Vivek Singh loves his chicken butter masala and kadhai paneer. But the Bengaluru-based banking executive does not have the time to cook it at home and relies mostly on his domestic help for his daily cooking, and online food delivery apps for binge eating.

With the Covid-19 pandemic spreading across the world, and India currently observing a lockdown to contain the spread of the Coronavirus, Singh’s cook has stopped coming to work since the national lockdown was announced a little more than three weeks ago. The 24-year-old admits that he doesn’t have the inclination or time to prepare food every day and unwillingly has been ordering too often from restaurants using food delivery apps Swiggy and Zomato.

But Singh is not too sure about using food delivery apps anymore. Earlier this week, a delivery executive associated with Box8, a Bengaluru-based food startup, tested positive for Covid-19 in Delhi’s Malviya Nagar. According to media reports more than 70 homes whom the executive serviced while being symptomatic and at least 15 colleagues have since been quarantined.

“Since the cook has stopped coming, home delivery of food has gone up. But after the incident in Delhi I am scared to order anything online. The companies say that their delivery agents wear masks, gloves, and are sanitised, but that means nothing,” says Singh, who lives alone in the city. “These measures are to protect yourself, not others. Even then, doctors have been wearing PPE (personal protective equipment) and have been infected.”

On April 15, the government said that e-commerce companies such as Flipkart, Amazon, Snapdeal, and others can start delivering non-essential items to customers from April 20. Since the national lockdown started on March 25, e-commerce platforms were allowed to deliver only essential commodities such as groceries, food, fruits, vegetables, dairy and milk products, medicines, and medical equipment.

“Digital economy is critical to the services sector and is important for national growth. Accordingly, e-commerce operations, operations of IT and IT-enabled services, data and call centres for government activities, and online teaching and distance learning are all permitted activities now,” noted a statement from the Ministry of Home Affairs on April 15.

Since the announcement, e-commerce companies are pulling out all stops to weed out possible hurdles to business as they start operations next week. Similarly, the food delivery startups, some of which also dabble in grocery delivery, are also hoping for a sharp turnaround in business once the lockdown is partially lifted.

However, at a time when the number of people infected with Covid-19 has surged past the 13,000 mark in India, a happening like a delivery personnel testing positive could potentially prevent consumers from buying online extensively, say experts. While online purchases theoretically are deemed a much safer option than crowding stores, blips like this could be potentially damaging, at least in the immediate future.

“After this incident [Delhi’s delivery man testing positive for Covid-19] you will certainly see some dip, especially in food delivery orders because people will be extra cautious. This will also play in the minds of consumers for non-essential items and not everyone will jump in to purchase to avoid contact as much as possible. But this will pass over a period of time,” says Satish Meena, senior forecast analyst at Forrester.

Electronics and fashion, both mostly discretionary spends, make up a lion’s share of the turnover at online marketplaces such as Flipkart and Amazon. Both businesses have started grocery delivery and the vertical has picked up amid the nationwide lockdown but is yet to contribute meaningfully to their overall gross sales.

Besides safety concerns, consumers could hold back discretionary spends on online shopping for some time as the pandemic leads to job losses, pay cuts, and increments being deferred. “People won’t spend like before; they will purchase what they need. The biggest issue everyone is facing now is uncertainty in the job market,” says Meena.

For e-commerce companies, the concern now is implementing the safety measures.

“All our facilities are deep-cleaned and sanitised regularly; we have enforced strict social distancing norms across facilities in addition to systematic monitoring of temperature, while masks and other waste disposal are being undertaken as per bio-medical waste disposal norms,” says Myntra CEO Amar Nagaram.

“From a customer safety point of view, we are undertaking contactless delivery and pick-up, we have discontinued customer signature capture, there will be no ringing of doorbells and packets will be placed at a handover point the customer is comfortable with. We are also encouraging UPI payments,” he adds.

Amazon is also putting in place a robust mechanism to minimise risks. “At the start and end of routes, delivery associates have been advised to clean all frequently touched surfaces of their vehicles and delivery devices. Delivery associates have been asked to wash their hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser or cleaning agent. Furthermore, Amazon has mandated all delivery associates to stay home if they feel sick or have a fever,” noted a statement from Amazon.

Flipkart says that it is constantly monitoring the health of its employees and delivery associates using thermal scans. “For our supply chain and logistics network, we have organised more than 3,000 awareness sessions covering over one lakh employees across all our facilities on how our employees and partners can minimise their exposure by following simple precautionary measures,” Flipkart says.

Food delivery companies also claim to have taken strict safety precautions. Both Zomato and Swiggy, for instance, have introduced contactless delivery, regular temperature checks for its delivery executives, and other usual measures. However, it is not realistically possible to make home delivery entirely risk-free.

“Food and grocery delivery are essential services, and in spite of everybody’s best efforts, not fully risk-free. Customers should be cognisant of the risks involved and follow careful package handling practices if they are getting anything home delivered,” Zomato co-founder and CEO Deepinder Goyal tweeted on April 16.

Box8 said in a statement that the Delhi incident happened despite the company taking all precautions and sensitising staff on sanitation practices. “As a company we have been working very hard to ensure that each one of us follows all the best practices and safety measures to reduce the risk of any mishap for both our staff and our customers,” the startup said.

Industry experts say that e-commerce logistics, food and other hyperlocal delivery sectors together employ at least 1-1.5 million delivery executives. While all companies have mandated its delivery executives not to report to work if they feel unwell, the fear of loss of pay often drives them to hit the road.

Many are also not on direct payrolls of the companies and get paid based on their quantum of work. This makes it imperative for delivery executives across e-commerce, grocery and food delivery verticals to put in more hours at work.

“One of the most disconcerting thoughts to have come out of this crisis is the fear of losing one’s job or the business suffering financially if one is a business owner. Several economic forecasts point to recessionary trends. Since earning members are critical to a family’s finances, fears of financial security can prove to be highly stressful,” says Anna Chandy, chairperson, The Live Love Laugh Foundation.

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