COVID-19 diary: Why we all have to row this boat together – experiences of a German social entrepreneur in India

In this exclusive first-person account, we share an expat entrepreneur’s view on the impact of COVID-19 in India, her responses to the crisis, and insights on how we can all move ahead.

3rd Apr 2020
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As a German citizen who has been living in India for over 10 years and working in the water purification sector, I have been well aware of the hygiene and sanitation challenges here. But the COVID-19 outbreak has highlighted a number of other problems as well, and India must practise its own messages of positivity and community contribution in order to survive.


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Early years

I grew up in Germany, and traveling has always been my childhood passion. I travelled a lot with my parents while growing up, and then on my own from the age of 14. Since then this passion became an obsession. I enjoy visiting new cultures and places, and learning about foreign traditions – even more so, I love to try foreign food!


I always aim to live as the locals live once I am in a new place. After I studied tourism management in Berlin, I opened my own travel agency and specialised in selling tailor-made holidays to the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and India. These were the countries where I travelled the most and I could suggest off-the-beaten-track and once-in-a-lifetime experiences for my clients.


In 2010, I was accompanying a veterans’ hockey team from Vienna, Austria to India. I organised a mix of friendly hockey matches and cultural events for them. We visited a village halfway between Agra and Jaipur in Rajasthan, where my business partner from Jaipur had his family roots.


We had a village walk and lunch with the family. We brought some hockey sticks and had a fantastic afternoon practice with the local kids. This made me move to India some months later to continue building up a Hockey Village in this area (I am a national-level hockey player).

Working in India

I lived in the village in Rajasthan for seven years, coaching and teaching underprivileged children. I then moved on and lived in Coorg, Mumbai, and Pune for a year each. Currently, I am the COO of a German company for water disinfection, and I am setting up the business here in Pune for them.


Working in the field of disinfection I am in touch with bacteria on a daily basis. Living in rural India for so many years, I have witnessed the challenges in hygiene and sanitation, and the condition of water and electricity supply.


I have seen people die because of contaminated water. I always wanted to help and that is why after working as a social worker I have chosen this job in water disinfection.


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COVID-19 outbreak

When I heard about the coronavirus from my German management, it was still in China only, and I thought that the concerns from the German side where much too high and this disease was far away. Still, I followed the news and I got articles and links from my CEO, informing me about the situation.


The questions were, how much would the coronavirus spread, how would the various countries manage, and how long would they take to overcome it. As I consider India my home in the meantime, for me there was no question of travelling back to Germany because of coronavirus, since my visa would expire in the beginning of April. Fortunately, the Foreigners Regional Registration Office helped resolve that issue.


When I saw on TV how the pandemic spread in Italy, I got worried about how India would manage. If the ‘first-world’ countries which were much smaller didn’t manage to control the COVID 19 outbreak, how would India be able to?


People took it too lightly and now the whole world was in trouble. I think there were epidemics or pandemics earlier, maybe only regional, but as we were globally not so well-connected, the information didn’t reach us as fast and often as it does nowadays.


There is also a lot of fake news on social media, unfortunately. I have had to explain to my adopted daughter that she has to do her own research and not believe everything that her college friends were sending her. I tried to sensitise her without scaring her.


Direct impact

In the beginning of March, I travelled to Bengaluru and Tirupati for work and I fell sick. I got fever and a sore throat. As I was travelling by AC coach in train, I was sure it was because of that. Still, at that point of time, there were only a handful of coronavirus infections and they were from travellers from abroad, with whom I was not in touch.


I nevertheless put myself into self-isolation, not so much because I thought I had coronavirus but more because my immune system was weak, and if I caught coronavirus it could have a bad effect on me. As I am a fit sportsperson with a healthy diet, I was not so worried that I would suffer much even if I would fall sick.


As the advice by the government was not to block hospitals for a routine check-up, I called a doctor who was recommended by my neighbour. Talking to him, he diagnosed an allergic reaction and prescribed some medication. I was fine again after a week.


At that point of time I understood that the point is not your own infection but the risk of spreading it to others who might not survive it so easily. The WHO set new standards for water disinfection, surface disinfection, and hand sanitisers. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a lockdown, we were already in a sort of lockdown in Maharashtra, and we were thinking about using our water disinfection solution for surface disinfection.


The government had announced before the lockdown that licences would be issued faster than usual as the country was in need of disinfection. But now all government offices are under lockdown as well, state borders are closed, and supplies for plastic bottle spray heads are kept on hold. The big players in disinfection are probably getting the last stock of empty plastic bottles, rather than us who are new in the field. 


So, what to do sitting at home? I am very creative and would have painted my wardrobe, made some drawings, stitched some masks, or tried out some new arts, but everything was shut down.


I was smart enough to buy two cartons of beer just the day before the lockdown! I have three big dogs and need meat for them – but all chicken shops were closed. Rumours were spreading that even chicken could pass on the coronavirus, and vendors and farmers were already facing big losses. Rumours are so dangerous.


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Coping with crisis – community responses

When the lockdown was announced, my first thought was that this would be the only possible way to avoid a complete disaster here in the country. But it was sad to see that despite several announcements and police presence, people would still roam on the streets and risk others’ lives.


I understand that day labourers or migrant workers want to go home to their families. But we all need to sacrifice for the sake of the nation, it is only temporary. I think two facts were playing a role here. First, the labourers were not informed properly and the schemes of the government to provide them with food and shelter were announced but not yet implemented.


Secondly, some people think that rules in this country are meant to be broken, and they seem to make their own decision. I am sorry to say that, but these people are simple and easy to manipulate.


On the other side it is easy sitting in a bungalow in relatively comfortable isolation and blame others for moving around if they don’t have a place to stay. Media gives you many options what to believe and it is difficult to find out the truth.


I am not a religious person but I am sure that God will understand that in these difficult times you pray from home and do not need to go to a temple, church, or mosque with hundreds of other people. It is temporary. We all have to make small sacrifices, but we are not at war, so the only thing we need to do is to be smart and calm now.


On the day after the Sunday lockdown, my husband and I went to the supermarket. They had signboards where they asked people to shop for only 10 minutes and shop responsibly. At the entrance the staff was measuring the temperature and gave us hand sanitiser.


Only 10 customers at a time were allowed in the huge supermarket. A long queue outside meant we had to wait for two hours in the burning sun. But it was okay, as I appreciate the efforts of the supermarket and we tried our best not to exceed the 10 minutes.


But I am afraid to say that we were probably the only ones following rules. People were getting angry and blasting the guard and staff, instead of realising that they are only doing their job. We are in lockdown and have a whole day of time, so be patient and cooperate, I thought.


In our bungalow society, I got the news from our neighbours that one of the residents has an organic farm and he would provide 10-kg vegetable boxes for those who were interested. We immediately ordered one box. I was excited to have organic vegetables and even more to make new dishes as I didn’t know what all was in the box.


The ‘old men’s gang’ (as I jokingly call the senior citizens) are not out in the society roads to walk and talk in the mornings and evenings. So, we have quite a good environment here, we are lucky to have a bungalow on our own, and don’t need to be bothered about who touched the lift button or the handle before us.


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Healthy habits

I think it is important to keep a rhythm to follow, and have a sense of perspective. The two boxes of beer are unfortunately over now, so the next two weeks will be extremely dry. We were also not able to find any meat supply even if it was announced that online delivery is resuming, but hasn’t as of now. But these are all small things. We have a house, clean water, electricity, and enough to eat. We are blessed.


India taught me to be patient and to be positive, so I would appreciate if more people would follow that mantra. We are all sailing in the same boat and we need to row the boat together to the other shore, but if we all row in different directions we will sink.


Even if I was helping others all of my life, I am not sure what my contribution could be in this situation besides staying home. I have a sewing machine, so if somebody would bring me clothes, I could sew some more masks. We are walking the dogs in the morning and evening in the society, cook a lot of new dishes, watch news, and work out in the evening.


I am lucky to work in the field of disinfection, which is in huge demand now. We can offer customers solutions to disinfect drinking water as per WHO standards. Our disinfection solution, initially developed for drinking water, can also be used as a surface disinfectant.


I am working on these new applications from home together with my small Indian team and the management in Germany. We are talking with the local authorities to understand the process of licensing at the moment. So, working from home is okay for me.


Of course, things are not as effective or efficient as before the lockdown but I am able to contribute and my company is able to pay me my salary. None of our team members has the worry or fear of getting fired right now. Our hope is that the country will be more sensible towards disinfection and hygiene after the crisis, so it will be easier for us to work in that field.


When I talk with my parents back home in Germany, the situation seems to be much more relaxed than in India. We have a higher number of infections but comparatively low numbers of deaths. I read that this is because they are testing a lot. The government has announced a lockdown in different places but not as strict as in India.


My parents go for walks in the park, shop, but avoid gatherings and maintain social distance everywhere. They live in a small city with a few coronavirus cases, and they will take care of themselves.

The road ahead

How the situation will develop here in India is worrying me more. I learnt from Hinduism that only when something gets destroyed, something new can be created. Maybe this is a wake-up call for all of us to live more conscious, to take care of our environment and our people, be more social and less egoistic.


We should enjoy every moment to the fullest as we never know when our time is over. There should be no regrets. See how Nature is breathing at the moment. We should feel guilty and ashamed what we did to her. This pandemic will have an end and whatever has to happen will happen.


Surprisingly, in this crisis long-forgotten friends are asking about my whereabouts – that feels great. We should again care more for each other, not only in bad times.


When this is over, I want to move to Goa, enjoy the nature, good food, and a cold beer and I want to live every single day as if it would be my last!


(Edited by Evelyn Ratnakumar)

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