The Economics of Compassion: Supporting Local amidst COVID-19

Suffice it to say 2020 has been a year of unprecedented change for Sri Lanka’s economy. The past financial year dealt with two heavy blows – the devastating Easter terror attacks and now the COVID-19 pandemic. The lockdown that ensued has been a challenging time for people and businesses, with the hardest hit being on daily wage earners, small-scale businesses and people who didn’t have the financial wherewithal to manage during the lockdown. Though Sri Lanka has gradually opened up from May 11, it isn’t all business as usual.

The uncertainty that lies ahead means most of us are being more financially cautious than before. But being on a budget shouldn’t mean bargaining with those who are worst-hit. It’s a curious phenomenon that it’s commonplace for many of us to haggle with fruit and vegetable vendors and other street sellers yet we wouldn’t extend this same courtesy to malls, supermarkets, or other large scale establishments. Making a living during a pandemic is hard. Being a small business is even harder given customers’ bargaining power. 


Sunil, 46, fruit and vegetable vendor

“It’s difficult to get by after COVID-19 because sales are unpredictable. Some days are okay. Other days, there’s hardly any business. Sadly, many of the people who do stop by bargain over Rs. 20 or Rs. 30, not realising that that would cover just my bus ride back home. It was like this even before COVID-19.” 

Nilmi, plastic goods street seller

“The days are long, hot, and hard. Yet sometimes, people who stop by to inquire over the items I am selling are in big, fancy cars but haggling to reduce the price of my products that are already cheap and have small profit margins.”

Suffering is relative and it’s true that we are each dealing with our own hardships but it would do us all good to let empathy be our homing signal as the economy resumes recovery. We don’t need to have been born wealthy nor will it take anything away from us to be compassionate towards our fellow human beings. There are micro ways in which we can make a macro difference in the lives of others without denting our own wallets. Here are a few:

1. Support small businesses

In as volatile an environment as we are in, small-scale businesses are relying on our patronage to remain afloat. Every transaction counts. When you are going to spend your hard-earned rupees on produce for the week, clothes or even cutlery and pottery for your house, consider the benefits of you sourcing it from independently owned vendors in your own community, without haggling. 

2. Opt for local

There are far-reaching positive consequences to shopping locally. In supporting local businesses, we are, in turn, supporting our local economy. It’s likely that significantly more money remains in a community when we make our purchases independently, locally owned – rather than nationally owned – businesses. 

3. Tip generously

If it’s within your means, after you purchase something, let the seller keep the change. It won’t break your bank to do so, and it can also help establish a good rapport between the vendor and yourself, as it is a symbol of gratitude. 

4. Donate to organisations that are helping small-scale entrepreneurs

Organisations such as the Givers League help to provide struggling entrepreneurs with interest-free financing to start or expand their humble little business ventures. Recipients of the financing have to return the capital in 24 monthly installments after a grace period of 3 months. The money is then recycled and dispersed amongst others in their own communities, thus perpetuating the cycle. is another organisation whose beneficiaries are daily wage earners and struggling home-based businesses. You have the option of sponsoring ration packs or donating towards the seed money that will help to revive and strengthen women-run home-based enterprises.

5. Increase the traffic of small businesses in your area

Initiate conversations with small business owners in your area and ask them how they are managing during the pandemic. By taking the initiative to check in on members of our own community, we have the opportunity to make a direct impact on the lives of those who could use the assistance at this time. An example of this could be simply increasing the frequency of your purchases from small-scale sellers or even referring them to other people you know to help divert more business towards them. 

As the axiom goes, little drops do make a mighty ocean. There’s an interconnectedness to everything around us that we cannot see but is definitely there. If we all practiced empathy and compassion during the hardest of times, we can create a ripple of change and progress that can uplift our fellow human beings and set our economy on a positive trajectory. 


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