Small business owners feel lockdown heat

Ap Karchung was looking forward to a busy December until he learned his garment business at the center of the town would be closed due to the second lockdown.

โ€œI had tears in my eyes,โ€ he said. His first thought was, โ€œNow what?โ€

The holiday shopping season is normally one of his busiest times of the year and Ap Karchung was hoping to recover some of the profit he lost this year, especially during the lockdown 1.0 in spring but circumstances turned otherwise.

Now he shares feelings of frustration with other small business owners who were told to close while the bigger, more established stores continue to operate.

โ€œItโ€™s a case of survival for us,โ€ he said, โ€œI need a roof over my head.โ€ He is burned out from months of uncertainty and financial stress that came from seeing his business declining.

โ€œI have never been so exhausted in my life,โ€ Ap Karchung said, who immigrated from Trashigang in 2001 and opened his shop 10 years ago. โ€œI feel like Iโ€™m in a dark tunnel not knowing when Iโ€™m going to see the light.โ€

Many of his staff are newcomers in Thimphu and he is worried about them too.

Business Bhutan did a small survey in Thimphu and found that almost half of small business owners surveyed suffer huge mental stress due to the pandemic.

Fewer than 20% of small businesses are making their usual sales, another businessman said adding that the pandemic is causing a lot of stress.

โ€œItโ€™s particularly stressful for business owners because their livelihoods are impacted,โ€ she said.

She added business owners have two levels of stress going on these days-one due to the health threat, which everyone is facing, and the economic threat to the business that supports them and their family.

Not only does this cause sustained anxiety, the helplessness many feel in the face of the pandemic can lead to depression, said one of the retailers, whose shop was closed during the lockdown.

โ€œBoth anxiety and depression are health risks in and of themselves: being constantly anxious can compromise your immune system over time, and depression can become a cause of suicide,โ€ he said.

He added that feelings of helplessness can sneak on to people who are prone to depression, and this is scarier than anxiety.

โ€œItโ€™s important those business owners, and anyone experiencing high levels of anxiety due to the pandemic, find a way to take a break from the day-to-day grind.โ€

However, more than 50% of suppliers and wholesalers business owners interviewed said they are working significantly longer hours than usual.

One of the wholesalers in Thimphu said this is for a variety of reasons: some may be filling in for staff who are sick, or they simply cannot afford the number of staff they maintained earlier.

The end of the pandemic โ€œcanโ€™t come fast enough,โ€ he said adding business owners are just trying to hold on long enough to make extra income.

While there are several programs in place to help small business owners who are facing financial difficulties caused by the pandemic, including national subsidies and support from the province, there are still issues that need to be addressed, said one of the business owners.

Around 50 retailers, in an open letter, to the authorities have asked to let them reopen, arguing that the current restrictions are just pushing shoppers to other stores instead of lowering risk.

Meanwhile, a total of 230 shops and 13 wholesalers have been in operation across 45 zones since the lockdown. The businesses were found increasing the price of goods. Some 12 shops were caught, following complaints by people through OCPโ€™s toll-free number and various social media platforms.

Likewise, 21 shops were caught in unfair trade practices by officials while doing rounds. The office has fined most of them. The OCP also asked three shops to close and recommended the agriculture ministry and the management of the Centenary Farmers Market to cancel the license of the two vegetable wholesalers.

The OCP has issued a notification to all the shops, Dzongkhags, and Thromde representatives, asking for compliance and stating that they are constantly monitoring the shops that sell essential goods.

Kinley Yonten from Thimphu