging technology capabilities e-commerce companies have been able to address the requirements of customers, being the interface between kirana stores and consumers who are either unable or prefer not to step out of their home while under quarantine or while practicing social distancing.
As we inch closer to the completion of the lockdown with an aim to flatten the curve, there are some positive signs and success cases across the globe that show that surviving through this pandemic requires joint efforts from all corners. The breakthroughs in recent years in the fields of medicine and research gives hope that a cure to the COVID-19 virus will be found. Until then, keeping entire populations indoors and enabling e-commerce to service them is probably the best way to break the chain of transmission.