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Coronavirus: Startups are not immune.



The spread of the coronavirus is having a significant, and possibly devastating, impact on the global economy. It’s disrupting nearly every avenue of business, big or small, and sending many stock prices plummeting. Economies that are already struggling will be the worst affected. Many health analysts believe we have nothing to worry about and have insisted that this is a normal flu we experience year in, year out.

Startup inclusion events are also feeling the pinch with cancellations, such as the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last month. This usually brings captains of industry in the technology space and showcases new products and services. Startups also use the platform to make connections, pitch to investors and get access to markets.

The SXSW in Austin Texas, that was scheduled for later this week, was also called off for the first time in its 34 year history, also citing that they have a lot of insurance (terrorism, injury, property destruction, weather), however bacterial diseases, infections communicable diseases, viruses and pandemics are not covered. The SXSW normally attracts some 200 000 people and has a dedicated section for startups to pitch to investors.

Meanwhile, my planned trip to Paris this week was also a no-go, as some of the Deep Tech events in Paris had to be binned. This is an invaluable platform that gives startups the opportunity to connect with the ecosystem. Three South African startups were chosen to attend, but have now lost out on a great opportunity.

Many crucial events such as the SXSW, the Mobile World Congress and the Deep Tech event could have helped accelerate many startups from around the globe. Yet, as long as the virus prevails with infections, massive quarantines, lockdowns (such as in Northern Italy) and sadly, deaths, it will continue to adversely affect the startup ecosystem worldwide – and every other ecosystem of business (including even sports). The Juventus vs Inter Milan game on Sunday was played with no crowd or fan in the stadium.

Since the virus outbreak, I’ve chatted to both colleagues and friends and they mentioned that they have cancelled most of their meetings and resorted to virtual engagements with their teams overseas and are finding ways to off-set the no-fly burden to achieve what they normally would. Airlines are also facing severe challenges – Air Belgium has closed its doors and many airline staff are being forced to take unpaid leave or being retrenched. Lufthansa airline is also planning to ground all its 14 A380 fleet due to low travel demand.

The question for me is that, business-wise, is this all really such a burden? Do I have to be in Paris this week? Do you have to be at SXSW? Must one attend the Mobile Congress? Do we have to fly as regularly as we do? Jokingly, one of my friends asked amidst all these questions – do we have to live?

Obviously, we want to live, but we have to safeguard ourselves and our surroundings and keep earth conducive to human and all other life forms of existence. In this light, I think the virus has some crucial lessons for us regarding planet protection. Last week, I had a lunch chat with Nicolas Bruhl, the Ambassador of Switzerland to South Africa, on climate change. The views expressed by various lunch participants were that the earth will still be here after we are gone, but climate change teaches us to ensure that it is still habitable for our younger generations. If we continue to hurt the environment, all life forms will suffer.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) released a statement last Saturday stating that the virus has now infected over 100 000 with a few thousand already dead. Everyone has a role to play in containing the virus, as per the advice from WHO. This includes working across society to identify people who are sick, bringing them to care, following up on contacts, preparing hospitals and clinics to manage a surge in patients and training health workers.

In addition, we have been advised on a number of personal hygiene measures to take to curb the spread of the virus. At the 22 on Sloane campus, we have also placed hand sanitisers in all strategic places. Recently, President Trump signed a US$8.3bn emergency spending bill for the coronavirus response, yet one can only image that the cost to the global economy will run into trillions of dollars. The World Bank has also announced a $12billion immediate support for COVID-19 Country response.

In closing, I urge all startups not to despair amidst this hard-hitting crisis. Rather, as a collective and invaluable economic force the world over, let’s try to bite the bullet and collaborate where necessary to ensure our dreams are not lost. The world now needs the entrepreneurial spirit like never before. 

 Kizito Okechukwu is the co-Chair of the Global Entrepreneurship Network (GEN) Africa – 22 on Sloane is Africa’s largest startup campus.

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