A decade ago, a friend introduced me to a politician at a book launch in Delhi, saying that I worked in the logistics sector. The politician looked at me rather condescendingly and said, ‘Oh, so you are a transporter.’ I didn’t feel bad about him calling me a transporter. I am proud to be one of the millions in India. But something in his tone was so insulting that I felt compelled to respond and said, ‘That’s right Sir, I am a transporter. But do you know that if everyone like me, whether they transport through a truck or a bike or an aircraft or a ship, decide to take a week off from work simultaneously, then the nation could come to a halt?’
Logistics as Essential Service
Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic, I have reminded myself frequently about that conversation. Supply chains were completely disrupted during the initial days of the lockdown. Transporters, warehousing companies, port terminal operators, airlines, custom house brokers, freight forwarders, courier and express companies, multi-modal operators, shipping lines, third-party logistics providers, cargo terminal operators etc who ran those supply chains were facing massive operational roadblocks. In a few days, though, governments everywhere realised that you cannot ‘lockdown’ logistics because shutting down supply chains disrupts lives, livelihoods and the economy. Thus, they made exceptions and logistics services, and providers came under the category of ‘essential services’ in line with the government and healthcare services.
Even though governments recognised logistics personnel as essential workers, police treated them with harshness, beat them up for driving a truck, delivering a parcel or going to their place of work. Their neighbours shunned them and looked upon them as a risk to the community. But we persisted, and by June 2020, most of us were back to running operations with full staff strength. Through this all, we also overcame challenges in terms of health risks and adaptation to new contact-less processes. We were constantly improving on prevention, mitigation, testing, treatment, and tracing protocols. Many companies increased insurance covers for their staff even though clients delayed payments by weeks.
Throughout these trying months, people across the logistics sector have shown exemplary courage and commitment to their work. But when a colleague was diagnosed with COVID-19 or when a team member died from it, our resolve was tested. Such announcements would bring gasps and eerie silences on the operation floors and in-office meetings. But what choice did we have? In our industry, you cannot work from home barring a few activities, such as documentation and accounts. The thing is, you cannot load an aircraft or a truck or a ship from home.
As months progressed, and the situation eased, we became hopeful that things were going to get ‘OK’ eventually. As the vaccines started appearing on the horizon, we saw a glimmer of hope. We thought as a sector that is identified as ‘essential’ we will be able to purchase vaccines for our staff. But whilst essential workers in the healthcare and government sectors got vaccinated across all ages in the country, we kept waiting for our turn. And continue to wait, even now. When the first shipments of ‘Vaccine Maitri’ boxes arrived at our airport facility for exports, everyone gathered around them. We saw colleagues happily and proudly loading aircraft with vaccines for people around the world. This, when we were not able to secure any vaccines for them.
The Forgotten Ones
As the second wave of pandemic ravages through the nation, infections rise amongst employees in logistics companies. And unfortunately, some of our colleagues are dying. A few have managed to get vaccinated. But many who are in their 20s and 30s await their turn. It saddens me to no end. It seems that everyone has forgotten us. I find it strange, that for months, we have delivered everything from milk, diapers, vegetables, televisions, laptops, mobiles, books, clothes to medicines and more. But no one cares that the delivery boy who brings the next set of sanitisers to their home is not vaccinated.
Ursula K Le Guin in her seminal work Those Who Walk Away from the Omelas describes the utopian city of Omelas whose prosperity depends on the everlasting misery of a single child. The child, who everyone knows about but pretends that does not exist. This, I thought, was the state of our being as logistics service providers in the country. We have toiled, risked our lives and worked through some of the most arduous conditions so that supply chains could remain fulfilled, factories could run, homes could be comfortable, and hospitals had what they needed. We did not stop even for a single day. But nobody remembers us. It poignantly reminds me of what the politician had said to me in Delhi. After all, we are just transporters. But let me tell you, no matter the odds, we are very proud to be so.
Bhairavi Jani is Executive Director of SCA Group, est. 1896. She is a logistics professional and a supply chain entrepreneur. She is a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum. Opinions are personal.