E-pharmacies are facing problems similar to that of online groceries, but for some players, the problem is two-fold.

Coronavirus Coronavirus Thursday, March 26, 2020 - 08:15

Online grocery stores have constantly been in the news over delayed deliveries and hindrances in operations, ever since much of India’s formal workforce began to work from home. But in the view of the 21-day lockdown over the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s another item that Indians are buying in bulk or panic online buying aside from groceries, masks and hand sanitisers — essential drugs. 

E-pharmacies are facing problems similar to that of online groceries, but for some players, the problem is two-fold. 

According to Medlife’s co-founder and CEO Ananth Narayanan, the 21-day lockdown is a good idea to curb the spread of coronavirus and must be executed as well, but the problem that they are facing is both a first-mile problem as well as a last-mile problem. As a first mile problem, the company is having trouble bringing in inventory from distributors into its fulfilment centres from where it undertakes delivery. The second problem is the delivery itself.

Supply

“The way pharma supply chains work is that you have to get medicines from the CFA (carrying and forwarding agent) and from the distributor to your fulfilment centre, and from there to the customer,” Ananth says. 

Due to this, he adds, the company’s days in inventory, or the average number of days it takes for a firm to sell off its inventory, is down by 20-30%.  

“We are working with each pharma distributor, and are trying to arrange vehicles to get inventory into fulfilment centres. For each of these, we're getting permission. But it's one at a time, and trucks are getting blocked and so on. We’re doing a lot less of what we normally do in a day,” he says. 

With the imposition of the lockdown, state borders have been sealed, except for essential services. E-pharmacies, on paper, do classify as an essential service. While all companies TNM spoke to say that there is no ambiguity regarding the matter at top levels of law enforcement and help is readily available, ground-level implementation remains a problem. 

Aamit Khanna from PharmEasy maintained that there was no supply crunch so far, but there could potentially be issues if trouble arises with state border crossings or other issues relating to the transportation of medicines. However, he’s optimistic, and says that there are people in the government who understand the importance of logistics in medications, and doesn’t expect it to be a problem. 

1mg also said that they were fine on stocks currently, and are not facing trouble as they are not moving stock. 

Delivery

However, issues at the ground level are also affecting deliveries to customers. Delivery personnel from Medlife, PharmEasy and 1mg were harassed and in some cases allegedly beaten when they were out to make deliveries in cities such as Delhi and Bengaluru. 

At the same time, e-pharmacies have seen orders increase by anywhere between three to six times their usual volumes.

Ground-level trouble even led to 1mg temporarily halting operations on Wednesday, and Medlife’s delivery timelines being pushed by 2-3 days. For Medlife, deliveries were down by 60%. 

To ease this problem, many cities are issuing movement passes to workers engaged in essential services. It is, however, important to note, that a Medlife personnel, who was hurt in one incident, did have a curfew pass. “We request the state governments and concerned authorities to ensure that strict instructions are given to the police to permit delivery personnel with valid documentation perform their duties in these times of crisis,” Ananth said in a statement. 

Additionally, the incidents of alleged harassment and violence make it hard to keep operations going as the delivery personnel are stressed and demotivated, he told TNM. “It's very hard for me to say, ‘we will take care of you, come here’. We’re doing everything for their health, but if people get harassed on the road, it's very hard to do deliveries,” he says.

Due to the incidents, he is seeing an increase in absenteeism, something that is currently happening with 1mg as well. 

Prashant Tandon, the co-founder and CEO of 1mg, said that the key issue is getting employees to fulfilment centres. “A part of it is that their families are not letting them go and they are afraid, and another part is those who ventured out were sent back. ID cards are not being respected. We are working with authorities to get them passes and making transportation arrangements to the fulfilment centres. Delivery teams are anxious,” he says. 

According to Prashant, this is the reason 1mg decided not to proceed with operations on Wednesday, and expect to be making deliveries from Thursday. Currently, Prashant says that they have a backlog of nearly two days. 

“We are in active touch with local and central administrations who are all assuring that we would be able to work, and they will sort this out soon for us,” he added.

Aamit from PharmEasy also said that while their one delivery executive’s vehicle was damaged and others were beaten up, they are working with law enforcement and government agencies to smoothen out trouble, given how e-pharmacies can actually aid social distancing. 

Available stocks

Pradeep Dadha, the Founder and CEO of Netmeds, said that the country has seen an “unprecedented upsurge” of 1400% in sanitation products and over 500% in disinfectants in just two weeks. “We have ensured that Netmeds.com has adequate stocks of hand sanitiser at government-approved rates as per the directive issued by the Centre,” they said.

1mg said that they have seen a surge for products like masks, hand sanitisers, flu-related drugs and immunity boosters. Medlife saw a surge in similar products.  

PharmEasy’s Aamit stated that under immunity boosters, the company sold large quantities of zinc and Vitamin C supplements. 

He also adds that for those who regularly take drugs for issues such as diabetes and hypertension, people have increased keeping an average stock of one month’s medication to 45-60 days.