There have been numerous calamities like wars, natural disasters, epidemics, throughout human history. We remember the nature of the tragedy, the impact, the suffering, the lessons learnt (sometimes). But we often forget that it is usually about people – our beliefs, values, and behaviour – not guns or bombs, viruses or bacteria, and rain or hail or even earthquakes.
We are talking about oppressors and the oppressed, tormentors and victims, decision makers and recipients, bystanders and participants. Every individual potentially has a role.
Today it is widely known that the biggest challenges to human well being, like climate change, is taking place because we have allowed greed to take over need. There are increasing voices of protest but the culture of consumption appears to be irreversible.
Then comes the Corona virus. It would be purely conjecture if we connect the emergence of this virus to human behaviour but the magnitude of the trends and impact is directly connected to human decisions, particularly decisions by those in power, by leaders responsible for governance.
Globally we see the scenario being played out in the media. Countries with discerning and decisive leaders are minimizing the suffering caused by Covid-19. Power grabbers with political and personal motives are making policies at the cost of human lives.
Dictators and tyrants cannot be condoned under any circumstances, but the lessons of the past months tell us that firmness and discipline is vital at such critical times. Unfortunately this often comes at the cost of luxuries and conveniences.
Not to gloat, not to keep patting ourselves on the back, not to claim any form of victory, Bhutan can so far be proud of our response to a frightening menace. It has taken perceptive planning, firm decisions, and untiring efforts by our leadership at the highest level as well as the cooperation and compliance of most citizens.
But there are signals that the situation will get worse before it gets better. So the threats and risks remain ominous for the small Bhutanese family in a populous region which is better known for chaos and disorder than for order and discipline.
We are grappling with people disconcerted by panic and the fear of the unknown. That’s why the need for intensive awareness campaigns and support. We also hear well as rumblings of resentment that it is a few influential citizens who are compromising public safety. So that’s why the need for everyone to respect informed decisions and to follow advice and rules.
There is one powerful mandate for all of us. Pay close attention to and follow the advice, directives, and examples set by the government – with none other than His Majesty The King at the helm.
Pricing is one of the building blocks in any market. Price may be defined as the “monetary value of a good or service.” Every business, whether formal or informal, invests with an expectation of some profit. The profit is directionally proportional to the price of the goods. However, sometimes, the sellers hike the price unreasonably because certain circumstances favour them. The best example is the recent hike in the price of vegetables particularly green chili as high as Nu 700 per kg from Nu 200 overnight.
With no price ceiling, the Office of the Consumer Protection (OCP) remained toothless even with numerous complaints on the price-related issue. Section 7 of the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) mandates that a “person shall not mislead the consumers on the price of the goods and services.” Section 8 provides various situations where prices can be considered as misleading. Further, Section 9 requires that “goods displayed for sale and, wherever applicable, services shall have the price affixed conspicuously.” The requirement under S.9 is to ensure that, prices must be fair and not a mere display of prices. How does the OCP respond to such challenges even when the price is displayed?
Many Bhutanese often look at Maximum Retail Price (M.R.P.) not realizing that OCP has no jurisdiction to enforce M.R.P. in Bhutan. M.R.P. is an Indian concept under Indian law introduced in the 1990s to control the price but and has no legal force once it exits the Indian market.
Price regulation is a complex issue in the free market today which is based on Invisible Hand Theory. This means “the market will find its equilibrium without government or other interventions forcing it into unnatural patterns.” Though this is also in line with the freedom of contract, a fundamental principle in consumer contracts, this is not always true. Thus, sometimes it is necessary for the state to regulate the price of goods and services.
Government regulation of price is based on the normative theory the “application of the respective pricing rules can be justified by some higher-order value judgments as formally expressed by social welfare functions.” Bhutan as a democratic state guided by GNH is a true welfare country and hence price regulation must be preferred over the laissez-faire approach. There are many countries where price regulation exists even during normal times including most capitalist nations like Unites States, European Union, India, Singapore and Australia where some required clear display of prices and others have verification tools to ensure the price is not exorbitant or misleading. Today, Bhutan is going through an extraordinary situation and state intervention is necessary.
If we do not come up with a strategy to regulate prices through price ceiling, Bhutanese consumers will continue to suffer at the hands of some greedy sellers taking advantage of the situation. When our economy is suffering at an unknown rate, it is high time that we come up with price ceilings for all essential goods including vegetables. Price ceilings will help stabilize the economy, ensure that “essential goods are financially accessible to the average person.” It is the responsibility of OCP to ensure consumer confidence so that, there will be no hoarding. Without price regulation, laws pertaining to the price would remain redundant, hoarding continues and OCP a mere spectator. Our sellers must profit but not at the cost of the nation’s economy by charging unreasonable prices.
Chimi Dema | Gelephu
With about 90 trucks lying idle for almost two weeks following the closure of border gates, exporters and transporters of boulders in Gelephu are worried about repaying loans.
Since the export of riverbed materials from Gelephu came to a halt, many trucks are found in garages and some in the automobile workshops.
It was learnt that transporters have to pay loan installments ranging between Nu 40,000 and Nu 60,000 a month for a truck.
A group of exporters have to pay an equated monthly installment (EMI) ranging between Nu 0.5 million (M) and 0.6M for loan. While others have to pay an EMI of Nu 0.15M.
According to exporters and transporters in Gelephu, the export business has been riddled with frequent challenges since its commencement in November 2018.
But in the past two months, the business was flourishing after negotiations among importers, exporters and transporters on several issues, exporters said.
The Chairperson of Mines and Minerals with Gelephu Think Tank Business Member, Chencho Gyeltshen said, “Amid a thriving business, certain issues keep coming which affect the business.”
He said that the exporters have invested millions in dredging of the riverbed materials (RBM) along the Moa river and stocked thousands of metric tonnes of boulders.
Their biggest concern, he said is that with the monsoon approaching, the RBM worth billions would be washed away.
“This would result in substantial loss,” he said. “We are at greater risk of losing our properties if the situation remains the same.”
Many transporters and exporters Kuensel talked to said that it would help them if the financial institutions could come up with emergency measures for consumers affected by the disease outbreak.
An exporter suggests freezing of loan payments for some months until the situation improves.
A transporter, who took a loan with an overdraft account, said it would help if financial institutions could waive off interest payment in the meantime.
Another transporter, Karma has nine trucks (10-wheelers) with some engaged on hire in boulder business.
Of late, some of his trucks are ferrying cement from Nganglam to Gelephu on nominal transportation charges.
“I cannot afford to leave all the trucks idle any longer,” he said, adding that he has to bear payment for drivers and staff as well as pay rent for the office besides paying loan instalments.
Despite the low charges, he said that the trucks have to be deployed. “But given a large number of free vehicles in the market, it is hard to get a single truckload in five days.”
He said that while the charges could cover the cost for fuel and payment for drivers, the amount is not sufficient to repay the loan.
Another transporter, Chencho said that although the financial implication is huge, they cannot plead with the government considering the current public health crisis.
“It is not wise to bring our problems in the forefront even though we feel helpless,” he said.
The truckers claimed that due to the sudden lockdown by the government of India, they couldn’t calculate payments with the importers for the exports they made.
“We called them to make payments but they said because of the lockdown they can’t pay us.”
In December, when Sangay Kunchok, a final year business student in the Royal Thimphu College was selected for the Mekong Business Challenge in Cambodia, he was excited.
But due to the Covid-19 pandemic, he is virtually competing with teams from 11 other universities tomorrow.
Sangay Kunchok said that he was demoralised when it turned into a virtual competition but he had prepared himself for the business model challenge. “If I could physically attend the challenge, I would have got exposure and built more business networks.”
His business idea, Thunder Guide, expects to carry out tours by displaying cultural sites of Bhutan in multiple languages. The first prototype application contains four languages such as German, French, Vietnamese and Chinese, covering nine cultural sites of Paro, Thimphu and Punakha.
He said that half of the visitors come from non-English speaking countries that do not get professional language guides. Thunder Guide targets high-end tourists.
This tech portal not only solves the shortage of language speaking guides but also gives the tourists’ true, authentic and clear information about Bhutan.
Sangay Kunchok had participated in domestic competitions such as national start-up weekend and Druk Tshongrik Gatoen. He had proposed the idea to the Tourism Council of Bhutan.
The teams will pitch business ideas to a panel of judges from McKinsey & Company, Google, Holdingham Group UK, KrisEnergy and Manulife for the opportunity to represent the region at the 2021 International Business Model Competition (IBMC) in the United States next year.
Covid -19 national mental health and psychosocial response
A working group led by Dr. Chencho Dorji, retired Psychiatrist was formed at the Ministry of Health to plan, prepare and roll out the Mental Health and Psychosocial Response to the COVID – 19 pandemic.
The working group has identified some key strategies and structure to address the growing mental health and psychosocial issues related the pandemic in the country. The strategy is to identify the most vulnerable and high risk population such as individuals with COVID -19 positive symptoms or positive status and their families and give them psychosocial counseling and support to overcome their difficult predicament.
This population group will be minimal in numbers, but their psychosocial needs are the maximum. The next group of vulnerable population are individuals in quarantine facilities, their families and relatives and the front-line workers or first responders such as the health workers, DESSUPS, Police and other volunteers who are at risk of exposure. The third group is the general population, who are either directly or indirectly affected by this pandemic. For them, the focus of our intervention is sharing information, education strengthening their psychological resilience.
Our first task was to establish direct telephone counseling at the national level so that the individuals in the isolation/ quarantine facilities and the general public can easily access information or get telephone counseling. For that, we have set up five dedicated mobile hotlines for people to access.
The numbers are 17123237/38/39/40/41. Any individual who has a psychological issue related to the pandemic and wants to get clarification or counseling can call these numbers. Although, these phone lines are dedicated to counseling, it has also been sharing info on the pandemic and country situation.
However, toll free number 2121 is the dedicated to give specific information related to the COVID – 19 protocols in the country. Over the next week or so, we are planning to organize counseling teams and launch telephone counseling services at the district, thromde, organizations and local communities. Standard operating procedures are being formulated now so that services can be standardized and delivered efficiently in all parts of the country.
Our next priority is to train all the first responders and frontline workers on Psychosocial First Aid (PFA). PFA is equivalent to what we generally understand as CPR or Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation during heart attack or emergency medical condition to revive the person’s life.
PFA is the emergency response to psychological crisis such as when an individual feels lost or suicidal. It is like the revival of a person’s mental faculty from the shock of hearing a dramatic news or being exposed to a life threatening situation.
PFA can be done by any individual after a brief training. We do not need a trained professional counselor to give it. PFA will be useful tool for our current frontline first responders for their own emotional and psychological well-being as well as for those in their care.
Working in the frontline during this crisis is a difficult job. On one hand, individual may experience fear of contacting the virus in the facility if they are not well informed or prepared while on the other hand they may not be sensitive to deal with individual’s in their care. PFA will able to prepare the individual first responder to look after his own mental health as well as he can become competent and sensitive to handle individual under their care.
PFA training and application has five components: preparing the individual responder for his task such as by gathering information and getting mentally and physically prepared. The second part is being mindful and sensitively watchful of individuals and events under theircare without being judgmental or unnecessarily intrusive, the third part is active listening to complaints or problems their clients tell them, the fourth is linking individual’s with problems to available resources and support including linking individual to his own resources and skills, which the individual may overlook during crisis, and the last part is taking care of the responders own psychological health and mental wellbeing.
Our frontline and first responders are exposed to unprecedent stress and anxiety during this critical period of their job. They need to be trained and supported to be able to look after their own health and deliver efficient services in their clients. So, over the next week or so we will be rolling out training for first responders on PFA. Various technologies will be used to give distant training in the context of the pandemic social restrictions to expedite the process. Training teams will also visit the peripheral places to set up the local teams and train them.
Kuensel features Q & A with Dr Chencho Dorji every first Saturday of the month
The room’s well furnished, spick-and-span. A queen-size bed in the centre, there is also a table by the side with a water boiler, tea bags, instant coffee packets and sugar arranged neatly by expert hands. This is my room at Tsherim Resort in Paro.
We got home on the morning of March 19. Thirty-eight of us, mostly students studying in India, were taken straight away to the resort. A nurse met us at the door to give us quarantine advice. Everything happened very quickly.
This is my day 13 in the quarantine centre. There is everything here, meals on time, free Wi-Fi, and health check-up from time to time. I can even do some physical exercises. I have just seven days to complete mandatory quarantine but passing time becomes harder by the day.
I read books. I watch the news on TV. And I sleep. All day long. Suddenly I have to distract myself. Am I thinking too much? Am I worried? Is that good? I wonder what my friends are doing next door.
I have begun to feel irritated by the doorbells. And about how everyone outside tends to think, it’s a luxury staying in a confined room for 21 days.
Often I find myself trying to find out what scientists and researchers have to say about loneliness, hallucination and things like that. Am I going crazy? No. I may be a little bothered by all the time I have to myself.
At night when I am trying to sleep, I can hear my neighbour opening the bathroom door. The noises are heightened with the silence in my room.
Unable to sleep I put the lights on and begin to read.
During the day, I explore my room. There are two houseflies. They come to bother during meal times. There is a small bug that crawls on the windowsill all day long. And a fruit fly which I haven’t seen in a while. I watch them go about their ways; for a moment I have forgotten all the worries in my head.
On the eighth day in quarantine, I realised that the government has spent Nu 8,000 for my care and there are over 2,000 people like me. Nu 16 million has been spent on us already. When I heard that some who can afford paid their hotel bills as a service to the country, guilt tore me.
But getting the best out quarantine seems to be the best I can do. So, on the tenth day, I challenged myself to at least read 100 pages and do 10 knee push-ups a day.
Quarantine is very important at this time. I am already very appreciative of my government for such arrangements for the safety of the people.
If 21 days of boredom and loneliness means going home with surety that I wouldn’t be the one to bring harm to my family and friends, it is worth it. Bonus point, I will walk out wiser (I will have read so many books!) and proud.
Could we put the economy on hibernation mode?
Covid-19 comes with a brutal double whammy. If we go out and work, it makes us sick, if we stay home our economy crumbles. With no end in sight to this disease anytime soon, it has everyone worried about how long we can remain cooped up and if we can sustain an extended distancing behind closed doors . Across the globe as countries miss the early window of containment, the virus rages on and so does the economic contingent. Both are equally deadly. If the German finance minister has to take his own life, unable to cope with the gravity of the situation, it speaks volumes about how deep our troubles really are.
Hibernation, a colleague proposed recently. Put the economy on hibernation. Arctic frogs remain suspended in frozen environment with minimal energy expense. When the conditions become right they come to life and hop on with their usual business. Can we do this to our economy? We have a small experience from our rupee crisis period when many restrictions were put in place. But this time it would be on an unprecedented scale.
Thanks to the quick responses of our leaders, Bhutan has been highly effective with our containment efforts until now. We are also blessed with a strong leadership and low population density. Our partial restrictions look far better than full lockdowns of many other countries. Partial restrictions if managed properly may be better because we need to keep our vitals running while maintaining a flattened infection curve. Although, given the available health facilities in the country, the curve may have to be quite flat. Our health workers, civil servants, teachers, power plants, banks, telcos, police, army, farmers, transport and such other vital activities have to be kept functional. Many of these jobs can be also carried out from home maintaining the required distance. While these life giving activities are currently sustained, we have already shut down many of our economic activities. As things slow down we will have to start tightening our belts.
Our taste for imported liquor has to change and we may have to give up our dreams of a new Prado. Pay cuts and job losses will be the new normal. As things slow down, the first institutions to be impacted will be the Banks and they are vital to the economy. As much as many hate them, we also need them. With no income from tourism and increasing loss of jobs, our Banks biggest credit basket that comprises tourism, housing and industries will be hit hard. As NPL sky rockets, their capital and reserves will not be able to support such losses. This can lead to insolvency tradings and run on the banks in the worst possible time.
However, a silver lining arises from three factors. Much to the dismay of the World Bank, IMF and pressure from the business sector, banks in Bhutan carry a hold on a significant amount of property mostly in the form of land and building as security. They have stubbornly held on to this practice. Another cushion comes from RMA refusing to adopt IFRS accounting system and their stringent requirements on provisioning. Because of this, the NPL amount is not netted off against the value of the properties held towards bad loans. The third factor is our high lending rates. This is where the Government and RMA can step in. Now these stumbling blocks of economic growth has the potential to become the building blocks to prop up the economy. The Government can leverage on the properties and provide sovereign guarantee. RMA can then relax on the NPL and make coordinated efforts with all Banks to bring down interest rates, on both lending and deposits at the same time. RMA can also relax guidelines on defer payments, reamortization, extension of repayment terms, all designed to reduce EMI. Suspension of interest where required may be also enforced. Government can then mandate landlords to reduce rents by the same proportion. To make it sustainable, Banks may have to reduce salaries of their own but this would be indirectly compensated by reduced house rents and reduced EMI.
Everyone needs a shelter. With dwindling income of individuals and landlords pressed by banks for repayment, it would be impossible to maintain extended stay home policies without causing too much social distress. Affordable housing may be one of the most effective and immediate ways of easing the economic burden on individuals. All without the Government having to spend a Cheltrum.
Covid-19 has taught us how vulnerable we are in terms of food shortage. We have huge employment opportunities in farming, but we need strong policies and our workforce needs to be reskilled. We have our construction sector presenting even bigger opportunities. Unfortunately, we are all in the unchartered territories, and no one is quite sure what to do or how this will end. Psychologists say there are three kinds of people. Those who panic and go on hoarding toilet papers on one end. At the other end are those who are scared but the only way they know how to deal with it is to defy it and they are the ones who ignore social distancing. The best are the one in the Goldilocks zone who are cautious, prepared and willing to deal with it. Unlike the US, we do not have 2 trillion, that could sustain Bhutan for a thousand years at our current GDP, but we may be able to slow down and partially hibernate.
The Covid-19 pandemic is putting enormous strains on the public health systems around the world, and millions of people in the world’s most advanced economies are in some form of quarantine.
We know the human toll will be high, and that massive efforts to turn the tide carry a heavy economic cost.
To reduce the risk of an even greater toll – shortage of food for millions, even in affluent countries – the world must take immediate actions to minimize disruptions to food supply chains.
A globally coordinated and coherent response is needed to prevent this public health crisis from triggering a food crisis in which people cannot find or afford food.
For now, Covid-19 has not entailed any strain on food security, despite anecdotal reports of crowded supermarket sieges.
While there’s no need for panic – there is enough supply of food in the world to feed everyone – we must face the challenge: an enormous risk that food may not be made available where it is needed.
The Covid-19 outbreak, with all the accompanying closures and lockdowns, has created logistical bottlenecks that ricochet across the long value chains of the modern global economy.
Restrictions of movement, as well as basic aversion behaviour by workers, may impede farmers from farming and food processors (who handle most agricultural products) from processing. Shortage of fertilizers, veterinary medicines and other input could also affect agricultural production.
Closures of restaurants and less frequent grocery shopping diminish demand for fresh produce and fisheries products, affecting producers and suppliers, especially smallholder farmers, with long-term consequences for the world’s increasingly urbanized population, be they in Manhattan or Manila.
Uncertainty about food availability can induce policymakers to implement trade restrictive measures in order to safeguard national food security.
Given the experience of the 2007-2008 global food price crisis, we know that such measures can only exacerbate the situation.
Export restrictions put in place by exporting countries to increase food availability domestically could lead to serious disruptions in the world food market, resulting in price spikes and increased price volatility.
In 2007-2008, these immediate measures proved extremely damaging, especially for low income food deficit countries and to the efforts of humanitarian organizations to procure supplies for the needy and vulnerable.
We should all learn from our recent past and not make the same mistakes twice.
Policy makers must take care to avoid accidentally tightening food-supply conditions.
While every country faces its own challenges, collaboration – between governments and the full gamut of sectors and stakeholders – is paramount. We are experiencing a global problem that requires a global response.
We must ensure that food markets are functioning properly and that information on prices, production, consumption and stocks of food is available to all in real time. This approach will reduce uncertainty and allow producers, consumers, traders and processors to make informed decisions and to contain unwarranted panic behaviour in global food markets.
The health impacts of the unfolding Covid-19 pandemic on some of the poorest countries are still unknown. Yet, we can say with certainty that any ensuing food crisis as a result of poor policy making will be a humanitarian disaster that we can avert.
We already have 113 million people experiencing acute hunger; in sub-Saharan Africa, a quarter of the population is undernourished. Any disruptions to food supply chains will intensify both human suffering and the challenge of reducing hunger around the world.
We must do everything possible to not let that happen. Prevention costs less. Global markets are critical for smoothening supply and demand shocks across countries and regions, and we need to work together to ensure that disruptions of food supply chains are minimized as much as possible.
Covid-19 forcefully reminds us that solidarity is not charity, but common sense.
Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
Students in remote Bhutan try to not miss out
Neten Dorji & Tshering Namgyal
On a high ridge above the village, 16 students are in a class. The students have walked for about a kilometre to the ridge. It will be their classroom until they return to school.
Without television or mobile network, the students of Yobinang, Shongphu gewog, decided to not miss the online class or the e-learning programme. It has been their routine since March 27.
Eldest in the group, Tashi Choden, is the informal captain and guide the others. When it rains, they stay home to complete the homework.
Parents had been cooperative. They let the children use the mobile phones. Some have borrowed their relative’s.
“Without access to Internet services and television, it is an extra burden,” said Tashi Choden. The students bring lunch and return only when the day’s task is completed.
Carrying an old carpet, Mendrel Zangmo was on her way home. She missed two classes after teachers started e-learning lesson. “Without access to the internet, I could not submit homework and assignment on time,” she said. “Sometimes, it takes time to download and upload homework and assignments.”
Another student, Sonam Choden said she could only understand half of the lesson uploaded by teachers. “It is better in the classroom where I can clear my doubts with teachers and friends,” said Sonam.
When the internet speed is poor, students return home with extra burden of completing the day’s lesson the next day.
When they run out of data, they travel to Rangjung, 10 kilometres away. The lucky ones can call their relatives to recharge electronically.
Worried that their children could be left out, parents are supportive of the new learning idea.
A mother, Pema Choden, said that they support and monitor their children. “We cannot guide them in their daily lessons, but we let them study,” she said.
In Mongar, Karma Yangden and her brother Karma Phuntsho are luckier. A new 32 inch flat television set sits in their sitting room. Their parents bought the new set to ensure they have access to the televised lessons.
Sangay Dema, the mother said lightning damaged her old screen. She didn’t bother to replace it until she realised that her children would have to depend on it when schools remained closed. The small saving from the sale of farm produce was spent on the Nu 19,000 screen.
Sangay Dema had also had bought new phones to her two children. At the moment, the farmer’s priority is to not let her children miss the lessons. “It is expensive,” she said. “Sometimes they together finish about Nu 300 worth of internet vouchers,” she said.
Sangay had sent her youngest son studying in Class V to stay with her sister in Wangling village and help her with the cost.
“I am concerned with their studies and spend whatever we have for their education. But I don’t know how long we can afford,” said the mother. “Free internet connection for students would benefit us.”
She said that due to overburdening, she had to send her youngest son studying in class V to her sister’s place at Wangling village.
Parents are finding that television sets or mobile phones are not solving the problem. They said students in lower classes couldn’t keep up with the lessons. “Without someone to guide them it is like watching any other programme,” said a mother, Damchoe. “There is no point if we sit with them and watch. We don’t know what is being said.”
Some students complained of lack of proper internet network hampering their lesson plans.
Thursday, April 2 — He’s done his morning prayers and breakfast too. It is 9am. In about 30 minutes from now he is going to be out briefly for physical exercise. This is a regimen Namgay Dorji, 41, has designed for himself to kill time.
This is Namgay Dorji’s 17th day in Kichu Resort in Paro, one of the many Covid-19 quarantine centres in the country. He continues to educate people on the importance of quarantine by live streaming events from the centre.
“The day I landed in Paro, I got really worried,” says Namgay Dorji. “I did not know what quarantine was. I thought I might get locked up in a dark room with no access to the outside world.”
That was after he picked up the Kuensel issue of the day onboard the Drukair. He had gone to Kathmandu in Nepal. His wife, from Hong Kong, was supposed to fly in to Paro but Bhutan had by then announced a ban on tourists and foreigners. Law Yee Mui had to fly back to Hong Kong.
Namgay has become more health-conscious since then. He does 30 push-ups in a day, some stretching and serious fast walking. A golf aficionado, he feels he is now fast becoming a Himalayan yogi.
“To keep myself sane, I talk to my wife every day. She is doing fine. And I talk to my mother,” says Namgay. But he is determined to educate the people in his own simple ways.
Chimi Wangmo, Namgay’s 85-year-old mother, worries about her son. Namgay calls her every day to assuage her pain. What quarantine is, she doesn’t know. She thinks her son’s done something really bad and is locked up in a cell.
“The moment I landed in Paro I called her. That was 17th of March. I told her I would be home after 14 days. She is good with numbers. Now that quarantine period has been extended, she is more worried,” says Namgay. “She is now really beginning to believe that I have come in conflict with law.”
Mui is worried too. She feels that she put her husband through all these complications unnecessarily.
“Our King and the government have done so much already to keep our people safe. So I decided to educate people on the importance of quarantine from my room every day. That’s the least I can do. It struck me suddenly that there could be many people like me who did not understand what quarantine was,” says Namgay. “When we are going through such difficult times, I thought I could contribute in my small ways to educate the people.”
It is a lot better now. In the beginning, Namgay was even accused of bringing Covid-19 into the country. “That did not bother me. I knew fear would make us more vulnerable. Positive messages and stories are critically important.”
Rich and powerful are messing things up, says Namgay. And this is the real danger facing the country today. Bhutan now has the fifth Covid-19 positive cases. The recent one could have been the most dangerous. Information about it is scarce still. Why?
“I have not missed one live streaming since my first day in the centre. I can handle it all right but young people might need some counselling services. Passing time in the quarantine centres can be very difficult,” says Namgay. “I have always been a religious person. Prayers keep me sane.”
When Namgay first began live streaming, he was met with criticisms galore. Some called him the bringer of Covid-19. Others called him thankless and rude.
“The fact is we still need some serious Covid-19 education. That’s why my main focus is on creating awareness,” says Namgay. “The danger is when people disregard health advisories.”
Covid-19 positive cases are growing in the world. The latest is this: 966,702 cases worldwide and 49,290 deaths. The total recovered cases stand at 203,535.
“I have not contracted the disease and am confident that I will walk out clean. But I am a citizen who is deeply worried. How do the rich and powerful people get out, though? This is the biggest risk facing the country today,” says Namgay. “Irresponsibility at this time should be counted as treason.”
When Namgay had to convince his mother that he won’t be home until after 21 days in Paro, she became more suspicious. He must now prove that he’s done nothing wrong and that he is not detained by the police.
He does this every day, only she forgets.
Heading to wash his clothes, says Namgay: “I have now become a serious laundryman. Whoever puts the people of this country in danger must be punished, severely.”
Repair works of most houses yet to begin
Nim Dorji | Trongsa
Although Trongsa dzongkhag administration in collaboration with Mangdechhu project has completed the estimation of rectification and maintenance of cracks developed in Kuengarabten, the most affected houses are yet to begin repair.
Local residents complained of cracks on their homes and roads last year and blamed the project’s blasting and tunnel which passes close to the village. The project with officials from the geology and mines department conducted an investigation which reported that the cracks were not because of the project. The project authority agreed to help affected households with compensation.
On January 8, it was decided that cracks on the road and houses in Kuengarabten in Trongsa would be repaired before February 15 during a consultation meeting between the members of households and the authorities.
Without any progress, the gewog administration notified the dzongkhag administration to depute an engineer to carry out an assessment and to work out a cost estimation.
Dzongkhag administration and MHPA carried out the damage estimation of the nunnery and private residential houses.
It was learnt that repair works at the Kuengarabten nunnery began on January 29 and MHPA deputed officials to monitor the works. Repair works would cost about Nu 1.5M for the nunnery.
A house near the road, which has suffered major cracks, would be demolished and reconstruction would cost about Nu 1.9M.
However, some affected people are not aware when the repair works would start and are worried, as monsoon is nearing.
A resident said that officials come to inspect every five to 10 days but they are not informed on when the repair works would begin. “We heard estimation of two affected houses are complete and one has started the work, but when we ask about ours, officials say that the cracks are small and the soil should be stabilised.”
MHPA would be funding more than 4 million (M) to repair and rectify the affected houses.
MHPA’s joint managing director, Chencho Tshering, said most of the major works are works are completed and the fund is also ready. “Everything will be completed in two to three weeks.”
He said funds would be released once the works start.
It was learnt that cracks on the ground would be filled using compaction to avoid water seepage. A team was also deployed to check soil movements and sensors are being used in some houses near the road to check vibration.
Amid growing apprehension about Covid-19, Bhutanese of all walks of life have come forward to make their contributions – some in cash and others in kind.
Within days of the first Covid-19 positive case on March 5, contributions started pouring despite the government saying it was not calling for any budget support.
Samtse Dzongkhag Tshogdu became the first dzongkhag tshogdu to contribute Nu 151,000 to His Majesty’s Kidu Fund for Covid-19 yesterday.
Bhutan Cricket contributed USD 10,000 to the fund in response to support and fight against Covid 19 yesterday.
Retired Armed Force Officer Association of Bhutan contributed Nu 600,000 to the fund.
Different religious groups made their contributions. Padmacholing Religious Association contributed Nu 1 million to the office of the Prime Minister on April 1.
The 2020 Bhutan Super League champions, High Quality United FC donated Nu 150,000 to the Covid-19 fund the same day.
The 8-Eleven Supermarket donated Nu 600,000 to the Prime Minister’s office. The Bank of Bhutan Gedu branch donated Nu 543,427 to the office of vice chancellor on March 25. The amount was deducted from the staff’s salary and donation.
Traders of Gelephu also contributed to the Covid-19 response account on April 1. Dugar grocery contributed Nu 111,111.1, Gewar Chand cloth shop and grocery shop donated Nu 90,000 each. Moreover, Deki grocery shop contributed Nu 50,051, Gakey Tshongkhang Nu 50,000, and Ladon Tshongkhang gave Nu 50,000.
Drongseb Yargay Detsen from Doonglagang gewog under Tsirang contributed 1,000kg of various vegetables to the government yesterday.
“As we remain grateful to everyone helping to combat Covid-19, this contribution is a small gesture in appreciation and support to the government,” a member of the 16-farmer group said.
The World Food Programme has donated two mobile storage units in support of the government’s Covid-19 preparedness and response. The facility will be used to help authorities preposition food to meet the needs of half the population for three months.
The storage units, with a capacity of 500MT each and worth a total of USD 45,000 were part of a technical assistance package provided to the government as the country faces an imminent emergency due to the pandemic.
The Khenrig Namsum community-based scouts in Tingtibi, Zhemgang contributed Nu 15,000 to the government for Covid-19 relief on April 1.
Rajesh Rai | Samtse
Samtse dzongkhag monitoring of people’s movements along the border stretches in the battle against Covid-19 is becoming a herculean task given countless informal and illegal points of entries.
There are 44 points of entries, including the main checkpoints, which are manned but there are many other informal border areas from where movement of people could go unnoticed.
Samtse residents say that in many of the informal points, it is even difficult to identify which side is Bhutan and India, making it difficult to control the movement of people.
However, desuups, police, gewog officials, civil servants, and local volunteers are monitoring the areas day and night.
At Norbugang, cow herders from across the border sneak into Bhutan to graze their cattle and many come to smuggle alcohol.
A desuup, Dorji Wangchuk, who is a teacher, said people try to sneak in with their cattle.
“We ask them to return after giving awareness and sensitivity about Covid-19,” he said, adding that such cases have decreased now.
Although there are rumours about alcohol being smuggled from Bhutan, no one has been caught red-handed.
Norbugang gup Kuenga said local volunteers that include gewog administration officials, civil servants, and villagers patrol the borders from 5pm to 9pm before being taken over by desuups.
Desuups patrol the areas from 8am to 9pm. They also monitor in the night.
Gup Kuenga Wangdi said that people are taking the battle against the virus responsibly.
“Local people are also providing food and snacks for the volunteers.”
Tashichholing gup Samir Giri said the biggest challenge is the porous border. He said there are two reasons people from across the border come into Bhutan—to earn and to buy alcohol.
“With the lockdown, the neighbours are in distress and they know the routes to enter into our country,” he said. “As earning isn’t an option anymore, people come to buy the alcohol.”
Local residents say people from across the border even come to Bhutan to mill their rice, as it was cheaper. Some are even coming to collect edible snails, fishes and to hunt.
“As of now we are being vigilant but there are challenges,” the gup said.
Yoeseltse gup Ganga Prasad Limbu said there about eight illegal routes in his gewog itself.
“There are countless routes to enter, he said. “In some areas, families from our side and their side share courtyards so close that children cross over to play.”
He said entry points from where people frequently move are monitored but other stretches are being missed.
“But we are doing everything to control movement.”
Ganga Prasad Limbu said the gewog is planning to place local people as volunteers to increase vigilance.
Local supplies unable to meet demand
The ongoing lockdown in India has led to a shortage of doma (areca nut) and paney (betel leaves) in the market.
Pan shops in Thimphu have run out of imported doma and paney. The unavailability of the goods will lead to a decline in their income, shopkeepers say.
However, local suppliers are trying to fill up the gap by procuring them from within the country. While the paney is available in most dzongkhags, doma is found only in some dzongkhags that share the border with India.
A wholesaler at the Centenary Farmers’ Market in Thimphu, Sherub Tenzin, said he was receiving his supplies from Sarpang. He said that the country has enough doma and paney if harvested.
The wholesaler, who comes from Sarpang, said that paney were found in abundant in most gewogs of his dzongkhag. The betel leaves are found in the forests of Trongsa, Punakha, Tsirang and Dagana, among other dzongkhags.
“We can be self-sufficient in both doma and paney. We export doma grown in our country and import them at a higher price,” he said.
A bundle of paney cost between Nu 35 to Nu 100 depending on the size and quality.
Another vendor at the market said that she was receiving her supply from Gedu. She said that each bunch of her betel leaves cost Nu 5 in Gedu but that she had to sell it at Nu 35 due to transportation costs.
However, it has been difficult for suppliers to meet the demand with local betel leaves.
A pan shop owner in Thimphu said that she had not sold doma for few days due to lack of betel leaves. She said that she had asked for betel leaves from Samtse.
Moreover, locally available betel leaves do not have shelf life. Imported ones come in proper packages, which can be stored for days.
The lack of imported leaves in the market has also given the opportunity to earn some income. Sources in dzongkhags said that many farmers have been combing the jungles for betel leaves.
A vendor from Samtse said that he was supplying both doma and paney leaves to Thimphu. He said that the business was picking up rapidly.
The government has not officially banned their import from the neighbouring Indian states.
There is call to come together in our fight against the threat of the new coronavirus. The support has been widespread with Bhutanese involving in it in one way or another.
It will exactly be a month this Saturday since we first detected the first case of Covid-19 in the country. The reaction, preparedness and the continued effort to save Bhutanese have enabled us to manage the threat.
Like anywhere in the world, the direct impact is on the economy as lockdown and shutting borders slow down economy. The government is in the final stages of readying an economic stimulus plan. There are surveys being conducted and plans made to help those affected by the impact on the economy.
Apart from those in the private sector, especially the service and trading sector, the salaried group is cushioned. The expectation was that the government would be overwhelmed by requests of subsidies, exemptions and handouts.
Surprisingly, the movement is to support the government. From vegetables to house rent waivers, personal protection equipment and cash in the millions, the support has been varied and widespread. This week alone, big and small business houses in the country contributed millions to the Covid-19 Response Fund and to His Majesty’s Kidu Fund for Covid-19.
Individuals, groups, organisation and even religious institutions have come together to support the country’s effort to keep its people safe. The hotel industry that was hit first and hardest is offering their property to be used as quarantine facilities. Farmers are collecting rice and cereals to supply to the hotels to feed those in quarantine.
His Majesty The King, leading on the frontline, has set the priority. His Majesty had said that the health and safety of the people of Bhutan is of the greatest priority, and as such, every measure necessary to safeguard the people is put in place.
The vision is clear and the Bhutanese have understood it. The message is clearer- that the people want to be a part in our fight against Covid-19. We cannot conduct concerts or other fund raising events because gathering is discouraged. Therefore, it is left to individuals or groups or organisations. And everybody is coming forward.
One common occurrence during times like this is the risk of over zealous supporters competing with each other in their contributions. We should not make people reluctant volunteers. There are some complaining of forced contributions and cuts from salaries. This should be discouraged. Contributions, whether rice or cash, should come from the heart, not imposed.
At the individual level, the biggest contribution is listening to authorities that are trying to prevent an outbreak in the country. Observing social distancing, avoiding gathering in groups or as simple as washing hands with soap and clean water is seen as no lesser than million ngultrum contribution.
We have four confirmed Covid-19 cases, but not one is from community infection, which is a bigger threat. The biggest contribution from each Bhutanese would be preventing a mass community infection. The risk is real. Cases in the neighbouring Indian states are on the rise everyday. The WHO has warned of mass community infection in our region.
Preventing this in Bhutan would be the greatest contribution at all levels.
Centres in Thimphu alone produce 250 bags of waste daily
On average, Greener Way collects 250 bags of waste from the quarantine centres across Thimphu every day.
The amount of waste generated is expected to only increase. As of yesterday, there were 121 quarantine centres in the country according to the health ministry.
For instance, if there are 50 centres in Thimphu, the daily waste generated from these centres is 12,500 bags.
Within three days, a quarantine centre produced 23 bags of food waste and 43 bags of dry waste. The designated official who oversees the proper collection of waste at the centre, Bhawani Shankar said that the majority of dry waste was generated from food packaging and packaged snacks. The wastes are disposed of once in three days after disinfecting them.
He said that there are designated areas marked in red from where Greener Way collects it. It is then completely burnt for five hours in Hejo.
However, few people complained about the pollution from open-pit burning.
Project Manager at the health ministry, Sonam Tenzin, said that according to World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, only the waste from positive cases should be incinerated or burnt but the country is taking extra precaution to contain the spread of Covid-19 outbreak. “We are one step ahead in managing the waste.”
“Burning is the safest method as Bhutan does not have other alternatives such as incinerators,” he added.
Chief of waste management division in the National Environment Commission (NEC), Thinley Dorji, said that the trend of waste generated is increasing with the Covid-19 pandemic. As per international best practices, infectious waste is autoclaved and incinerated.
Thinley Dorji said that the country doesn’t yet have an incinerator and burning is the safest method to curb the infection. “People may complain about pollution from burning but it is better than spreading the virus by improper disposal of such hazardous waste.”
Prime Minister’s Office instructed NEC to procure an incinerator to manage infectious waste and the commission is working on it, he said, adding the installation of an incinerator was in the National Waste Management Flagship Programme but had to be fast-forwarded on the urgent need basis.
Greener Way CEO Karma Yonten said that the collectors were cautious while handling the waste. The four waste collectors work from 9am until 11pm. He said that as the thromde and the health ministry faced a shortage of human resource, the company volunteered to collect and manage the waste.
“We are handling the waste according to the general guidelines but it is risky for our workers although we wear protective gears,” he said.
The waste handlers are vulnerable because if they come in contact with infected wastes, it could increase the risk of spreading the virus, Karma Yonten said.
WHO recommends people handling health care waste to wear appropriate gear, including boots, aprons, long-sleeved gowns, thick gloves, masks, and goggles or face shields.
Phub Dem | Paro
Paro’s vegetable shed which remains crowded even during weekdays is an eyesore to both residents and visitors alike.
The place is dusty and some vendors sell their goods under tarpaulin sheets.
A vendor, Lhamo Drukpa said that without a proper marketplace, the vegetables dry up easily and become unfit for sale incurring loss. She said that the place was filled with dust and it was difficult to maintain proper hygiene.
“Especially during monsoon, the marketplace is a puddle pool. It is a struggle.”
Another vendor Lhakpa said that he had to spend hours in the morning to clean his area. He said that fresh vegetables become dusty quickly.
The issue was also discussed in Paro dzongkhag tshogdu (DT) recently.
Paro dzongdag Tenzin Thinley during DT said that the marketplace was untidy and not attractive, given that the town is a tourist hub.
The dzongkhag allocated Nu 7.5milion for this year to build a new vegetable market place.
He said that although dzongkhag discussed building a three-storey farmers’ market, the budget exceeded the 12th Plan’s allocation and the existing area did not have enough space.
The dzongkhag administration is planning to build a two-storey farmers’ market.
“The dzongkhag administration is working on the budget required for the construction. We are ready to award the work to contractors after budgeting.”
The existing vegetable market will be temporarily shifted to dzongkhag archery ground at Tshongdue.
In the meantime, vendors occupying sheltered plots have to pay Nu 1,500 per plot monthly and those in open space pay Nu 700 monthly for weekend sales.
Lhakpa said that during weekdays, the vendors have to pay Nu 10 per plot for the sweepers.
Kelzang Wangchuk | Samdrupjongkhar
The price of some of the essential commodities like rice and potato, among others have increased in Samdrupjongkhar town that has seen fewer customers each day in the past few weeks.
A kilogramme (kg) of Bhutanese potato normally costs between Nu 25 to Nu 30 and a kg of dry Indian red chili costs Nu 160 to Nu 180.
Today, a kg of potato costs Nu 50 and one has to spend as high as Nu 300 for a kg of imported dry chili. A bag of rice (22kg) which used to cost about Nu 570, today it is Nu 600 to Nu 650.
Residents said authorities should check and monitor the prices of commodities. Some said shopkeepers have now increased the price of the rice despite the government’s announcement not to do so.
Hotel Phuntshok Yangkhor’s owner, Karma Tshering said he used to buy about four bags of rice and vegetables every month for his hotel. “But shopkeepers and vendors now charge double the price for some commodities,” he said.
He said the prices which were displayed today were the new prices. “These are not the ones the shopkeepers and vendors used to charge because they have increased the prices and submitted them to the trade office after they heard the government’s announcement,” he said.
“It is important for the concerned monitoring agencies including the trade office among others to study the impacts on both the vendors and customers before they accept and approve the prices,” Karma Tshering said.
Another resident, Dema said she paid Nu 50 for a kg of potato and Nu 1,000 for Bhutanese dry red chili last week.
“The shopkeeper charged me Nu 700 for a bag of 25kg rice which used to pay Nu 570 before. It is a burden and additional pressure during such crucial times for middle-income families like mine.”
Customers said there are also differences in price of vegetables. While some vendors maintain at the same price others increased. For instance, peas and beans cost Nu 80 and Nu 120 per kg but a few vendors charge Nu 100 per kg of peas and Nu 140 for beans.
Vegetable vendors said there should not be a price difference because they buy vegetables from the same suppliers but few vendors still charge more. “We were also questioned by the concerned officials. It would hamper our business someday,” a vegetable vendor said.
A vegetable vendor, Zangmo said there are differences in prices because every vendor has different suppliers with different prices. She said that the price from the suppliers has also increased as they now have to pay Nu 700 to Nu 750 a kg of Bhutanese red chili and Nu 40 per kg potato.
Wholesalers said the price for the rice has increased because the transporters charge double transportation charges given the risk and illegal tax collection along the Indian highways, adding that the prices are also increased from the suppliers.
“We are paying Nu 3,000 per truckload to the Bhutanese labours for unloading,” the proprietor of Selden Grocery shop said.
Regional trade officials said although the office did not receive any complaints from the customers, they are strictly monitoring and compiling the prices from the shopkeepers and vendors as there are few price escalations.
Officials said they have sensitised the shopkeepers and vendors to maintain documents like invoice among others. “We will strictly monitor and impose fines if we find them charging unreasonable prices,” a trade official said.
Fuel prices have dipped to almost a decade low owing to Covid-19 pandemic.
The petrol price in Thimphu has decreased to Nu 49.91 a litre. A litre of diesel now costs Nu 46.73.
The drop in the prices comes two weeks after the last revision. Officials with the Department of Trade said that the price decrease was due to a decrease in fuel demand in India and across the world due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the early months of 2011, the petrol price in Thimphu was about Nu 52 per litre, according to records with Kuensel.
A few weeks ago, the price of petrol per litre was Nu 58.63, while diesel cost Nu 53.52 a litre.
According to international media reports, prices in the international market on Monday had fallen at their lowest level since 2002.
According to the Department of Trade, the government had stocked 1,000KL (kilolitres) of Petrol and Diesel each as of March 18, 2020.
The stock, according to the department, is maintained to ensure uninterrupted supply of PoL (petrol, oil and lubricants) products.
However, the price of a subsidised liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinder has increased to Nu 589, up by Nu 19.
The price of a non-subsidised LPG cylinder, however, has dropped to Nu 817 from Nu 882.
The Department of Trade also states that it is in the process of stocking 40,000 LPG cylinders at Thingchupangka, Thimphu.
The second Covid-19 patient, Sandi Fischer shares her experience
Like most tourists, Sandi Fischer and her partner, Bert Hewitt planned a trip to Bhutan to explore the country’s unique culture and tradition.
On the list of places to visit, the Americans had Thimphu, Paro and Punakha. “Bert and I really enjoy hiking so part of our decision was related to that, as well as hearing wonderful things about the people and culture of Bhutan.”
However, their plan began to fall apart as they arrived in the country on March 2. Bert Hewitt,76, started feeling ill soon after their plane landed at the Paro international airport.
“While I was able to do some sightseeing, he did not get to do so,” she said. “I often felt divided when I was out because I wanted to be certain that Bert was okay.”
On the third day after arriving in the country, Bert Hewitt, on his third visit to the national referral hospital tested positive for Covid-19.
He became the first Covid-19 positive patient in the country.
Two weeks later, as Sandi was about to exit from the quarantine facility, she also tested positive.
“I was surprised but also not really surprised when I tested positive since I had spent so much time in close proximity to Bert,” she said.
A psychologist by profession, the 57-year-old said that she managed to cope with the situation with support she received from her friends and families back home, as well as the kindness and compassion of the Bhutanese people including their guide and driver, and the hospital staff.
Sandi’s sister who is a nurse also provided her support away from home reassuring her that things would improve. “She reminded me that Bert’s situation was different from mine and luckily I never developed a temperature or a cough,” she said.
“My brother and mother were worried but kept in touch. I think it helped me and my son since we were able to speak on the phone on a regular basis.”
However, her decade-long experience in studying human emotion and behaviour did little to help her when her partner was air evacuated from the country on March 13.
“I was terribly afraid because he was so sick and I knew that he had a very long way to get home,” she said. “I hoped that his body would hold out and luckily it did. I think Bert’s spirit – he is stubborn and competitive – helped him to survive. He is also youthful for his age and in good physical shape.”
She said that the health care the couple received in Bhutan has been ‘exemplary’. “There was probably more personal attention from the doctors and nurses than we would have received in the US. Bert credits the doctors and nurses in Bhutan with saving his life.”
It was learnt that Bert Hewitt after being flown to the US, is recovering well. He has tested negative twice and would soon be moved to a rehabilitation facility to continue his recovery before heading home.
Last week, Sandi tested negative. It was the second time she tested negative. She is currently in a quarantine centre under observation. Health Minister Dechen Wangmo have said that she would qualify as recovered if she does not show symptoms within the seven-day observation period.
Sharing her experience, Sandi said while quarantine was challenging, it was important to keep busy. “Take time to do things that you enjoy every day – listen to music, watch a fun TV show, communicate with family and friends, read, pray, and maybe even try something new, exercise,” she said. “And it’s okay to cry.”
With the increasing number of positive cases in the country, Sandi said dealing with them would depend on how serious the patient is. “If they are asymptotic or only mildly ill, I would treat them as one usually do.”
However, she explained that since her partner’s condition was serious, the couple had to discuss difficult topics such as whether he wanted a breathing tube or whether he wanted to be resuscitated if his heart stopped. “We would also talk on what he meant to me over the years. I did not want him to die without talking to him about everything.”
Sandi cautioned the Bhutanese to take the virus seriously. “ Listen to the health minister and others related to restrictions that are in place (or will be). Isolate and wash your hands often. If you don’t feel well see a doctor.”
Back home, working as a psychologist with children and adults with developmental disabilities is stressful, she said. “I found the people here to be so compassionate. I hope their model will inspire me when I am home. I would like to thank the people of Bhutan for their prayers and well wishes.”
Meanwhile, sharing her appreciation for the guide and driver for their constant support, she said, “I would love to go to Taktsang if I have time and the physical stamina to do so.”