COVID-19: Sentiments from the Sri Lankan Startup Ecosystem and the Tech industry

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At the time of writing, COVID-19 has infected 137,387 people globally. Since it first took over headlines in January, the novel coronavirus has killed 5,088 people. These numbers may seem terrifying at first glance. Yet, 69,779 of those infected have made a full recovery. Sri Lanka confirmed its 1st case of the virus in January. Now, two months later, the virus has reared its ugly head on the island once again as the authorities have identified 5 confirmed cases. 

How Sri Lanka has responded to COVID-19

From the time the first case was discovered, the authorities have been proactive in their approach to prevent more infections. Their initial efforts were supported by a number of homegrown solutions by the local tech industry. Among them were a set of air sterilization units from SLINTEC, which were installed at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) arrival terminal. 

COVID-19: Sentiments from the Sri Lankan Startup Ecosystem and the Tech industry 2
In January, SLINTEC installed air sterilization units inside BIA in an effort to keep COVID-19 at bay. (Image credits: Manju Gunawardena)

Commenting on the current situation, Heminda Jayaweera, COO of SLINTEC shared with ReadMe, “I believe a pandemic situation like this is an opportunity for Sri Lankan startups to come up with a global solution/product to prevent, mitigate or even find a cure to the situation.” 

Lahiru Pathmalal, Co-Founder/Director at Takas.lk also also shared similar sentiments with ReadMe about startups saying, “At this time, the main issue for Sri Lanka is the sentiment and not the actual impact of the virus. I feel in many ways it’s a great time to invest in startups.” 

COVID-19: Sentiments from the Sri Lankan Startup Ecosystem and the Tech industry 3
It wasn’t long after the latest round of COVID-19 infections that the government responded with a set of strict precautionary measures. Among them was the creation of new quarantine centres, which were built and are managed by the Army (Image credits: Sri Lanka Army)

Following the latest round of COVID-19 infections, the authorities have adopted more stringent precautionary measures. Schools and universities have been closed. Quarantine centres were set up in Batticaloa and Kandakudi. On-arrival visas were cancelled among the many other travel restrictions that were put in place. 17 hospitals island-wide have been designated for COVID-19 treatment. 

A welcome improvement in government communication

Admirably, the authorities have made a commendable effort in communicating information online. On its Facebook page, the Health Promotion Bureau has been sharing bilingual updates. The Epidemiology Unit of the Ministry of Health offers daily updates and has done so since January. President Gotabaya Rajapakse himself has utilized social media to share government decisions in all 3 local languages. 

These efforts are in parallel to those utilizing traditional media. Granted, one could argue these efforts could improve with consistency across all 3 languages. Nevertheless, it’s a far cry from only a year ago after the Easter Bombings. Back then, the government offered only tiny bits of information in a very inconsistent manner. Hence, the noticeable improvement is a welcome one. 

COVID 19 Situation Report 13.03.2020 – 7.00pm

Posted by Health Promotion Bureau on Friday, March 13, 2020

Of course, despite these efforts, there were cases of panic buying reported at several supermarkets. “The phenomenon signals a deeper need for us as a society to re-evaluate and reorganize priorities one places on internal health, and our need to become more resilient to outward threats. Modern society does not produce a conducive space for rest and recovery, and this further fuels public anxieties once such threats take place. Investing in health as security will be a growing need in future,” shared Teesha Wickramatunga – Founder of Workout.lk. 

Startup / Tech community preparations for COVID-19

As the crisis continues, it’s likely businesses will face disruptions if they haven’t already. Hence, its essential that businesses prepare contingency plans. To understand how the Sri Lankan Startup / IT industry is preparing for it, we  spoke with a few startup founders and leaders in the community. As the situation continues to unfold, reactions are still optimistic.

Managing Director at Stax, Ruwindhu Peiris shared “Moments like these are what brings out true leaders and forces all of us to be inventive. The IT industry of Sri Lanka has a great opportunity to lead the way in helping “flatten the curve” by proactively implementing remote working arrangements to minimize contamination risks. The Stax team will be working 100% remotely from next week. If Sri Lanka leads the way we will come out stronger and more equipped to reap the benefits of this ‘new normal’.”

COVID-19: Sentiments from the Sri Lankan Startup Ecosystem and the Tech industry 4
As COVID-19 continues to spread, companies across the world have turned to remote working. Here in Sri Lanka, Stax has adopted a 100% remote working policy from next week. (Image credits: Cult of Mac) 

Wellington Perera, COO of Enhanzer also shared a similar view saying “I believe at this time, the best course of action would be for companies to be focused and continue business as usual. If necessary we can easily utilize digital technology to enable the workforce to work from home.” 

Thangarajah Thavaruban, Founder of Speed IT Net from the Northern Province also added “as it’s a short-term crisis, startups aren’t going to be affected by this situation heavily. They can customize their products and services as the situation evolves. They will also need to participate in government efforts to stop the virus, and to help us all overcome this crisis.”

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As COVID-19 continues to spread, the economic fallout from the virus will be felt for many months to come. As such, businesses need to start preparing now for the challenges ahead. (Image credits: The Economist) 

Sharing a message for entrepreneurs, CEO of Arimac, Chamira Jayasinghe stated, “Most service-based initiatives will come to a halt due to the current circumstances. So plan your financials wisely for the times ahead. Ensure that your team and their families are also educated and take the necessary precautions.” 

Linda Marik from Likuid Spaces described, “This year proves to be about collective challenges and tackling them as one big community. We are literally paying for it just like everyone else. Now is the time to empathise, unite, and support each other.” 

Ultimately, it’s about staying calm and adopting protective measures

The appearance of this novel coronavirus is the latest example of just how unpredictable life can be in general. Granted, with the previous outbreaks of SARS and MERS, this isn’t the 1st time the world has grappled with a situation of this nature. “This epidemic isn’t the first and it won’t be the last. Therefore, the best thing for startups and founders is to keep a cool head, stay calm and adopt basic protective measures,” explained Shohan Kulasuriya, Founder of Mankiwwa.

Founder of PickMe, Jiffry Zulfer remarked “PickMe has adopted work from home since yesterday, and from Monday 90% of our staff will be following this. We anticipate a drop in travel as people movement becomes restrictive, however as a company we are doing our very best to serve our customers and ensure we have the safest mode of travel and delivery.”

Explaining the additional measures they have taken, he went on to add “all our drivers are educated on hygiene and how they need to keep their vehicles clean. For our food driver partners and Merchants we have switched to a novel contactless delivery mode, where food drivers can be instructed to drop the food at designated places. We are also encouraging customers to use cashless transactions like credit cards for payment.”

Reflecting on that same thoughts, Semal Luthra from HomeTree Coworking added “In the future there are only going to be more things to be fearful about, the best way to protect yourself is to focus on strengthening your immunity.” 

Nevertheless, for both startups and large conglomerates, it’s a reminder to be prepared to adapt to any and all types of sudden changes. As Co-Founder of 99X Technology, Mano Sekeram puts it, “COVID-19 teaches you that businesses must be prepared for any eventuality and there is a lesson to be learnt in every crisis.” 

As the authorities and the business community at large attempts to tackle the current situation, we as individuals also have our part to play. In the end, the responsibility falls on all of us to curb the spread of COVID-19. Maintaining personal hygiene and avoiding public gatherings are the best precautionary measures we could take right now. In other words, wash your hands regularly and look after yourself. Maybe even skip that big match this weekend.

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