COVID-19 and (Dead) Businesses

Malaysia — where I live — was able to swiftly contain the first and second waves of covid infections last year. We enjoyed months where things were (almost) normal — my son started first grade, my daughter was at daycare, and I was having work lunches with colleagues and friends again. On the research front — we were even able to conduct some interviews in person! It was a marvellous time. Then, a huge outbreak in Sabah, one of the states in Malaysian Borneo, trickled over to the Peninsular through people traveling back from voting and campaigning in elections held in the state. And today, we recorded our highest ever cases — almost 6,000 in the past 24 hours. The death rate remains low, as low as it’s been since the start of the pandemic (roughly 0.4%), but one wonders 1) if and when it will go up, and 2) the fact that there are a number of deaths that were reported as positive only after a postmortem was done means that we are missing a number of covid-related deaths (though I also remember reading somewhere that there have been no excess deaths in the country — which is something that many others have seen). I’m not optimistic, at this point, about much nowadays — because of this (and a host of other reasons). But I’m not here to talk about that. I’m here to think about dead and dying businesses.

I am very lucky to not have personally known anybody who has died from covid yet. I do not wish to trivialize these human losses, as they are enormous. One wonders (and knows, really) whether any of this had to happen if we were just…a better society. But I am also a business school professor. I work with vulnerable groups — often in poverty — and I also study how and why people start businesses (i.e. entrepreneurship). So it greatly pains me, amongst all of the huge losses due to this pandemic, to also have first-row seats to the slow decline and death of businesses and small companies in this country.

Small businesses power many economies — but particularly ours. At the start of a pandemic, I hosted a speaker to one of my (online) classes who posed the following question: how would the world look if a third of your favorite businesses no longer exist?

Well, this post is about that.

My favorite coffeshop in my neighborhood closed down last year. It was a wonderful little space — quiet, manned by a super friendly Bangladeshi man who knew my order, and always gave me a buy-one-free-one deal on the nasi lemak. Their nasi lemak was really good. Comfortable, big chairs. Spare, but homey decor. The coffeeshop had a little room on the side, which was filled with toys and a TV. Kids would often run around in the room while the adults sat, chatted, ate cake and drank coffee. In another corner of the coffeshop was a small kiosk where they sold party favors, like balloons and cards. I’d gotten balloons for my husband’s 2019 birthday from them — I remember going in with my son to choose colors. The coffeeshop also had great Wi-Fi, ample plugs for laptops, and was just a nice place to work. I worked there almost every week throughout 2019, until I gave birth in January 2020. It was the first place my husband took me out to for a “date” when I had just delivered, and our newborn was just big enough to be taken on car rides. We have a picture of me holding the baby in this coffeeshop. Baby’s first coffeeshop trip. What a lifetime ago.

The coffeeshop closed during the first lockdowns, right about April 2020. I still think of the wonderful Bangladeshi man. I hope he’s well, and has found another job. He made my day every time I was there. I wish I could have told him all of this.

My favorite seafood restaurant in my neighborhood closed down early this month. It was a tad overpriced, but very good and very reliable. It was the place we took family members for “special” meals — like if my grandmother and aunt were in town, for the last meal with my sister before she went back to the UK. Throughout 2020, we often ordered pick up from them if we wanted a nice meal. They used to have lobster and fish tanks by the sides of the wall, and when we used to physically go in and eat there, my son would often run straight up to and press his little nose on the glass. They also had a small play area right outside the restaurant, which had, over time, become where the neighborhood stray cats came for shelter. The workers at the restaurant also put out cat kibbles out there. They had the best creme caramel — it was so good. Once, I tried to order lunch through WhatsApp and the lady mentioned that they can deliver creme caramel to me if I wanted, separate from the seafood order. I did, once. It was tasty but didn’t taste the same as I’d remembered. That was the last time we got food from them. They closed shortly after.

I often wonder about the workers from the restaurant — did they land on their feet? I’ll never know.

Lastly, and this makes me the saddest, the nicest hotel in my hometown is closing soon, this year. It was where my parents would take us for fancy dinners when I was growing up — my sister and I would dress up and we’d get RM12 watermelon juice. They had a really nice Japanese restaurant, where I think is one of the first places where I had Japanese food. I remarked on this to a colleague once, and he said that many Malaysians learn to eat Japanese food from this hotel chain (it’s a locally owned company with 3 hotel locations — two in Malaysia, and one in Vietnam). They used to cater to the business crowd in the Bayan Lepas Industrial Zone — which has slowly declined over the years. This hotel had incredible views — on one side, it overlooked a lush, green golf course. It’s where I stayed when I got married, way back in 2012, and where my in laws stayed where they first visited Penang for the first time in their lives. It had a really cool swimming pool, with a waterfall and a “cave” where you could swim through. I’d taken my son there a couple of times and he absolutely loved it. That’s also where he’d gotten the flu, a high fever, and almost zonked out at the dim sum restaurant (which also served fantastic food). He recovered just fine, but that memory is also seared into my head. My family and I would often go to the dinner buffets when I was growing up — where one of my cousins later worked at, as a chef — and we’d often stop to look at the the wonderful night sky and view of Penang at night, on the walk to and from the parking lot. The hotel also had a nice koi pond (filled with fish!) and a lush walkway with a hanging bridge near the restaurants, on the floor below the lobby. After we ate, we’d often take a walk through the path. It was so cool to do at night. I have pictures of my father with my son looking at fish at that pond, years later. There used to be one really huge fish when I was growing up — we’d always look for it every time we’d go, and over the years, it seemed to get bigger (probably was just a different fish, but to me, it was the same one!). Later in my life, I’d have some work-related projects with the hotel, and some people remarked that the decor and whatnot was dated, but to me, this hotel was magical, and would always be. It’s so sad to me to see them go. They also had an excellent breakfast buffet! I’ll never forget this place. Never, ever.

It saddens me so terribly much to think about how Malaysia will look after the dust settles with covid and the recession. I think it’ll look very, very different than what we are used to, and this brings me great sorrow. Behind each business are people who work and need to feed their kids, owners who have given up so much to realize their dreams, and customers who come in, day in and day out, to purchase, consume, and build memories. I’m really quite terrified to see what the world has in store for us, but to see the places I love die is just…sad.

It just reminds me, over and over again, about how we all need to gear up for permanent change. And about how I may still have all these memories of businesses and people whose paths have intersected with mine, but they’ll soon be only that: memories, lingering for a little, then fading as well.

Economist and mother of two. Currently based in Kuala Lumpur. I write about labor economics, migration issues, industrial organization, and life.

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