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Covid-19 scare batters Filipino businesses

19 February 2020

By Vir B. Lumicao

WorldWide Plaza which used to teem with Filipinos, is now mostly empty

Businesses in World-Wide Plaza in Central, a favorite haunt of Filipinos, are reeling from the novel coronavirus contagion as sales receipts have shrunk by as much as 70% since most customers have been staying away.

Shopowners and salepersons in the three-storey shopping mall of World-Wide House say the impact of the Covid-19 epidemic now sweeping Hong Kong is worse than the Sars contagion in early 2003.

“Tatlo ang tindahan namin dito sa World-Wide at talagang malaki po ang impact,” one owner of a cosmetics shop who requested not to be named said in an interview on Feb 19.
She said the downturn this time is worse than during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) because the contagion then was not as widespread, although it was centered in Hong Kong.

Covid-19, which began in December, continues to ravage the central city of Wuhan, where most of China’s 2,010 deaths and 74,185 full-blown cases were reported as of this writing. The total death toll from Sars was about 600, with half of them occurring in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong reported on Feb 19 its second death out of 62 patients who tested positive for Covid-19 since the outbreak began in December last year.
The mall draws in the crowds only on Sundays when many workers send money home
The cosmetics shop owner said the impact of the coronavirus epidemic on her business is much worse than Sars or even the anti-extradition bill protests in the second half of last year.

“Normal sales namin every Sunday used to reach $60,000 to $70,000, now kung maka-$30,000 ka sa Sunday, suwerte mo na,” she said.

She said the downturn that began during the anti-government protests in June last year got worse when Covid-19 spread to Hong Kong, leading the government to advise foreign domestic helpers to remain at home on their rest days.

That appears to have been seen by many employers as a signal that they could already tell their helpers not to go out on Sundays, their usual day off. But the helpers themselves are opting to stay in for fear of the contagion.
“Noon, may lumalabas pa na mga domestic kahit may rally, pinapayagan sila. This time hindi na sila pinapayagan. Ang inaasahan na lang namin mga Chinese na naghahanap ng alcohol, stuff na ganyan,” she said.

The shopping mall used to teem on Sundays with thousands of OFWs remitting money to their families, buying sundry items such as Philippine snacks, air tickets, clothing, jewelry, etc. Now it looks like a neglected bazaar with just a few people buying small items.   

The recent dive in sales is compounded by high rents, such as the $35,000 that this shopowner pays for a small annex of her bigger shop on the second floor. Prices of goods from home have risen on higher transport costs due to flight cancellations by the country’s airlines. 

Supplies are now transported by DHL as Cathay Pacific does not carry liquid cargo such as alcohol, sanitizers and lotions, driving up costs that are passed on to the consumers. Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific stopped flying to and from Hong Kong since Feb. 2, when the Philippines imposed a travel ban to Hong Kong, Macau and China.

The shopowner said she had to lay off one staff from each of her three shops in World-Wide during the protests to cope with losses, not expecting that another whammy would follow soon. 
Tan happily attends to some rare customers at her shop
Her views about the impact of Covid-19 are echoed by other shop owners like Joy Tan, who used to have three adjacent units in the mall, but now has just a corner shop on the third floor where she sells snacks and ladies’ underwear.

“Lugi negosyo,” Tan said. She said only Cathay Pacific carries her goods from the Philippines now, but the airline can’t transport liquids.

“Siyempre naka-rely ang negosyo ko sa pabango, mga liquid (pero) hindi magsasakay ang Cathay. Wala, bra at panty lang sa Avon. Wala, lugi talaga. Wala ka ring maasahang bibili kasi di rin palalabasin ng amo, natatakot ang amo,” she lamented.

Also hit hard are the shop assistants like Nanay Fe Tacderan, who plans to go back to the Philippines on Feb 22 after sales at the garment shop she helps tend dropped to just a fifth of its former level.

 “I’m going home. I’m going to plant camote in my yard in Cogeo, Antipolo. Even if I go home, at least I have a plot to plant to camote,” said Nanay Fe, who has been in Hong Kong for 25 years. She first came in as a domestic worker, before becoming a dependant of her daughter who married a local.

Sales have dipped even more in a telecom gadget shop where Janet Garan works as a saleslady. She said the shop used to register sales of $50,000 to $$60,000 on Monday to Friday, and up to $70,000 on a Sunday. “Now, it’s difficult for us to achieve $5,000 sales on weekdays and $24,000 on Sunday,” she said.

She worries that her employer might close the shop during the weekdays because of poor sales.

This is one of the worst downturns for AFreight, which has been in business for 3 decades 

One business that is also suffering a steep decline in revenue is A-Freight, the community’s leading door-to-door cargo service which has a shop on the third floor of World-Wide.

Eric Goyena, the shop manager, said sales have dipped by about 50%, adding that the situation during the recent protests was better than now because then, the helpers were still able to go to World-Wide to pack their boxes. This time, they are not allowed to leave their employers’ house.

On the first Sunday of each month, the company used to send out 1,000 boxes for workers’ families in the Philippines, but that has now been halved due to the contagion, he said.

He said that hopefully, the contagion would end during the warmer months and enable businesses to recover from their losses.        

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