STORIES OF HOW WE SHONE THROUGH COVID
Human society and well-being is based on the premise of a tightly-woven feeling of togetherness which is the essence of our existence. We thrive as co-beings. We are at our best when we get to live with each other. Our senses are tuned to be in each other’s company and to observe, learn, react, predict. This is what makes us essentially human. We have been living thus for millennia.
When COVID struck the very nature of this co-existence was ripped apart. From being intensely social we were forced to be distant and aloof. We were risking our lives if we maintained social contact. Distancing did not just happen physically, nut eh pyscho-social toll, which was largely invisible, was of mammoth proportions.
Apart from forcing us to drift apart in our own communities, the pandemic struck at the core of our professional well-being. Millions of businesses around the world that thrived on human interaction and traveling to the point of sale, suddenly came to a standstill. The internet was flooded with photos of empty thoroughfares, high-rises and office complexes that were once bustling with frenzied business bearing a deserted outlook. It seemed the world of business and economy had grinded itself to a screeching halt.
Nepal too wasn’t left untouched with this turn of global shutdown. COVID spread its deadly claws into the subcontinent and slowly but surely life as we knew it, stopped. People were suspicious of each other and were generally wary. During the government-mandated lockdown that ensued to keep the health crisis from spiraling out of control, people were forced indoors.
Businesses suffered and panicked societies struggled to find answers to an unprecedented situation. However, slowly we witnessed a turn of events. As communities and as a country we started to adapt, accept, and innovate. From the depression of being cut off, people found ways of being creative – first at home, and then as organizations and institutions.
One of the sectors that really went into overdrive was education. When the lockdown started, fortunately for many their previous academic session was already coming to a close but plans were afoot how to star the next. With no signs of the pandemic releasing it’s grasp on our lives and with the academic future of hundreds of thousands of students and education professionals at stake, there was an urgent requirement to adapt to a newer methodology of teaching and learning. Although thousands of students and teachers across the country still remain adversely affected by the closure of the in-contact classrooms, several innovations have been introduced. Teaching-and-learning catapulted onto the digital/distance medium and words such as synchronous/asynchronous learning became common parlance. ZOOM, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet became household names. School administrators and teachers ran endless hours of training to shift teaching-learning virtually. Educational institutions in Nepal, alongside the rest of the world, went through a massive shift, not just in terms of technological progress, but most importantly in terms of the mindset of educators, students, and parents. Learning virtually might have been scoffed at with “we are not yet ready for this”, became a no-nonsense alternative. We realized that education, as we knew it in schools, could also happen from and at home. Of course, the transition was anything but easy, but we did it. Parents sat alongside the children at homes and patiently took training to understand the Learning Management Systems (LMS) and encouraged children to adapt to studying on their internet-enabled devices. Field visits were replaced by virtual tours. Exercise-book based assignments were now done over LMS and a plethora of applications such as Moodle, Edmodo, Google Classrooms. Assessments were conducted online and digital report cards generated. Parent-Teacher conferences and meetings were held online. An entire new world of online education and training opened up, not just for students but for anyone who were interested in brushing up existing skills or learning new ones. The shift to online education is one of the more massive jumps that happened in 2020. COVID, despite its challenges fast-tracked innovation and technology-adaptation in the education sector for sure.
Although COVID stifled a lot of sectors it opened previously-closed bottlenecks in technology innovation and government-level approvals. Bikash Gurung, President of Robotics Association of Nepal, talks about the progress the technology and robotics sector made during the past 9 months. “There was a renewed interest in made-in-Nepal capabilities as the industry and policy makers realized the need for backing innovation rather than just relying on foreign-made adaptations. Our engineers and scientists understand this market the best and the innovations that we make will be most suitable. The Sister Robot which was a breakthrough for us is saving precious lives of health workers and was developed indigenously. It was trusted and deployed at the emergency wards of hospitals. National Covid19 innovation grants have been announced by the government to spur solutions to challenges presented by the pandemic and multiple sectors have come together to innovate. There is renewed hope among the qualified youth that were previously leaving the country in drove for technology jobs overseas. They now believe that they could best use their knowledge and expertise to leapfrog the country forward. That is a massive step for the sector and the country in general. The National Innovation Digital Network, launched by NAST that brings together actors from various industries have enabled cross-sector collaboration and fast-tracked innovative solutions.” Uttam Pudasaini, Co-founder at NAXA, and Nepal Flying Labs echoes on the initiatives that the Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of Nepal took during the pandemic. One of the major milestones, Pudasaini mentions, was the setting up of National Innovation Digital Network https://innovationnepal.nast.gov.np/ that let the Technology and Innovation Committee of the government, led by Professor Ramesh Kumar Maskey, monitor and support innovations that were underway throughout the country. The National Innovation Grant announced by the Government of Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) was also a major boost to individual and organizational innovators.
The Hamro Swasthya app that was developed by a consortium of private technology companies for the Ministry of Health and Population (MoHP) has had over three lakh downloads and is a fantastic example of the initiatives taken by the MoHP to disseminate accurate, unbiased information on COVID to the general public, according to Pudasaini. The app even allowed suspected cases to be monitored from home, marking them into red, blue and green categories. The people that were earmarked red were followed up over phone by the Ministry, which was a display of remarkable efficiency by a government entity. Pudasaini is also proud of the international achievements that the dynamic drone ecosystem in Nepal is garnering – The International Air Cargo Association (TIACA), the nonprofit association representing and uniting all parts of the air cargo industry (e.g. shippers, forwarders, ground handlers, airports, airlines, manufacturers, IT providers, etc.) announced that Nepal Flying Labs won the 2020 TIACA Air Cargo Sustainability Award, sponsored by CHAMP Cargosystems. The award celebrates and encourages outstanding industry initiatives driving sustainability in air cargo. Nepal Flying Labs, a nonprofit social pioneering drone use in Nepal, won in the start-up category for its work flying humanitarian and medical cargo drones to remote regions of Nepal. As an up-and-coming start-up Nepal Flying Labs will receive a $10,000 prize.
Kiran Nepali, one of Nepal’s most well-known Sarangi players and an artist of international repute, who is behind the revival of Nepali folk instruments through Project Sarangi, speaks of the challenges and innovations in the industry. “The closure of music gigs and in-person music classes hit the industry like a sucker punch. But that also spurred a lot of innovative thought processes. Musicians took to the online platform like never before to learn and upgrade themselves via online courses and trainings. Institutions and individual musicians took to learning the intricacies of teaching virtually and started delivering online classes, to interested students not just in Nepal, but also overseas. Folk artists especially had the opportunity to reach out to international audiences since people were eager and curious about eastern instruments and had the time to learn. Virtual concerts have started and these have an unprecedented reach across regions and the world. An entirely new vista has opened up for the music industry and musicians to capitalize upon.”
Similar stories of surmounting Herculean challenges abound in the entrepreneurial sector. SAFAL Partners, a consulting and investment management company, that was successful in raising angel investment funds for the companies that it had planned to grow through mentoring and investment prior to the pandemic, stuck through diminishing markets for the startups under their management and pivoted business plans to make them stay afloat. The pandemic forced Jayant Bhatta and Arabinda Subedi, two garment entrepreneurs, to postpone their production and sales plans. In 2018, they had raised investment from a group of private Nepali investors through SAFAL Partners. The funds were for the design, production and sales of Nepal-made motorcycle safety jackets, which they named Kavach. By early 2020, they were ready to distribute Kavach via retailers. But the lockdown forced them to pivot to making PPEs, masks and medical safety wear. They found Mahabir Pun’s Nepal Innovation Center, hospitals and individual frontline health care professionals as new customers. “We saw that everything we had learnt to produce Kavach could be used to make high-quality PPEs that our medical customers found comfortable and practical,” said Bhatta, who researched the designs and produced the prototypes for approval. “We called in our workers, trained them on social distancing and hygiene practices, and put them to work at our production unit without missing a beat,” added Subedi. “Their angel investors are happy that Kavach is finally in stores,” said SAFAL Partners’ Founder Ashutosh Tiwari, who had helped raise the angel funds and mentored Subedi and Bhatta over the past 28 months as Kavach made its journey from an idea to production to finally sales.
If organizations pivoted their business plans and innovated, individual lives were touched positively by collectives that were formed to bring back the very essence of human life – the connection, appreciation, and the camaraderie over common interests. Food knows no boundaries and COVID pressed the fast track button for many of the foodies. Hamro Kitchen, a collective of food enthusiasts, garnered members of different skill sets, age groups and ethnicity around their common love for cooking. Dr. Rita Singh, Periodontist and Implantologist at Oracare Periodontal Clinic, and amateur chef, shares that it got her and several members to try out different recipes. “In the process, it inspired many of us to document the process, and I see several members including me, actually taking time and patience to photograph the outcome.” It came as a pleasant surprise to Dr. Singh as she received a project from a US-based Oat company to photograph for them, after they noticed her food photography on Facebook. “Seeing members interacting with and motivating each other is absolutely beautiful. Sharing tips, techniques, and also failure stories from thousands of kitchens have kept all engaged and enthusiastic during the pandemic”, she shares.
Such stories and more are testimony to the resilience of the human spirit that shine in the face of the most difficult of challenges. It reminds us time and time again why we are the superior species on this earth. The pandemic has surely tested our potential to survive and see the silver lining behind the clouds. As a society we have come through and galvanized ourselves to ensure that we stay motivated, inspired, and connected, albeit digitally. This is the time when all actors of a societal framework need to come together to collaborate and give shape to a future that is better and brighter for us all. Let us embrace the change and evolve as a stronger community and country.