Athena’s Response to the COVID-19 Crisis

COVID-19 has adversely affected our lives and economies in multiple ways. Some of this is unfortunately irreparable. With more than a million deaths across the world, the threats posed by the virus are likely to impact our communities for months, if not years.

The preventive actions needed to contain the virus have left a trail of severe effects on families, businesses, non-profits, governments, and nations altogether. Unemployment has skyrocketed ubiquitously and businesses, barring a few, have experienced an unprecedented loss of demand.

Given the all-pervasive nature of the impact of the pandemic, we at Athena have focused heavily on conducting research related to the pandemic, formulating COVID response studies and strategies, and adapting our existing projects to suit these COVID times.

Pandemic Response: Highlights of Our Work So Far

Adapting to the COVID Crisis on Our Ongoing Projects

Formulating and Implementing Better COVID-19 Response Strategies

Pandemic Response: Highlights of Our Work So Far

Athena has been at the forefront of conducting research to assess and evaluate the impact of COVID-19 on various economies, sectors and organisations – and seeking ways to overcome the challenges posed by the pandemic, finding new opportunities and helping revive economic growth and stability.

The following are some of the projects and studies Athena has conducted through the course of the pandemic.

Amid the Global Health Crisis, A Growing Demand for Medicinal Plants

One of the outcomes of the COVID crisis is that there has been an increased focus worldwide on ways to improve personal healthcare and overall immunity. For example, the demand for medicinal plants has seen a global surge since the outbreak of the pandemic.

In India, the southern state of Tamil Nadu has had a great tradition of plant-based medicinal practices. Though the state has a high proportion of medicinal plant production from wild and cultivated sources, it is yet to achieve its best in converting the raw materials to high value phytochemicals and conquering global export markets.

In these COVID times, there is a definite opportunity for value-added phytomedicines to expand in the domestic and global health industry and meet the growing demand for standardised herbal products.

Athena conducted a study for the Government of Tamil Nadu to understand the status and scope of export of medicinal plants and phytomedicines in the state.

  • The study examined avenues of value addition of herbal products and ways to encourage rural enterprises and clusters on this front.
  • It will help the state in understanding the global market demand and matching the local supply from suitable agro-climatic regions, supported by technical knowhow to aid entrepreneurs and farmers.

How Will MSMEs Overcome COVID Losses and Propel Economic Growth Again?

The Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) sector was hit especially hard by the COVID crisis because unlike large corporations, smaller enterprises depend on regular cash inflow to stay afloat and have limited to no cash reserves to survive prolonged suspension of work, such as during the coronavirus-induced lockdown.

In Tamil Nadu, where MSMEs play a vital role in the growth of the state’s economy, Athena conducted a study for the state government on ways to revive the sector. The growth of MSMEs is crucial as the sector has potential not only to generate additional export earnings but also to create employment opportunities for the burgeoning young workforce in the state.

If the sector can overcome the challenges posed by this health and economic crisis, it can help Tamil Nadu emerge stronger in the post-COVID era.

Athena’s study aimed to:

  • Assess the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on MSMEs
  • Analyse the need for redefinition of MSMEs
  • Outline the employment generation potential of MSMEs
  • Enhance competitiveness of local manufacturers to global standards through innovation
  • Overcome the challenges faced by MSMEs on financing post COVID-19
  • Suggest immediate and short-term measures for early revival and survival

How COVID is Hitting First-Time Truck Owners Especially Hard

As a rigorous nationwide lockdown commenced in India in March, and went on for the next few months, one of the communities affected by the pause on manufacturing and transportation of goods was that of truck owners.

For a major transport finance company, Athena conducted a study to assess the holistic impact of COVID on first-time truck owners and their trucking operations.

Our proposed approach comprised three broad workflows:

  • Develop socio-economic customer profiles of the transport finance company, including information on sub-sectors serviced by their trucking operations
  • Model the impact of COVID on the overall economy and drill it to the various sub-sectors identified
  • Conduct a sensitivity analysis of scenarios of COVID impact on various customer profiles, to inform strategic and specific interventions for different profiles

The workflows culminated into an evidence-based, rigorous impact articulation of the effects of COVID on first-time truck owners, and detailed the extent to which they will be able to operate their businesses during and immediately after the pandemic.

Members from the Athena team have also been involved in authoring the following COVID-related reports and studies.

Adapting to the COVID Crisis on Our Ongoing Projects

Like all of you, we’ve had to adapt our work too, in order to address the concerns arising from the pandemic - from changes in field management and primary research plans, to introducing COVID impact components on ongoing projects.

Take for example, our impact assessment of the Govt of India’s UDAAN operations under the Credit Guarantee Fund Trust for Micro and Small Enterprises (CGTMSE). We had been tasked with evaluating the impact of credit guarantee schemes on micro and small enterprises in terms of economic and financial additionality.

But COVID-19 impacted enterprises in terms of their ability to service loan obligations.

So, we realised it would be crucial to factor in both pre-COVID and post-COVID responses of the enterprises being surveyed, and we are modifying our questionnaires accordingly. This will assist us in analysing how effective the scheme was in helping small units survive during this difficult phase, making the study more relevant to our changed realities.

Another case study of how we adapted our existing projects to COVID realities is our Gender Analysis project with UNICEF Uganda.

The Project

Gender Analysis to Promote Gender Mainstreaming in Nutrition Actions in Uganda

Client: UNICEF Uganda

The study is focused on identifying the current nutritional status of the northern regions of Uganda, and the policies, structures and processes that guide the formulation and implementation of nutritional activities.

Factoring COVID-19 Research Into The Project

  • Since COVID-19 has affected people’s livelihoods across the world, we included segments on food insecurity that could have been brought on by the pandemic.
  • For the household survey, we are analysing whether the households have faced episodes of food insecurity and its frequency.
  • For the Key Informant Interviews (KIIs), we are enquiring how the availability of food and the daily activities of the various departments relevant to nutrition have been disrupted.

The Logistical Challenges

  • The Government of Uganda announced the COVID-19 influenced lockdown around the time the field research for the study was scheduled to begin
  • Additionally, there were restrictions on gathering, and curfews after the initial lockdown phase. As a result, components of the field research such as Key Informant Interviews (KIIs) and Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) were disrupted.
  • The restrictions and risk of international travel restricted members of the consulting team from being physically present to lead the trainings and supervise the surveys.

Our Response

  • We conducted the interviewer trainings for the KIIs virtually. The KIIs themselves, which were supposed to be held in-person, were shifted to either video-calling or telephonic conversations.
  • The survey team was coached on safety protocols to be followed in the field and was equipped with necessary safety equipment such as face masks and sanitisers. Travel between villages was undertaken in smaller groups to ensure social distancing.
  • Although the participant numbers for focus group discussions (FGDs) were revised and reduced, we ensured that all interest groups are included.
  • The consulting team at Athena was directly involved in addressing problems which arose during the training and surveys, by being in continuous communication with the field team.

Modified Data Collection Methods, Adapted to COVID Times

Athena, along with a partner firm, is currently engaged in a study that involves assessing the performance of India’s urban sector on key liveability parameters such as access, quality, equity, etc. and evaluation of the five flagship missions of the MoHUA. Through a mixed-method approach – analysis of secondary datasets and primary consultations at the national, state and city level, the study seeks to examine the efficacy of the Missions, identify key issues and challenges faced and suggest a set of actionable recommendations for the future avatars of these Missions.

The research design included 1100 household surveys, 600 Key Informant Interviews and 200 Focus Group Discussions across 60 cities in 16 Indian states/UTs. Though the study started in pre-COVID times, the commencement of primary research coincided with the onset of the coronavirus outbreak in India.

Our data collection methods needed to be reworked significantly. And even as the world video-conferenced like never before, our primary research too went online.

  • We experimented with virtual interactions using respondent-suitable platforms to train and re-train our field enumerators, supervisors, moderators and master trainers on the primary research instruments.
  • Even our Key Informant Interviews (KIIs) with government officials, private sector organisations, development institutions and specialists were mostly conducted virtually.

Tracking the Safety of Frontline Sanitation Workers During the Pandemic

Athena is also currently anchoring a project on developing a Monitoring, Learning and Evaluation (MLE) platform for Citywide Inclusive Sanitation (CWIS), funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation across 8 cities in India, Bangladesh, Uganda, Zambia and Senegal. A key component of the project is to track the equity and safety indicators of frontline sanitation workers, a group that is especially vulnerable during the pandemic. The indicators were developed in 2019, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, but since the pandemic has significantly affected the occupational health risks of these workers – the parameters will assist in assessing the COVID impact on their safety.

Formulating and Implementing Better COVID-19 Response Strategies

Right now, governments and businesses, at all levels, are scrambling to understand and estimate the short-term and long-term impacts of COVID-19, in order to formulate strategies and adapt accordingly. As the crisis evolves, organisations have been left juggling with a variety of responses, while also simultaneously trying to evaluate the effectiveness of their actions. In such a scenario, it has become increasingly crucial to conduct customised impact assessments that will guide the formulation and implementation of data-backed COVID response strategies.

At Athena Infonomics, we have adopted a multi-disciplinary approach to conduct these COVID impact assessments. We combine research and analytics-driven approaches, ranging from macroeconomic modelling to quasi-experimental methods.

These studies can assess, for example, the new public health challenges that COVID has brought upon our communities, how the pandemic has impacted vulnerable groups such as sanitation workers, or how it has exacerbated mental health woes and gender-based violence.

The reports can then advise strategies to arrest spiralling unemployment, sustain development progress, recover investments, and conserve resources for future growth.

What does the impact assessment do?

  • The impact assessment will estimate the impact of COVID-19 on your economy, organisation or specific area of exploration.
  • It will evaluate the measures being taken to reduce or counter the effects of this pandemic.
  • And finally, it will provide data-based expert opinion on what your strategies should be going ahead to counter the crisis.


Why is it crucial to conduct these COVID-19 impact assessments?

  • Because we haven’t yet seen the end of the crisis, and hence strategies being adopted now are largely reactive and not fully based on data
  • Even though the pandemic is inducing systemwide shocks, its impact on different markets and different sectors is wide-ranging
  • To measure the efficacy of policy interventions or business strategies, and to improve your enterprise’s resilience, you should have a clear frame of measurement which evolves with the unravelling crisis
  • To prepare for potential public health scenarios over the next 18-24 months
  • To identify, test and prioritise solutions at a rapid pace

Because you need to measure, in order to manage better

Going beyond a typical input-output model for estimating impact, Athena Infonomics will employ a combined and comprehensive methodology that combines the Computable General Equilibrium Model (CGE) and the Global Trade Analysis Project (GTAP) Model.

  • CGE models encompass linkages between sectors, customers, firms, and policy environments.
  • GTAP models looks at the global economic dataset, linking country input-output tables with macroeconomic data and multiple sectors.

The models will use available secondary data within the purview of the agency/territory, along with regional and international data. The models are calibrated with real-world data and parameters, and reconciled with multiple official data sources.

Wherever possible, we will seek an opportunity to collate and utilise big data available from administrative and satellite/cellular data, as well as collect primary data through stakeholder interviews or other qualitative inquiries if needed. To evaluate the effectiveness of interventions, we will use microeconomics econometric models that allow estimation of impacts attributable to the interventions.

Since the most effective impact assessments are the ones customised to the needs of the clients, we will be customising our assessments as per our clients’ circumstances and context.

From conducting our COVID-19 Impact Assessments to participating in global research projects on the outfall of the pandemic, and even adapting existing projects to these changed circumstances, our team of experts at Athena are equipped and experienced to help you handle this crisis better.

Download our COVID-19 Impact Assessment brochure


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