Already bearing the brunt of a slowdown in the economy due to falling oil prices, followed by a lockdown last summer owing to the COVID-19 pandemic and the current night curfew enforced since March 28, another lockdown could well sound the death knell for small businesses in the country.
The recent spike in COVID-19 cases, hospital admissions and deaths related to the disease is worrisome and playing on the minds of businessmen that it may prompt another set of tough measures to curb the spread of the virus.
Talal al Zadjali, a gift shop owner in Muttrah Souq, is still reeling under heavy losses resulting from the first complete lockdown when all shutters in the souq were down for five months. Against all odds, he managed to pay the rent that was due for the lockdown period but he still owes suppliers. Business was slow but picking up when the night curfew was announced late March disrupting the momentum. Another complete lockdown will be a ‘big problem’ for him.
A gold business owner in Ruwi who Muscat Daily spoke with fears the worst. His business is down by 95 per cent.
“The current night curfew and the impending VAT being implemented soon are all compounding the situation. Keeping all these factors in mind, another full lockdown will force me to consider closing down the business,” he said.
As a consequence of businesses suffering, innumerable daily and low wage earners are affected. Salesmen, beauty parlour technicians and gym workers are among some of the worst hit by the situation.
Mohammed Aslam, a salesman in a gift shop on Ruwi High Street, said, “The biggest losers in the COVID-19 pandemic battle are the low wage earners. Our salaries are delayed, and when paid, it’s in installments. For people like us returning from home, the mandatory institutional quarantine and multiple PCR tests amounts to two months of our salary.” He fears another lockdown will force his shop owner to shut down.
While looking forward to Ramadan in the hope for more sales, Hussnain Abbas, who works in a mobile shop in Qurm, also has a nagging thought considering the way cases are increasing.
Business was slowly picking up when the night closure was announced. In his estimation, another lockdown will be the proverbial last straw to break the camel’s back.
Among the diverse range of businesses and activities struggling to stay afloat are small clinics. A doctor in Ruwi said that her small clinic can’t match the resources of corporate hospitals.
“We hadn’t yet recovered from the losses from the earlier lockdown when the night curfew was enforced starting last month adding to our financial burden. The prospect of another complete lockdown is scary,” she said.
The financial hardships resulting from the pandemic have also triggered mental health issues, which are often ignored or neglected owing to societal norms.
Myra, a sales assistant in a boutique in Shatti Qurm, said she feels psychologically pressured by the situation. “I understand my sponsor’s situation. Sometimes, two-three days go by without any business. Of course, our salaries will be delayed. We are trying our best to manage and survive but the question is, until when? The pandemic is continuing wave after wave. There seems to be no end to it. And if there is a complete lockdown…” she trailed off fearing to utter the worst.
‘Where is corona?’
In recent months, ‘pandemic fatigue’ has been attributed to people’s callous and relaxed attitude towards the precautionary measures leading to the spike in cases.
“Many customers enter our boutique without proper masks. When I request them to wear their masks properly, they are offended and ask me, ‘Where is corona? There is no such thing as corona.’ In fact, some customers enter without wearing a mask at all,” Myra said.
The doctor in Ruwi said she often sees people not following social distancing and maintaining hand hygiene. More surprisingly, she informed, she saw two patients in her clinic recently who had the symptoms of COVID-19.
“But they refused to accept it and follow the COVID-19 guidelines of isolation.”
The spread of COVID-19 is controllable, she reiterated. “But only if we take it seriously. If we don’t follow the precautionary measures, no authority can control the pandemic.”
Zadjali advised only one member of the family to go shopping, while Aslam, the salesman on Ruwi High Street, pleaded with all to look around them to see the consequences of not observing health measures.
He fails to understand why people are being reckless. “I have seen officials issuing fines for not wearing a mask but you can still see people walking around with masks hanging around their neck. Why would any government wish to close down the country and ruin the economy?” he asked, adding that irresponsible people have caused the situation.
(Text and photo by Syed Fasiuddin)
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