Lockdown diaries: Think local, think community, support small businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic

I live in London and have done all my life. It’s a bustling and busy City with a population of 8 million. You see people everywhere. Hustling. Shuffling. Rushing from here to there.

This year, we became accustomed to phrases like lock down, self-isolate, global pandemic, social distancing, wash your hands, wear a mask, Zoom, ‘You’re on mute’, and ‘sorry I was talking on mute’!

All of a sudden, the whole world literally stopped. We were forced to stay in isolation and keep our distance from one another, whilst protecting our loved ones.

Lifting the lockdown: its aftermath

Once lockdown lifted in June 2020, we started to see things pick up very slowly. Our local shops and businesses were permitted to open, ensuring they were Covid-proof. Thankfully my hairdresser could start taking bookings and I could finally get my eyebrows done. No more panicking and double checking that my video was off – no-one needed to see that!

I go to my local supermarket and the queue was so long. It’s one of the big brand supermarkets in the UK and I shop there regularly. As I was in the queue and I looked across the road to a small convenience store on the corner, it had suddenly got very foggy. One of the downsides of wearing specs and a mask. The shutters were closed. I wondered if everything was ok.

I noticed this for at least a month.

Then one day, I go to the supermarket again and I notice that the shop is open. Wow. That’s great. So instead of waiting in this long queue, I knew I could get what I needed from this little store.

I went inside and picked up my items – there was no queue and the store was fully stocked.

I spoke to the owner, as you do, and he told me that he had fallen on hard times and needed to keep the store closed. It’s a family run business. I noticed that a recently-opened takeaway in the same parade had also closed its doors recently.

The owner proceeded to tell me that because of COVID-19, the prices at the Cash&Carry warehouse had increased and he couldn’t afford some items. No one was coming into his shop and as a result he had to keep it closed, but maintain the rent and bills. I listened. I couldn’t really offer anything more but what I did promise was that I would aim to use his store more frequently.

As I drove home, I felt humbled by the conversation I had just had. How could smaller businesses survive?

Are the government measures adequate?

The UK Government responded with a Coronavirus Business Interruption Scheme (first published March 2020), Coronavirus Bounce Back Loan (first published April 2020), Coronavirus Future Fund (first published April 2020), Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (first published May 2020), KickStart Scheme (Oct 2020).

I’m not here to assess or analyse the UK Government’s response to the Pandemic for small business owners, as it would take me a long time to complete the research, however the general consensus that I have heard is that it has been too little too late for some small business owners and for others they have been so newly set up that they could not qualify for the help that was being offered (i.e. you would have had to filed your previous years taxes to qualify).

Local shops and businesses have been badly impacted due to the lockdown, small and medium sized businesses have been slow

My local takeaways were definitely experiencing an increase in their business. I noticed more restaurants that had to switch their business model to takeaway and delivery only, sign up to Just Eat, Deliveroo, and Uber Eats – popular on demand food delivery apps. As time wore on, more smaller convenience stores signed up too! So now, for a small delivery fee, you could get some essential items delivered pronto!

But what was this costing the small business owner? How was this playing out in their lives? How was this impacting their mental health and physical wellbeing? Were they putting themselves and their loved ones at risk?

Another small business owner I spoke to, who runs an Osteopathy and Wellbeing Clinic in Surrey, told me they spent about £1,000 on PPE equipment alone and that it was hard to put a value on the additional effort that went into infection control policies and procedures, or the staff training. Then, of course, there are the ongoing monthly recurring costs to keep the clinic running after having had its door closed for many weeks due to lockdown.

My neighbour is a builder. He couldn’t work all Summer – usually THE busiest time for the trade as they take advantage of tackling on projects whilst the weather is good (well ok ok, as good as can be in the UK 😉).

Time for thinking local

My local coffee and dessert place switched to takeaway and delivery only. When they were permitted to allow customers through their doors, some tables had been removed to allow for physical distancing. (Yes, please note I am using the phrase physical distancing  on purpose. Social distancing, for me, is an oxymoron, especially at a time when we needed more connection and social support).

For so many of us, the year 2020 has taught us many things about ourselves and others.

We will never know the full impact of COVID-19 pandemic to the economy and really to the livelihoods of so many around us. So next time you need something for your home or to buy as a gift, think local. Think community. Spend a little time doing your research and see if there is someone you can support locally. A little can go a long way…

Pragna Tevani
Pragna is the co-founder of a support organisation for South Asian LGBTQ+ Women in the UK, she is also a Life Coach and works for a global technology company to pay the bills and Chairs the Diversity & Inclusion Forum for the company. You can find more details about her in: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ptevani/