Despite limited human resource and mounting public demand, the Bhutan Livestock Development Corporation Limited (BLDCL) is fighting another challenge of keeping the livestock products fresh before delivery.
Due to lack of refrigerated vans, blast freezers, cold storages, and improper processing facilities in the dzongkhags, meat products go bad quickly.
The chief executive officer (CEO) of BLDCL, Jigme Wangchuk, said that in the last two weeks, 13,000kg of chicken were spoilt and discarded.
Since August 15, BLDCL has distributed 48,205 cheese balls, 3,291kg of butter, 1,385 kgs of beef, 4,309kg of chicken, and 3,841 cartons of egg in Thimphu.
A kg of butter and cheese costs Nu 450 each and a tray of egg is Nu 375.
With the help of livestock department, the corporation has deployed 44 people with 14 pick-up trucks to distribute the dairy products to shops in different zones and households.
Although there were no records as to how many households had been reached, the orders dropped in the last three days, said the CEO. The drop in demand might be because the cheese was the only product regularly consumed, he added.
Local eggs, cheese, and butter are main products available with the corporation which are brought from other dzongkhags while beef is bought from a local importer. Jigme Wangchuk said that other dzongkhags had surplus products and so the office did not have to deploy officials to deliver in other dzongkhags. The product prices were negotiated with the farmers in consultation with the dzongkhag livestock officers.
“We can continue to supply eggs, butter, and cheese if the lockdown continues for a month,” he said.
But he said that BLDCL might need to increase the storage facilities in the capital and also set up more sales outlets or distribution points to fast track clearing the stock.
In the earlier days of the lockdown, people on social media complained about lack of efficient service delivery. This, according to Jigme Wangchuk, was due to lack of proper address and GPS system in the capital.
He said: “The deliveries had to be made with description of the location and landmarks on call which led to delay in delivering the products.”
The corporation, formed three years ago, is mandated to supply dairy products for people during the nationwide lockdown.
KelzangWangchuk | Samdrupjongkhar
Jomotshangkha drungkhag in Samdrupjongkhar remains isolated after the lockdown, but residents will not hungry for lack of essentials, according to officials.
The incident commander (IC) and Jomotshangkha drungpa, Lamdak Wangdi, said that the Food Corporation of Bhutan (FCB) depot and the shops identified by the trade had stocked the items before the lockdown.
The drungkhag Covid-19 task force, FCB and identified essential delivery shops deliver the goods and other essential items to the recognised shops in the drungkhag’s three gewogs.
The drungpa said although the trade office had identified two shops in Jomotshangkha town, the drungkhag task force identified four other shops in Jomotshangkha town, six at Serthi and Lauri gewogs each and three shops at Langchenphu gewog to assure better service to the people.
“The task force, De-Suups and essential suppliers deliver the rations and other necessary items to the identified shops in all the three gewogs. Those shops deliver essential items to the doorstep in the gewogs,” Lamdak Wangdi said.
The drungpa said that the drungkhag also had sufficient vegetables as the task force had identified two shops each at Lauri and Serthi gewogs to supply vegetables to the residents in Jomotshangkha town.
He said the suppliers goto the villages and collect vegetables like cabbages, radish, chilli and beans and bring them to the Jomotshangkha town. “The task force members and De- Suups deliver the vegetables going door-to-door.”
Lamdak Wangdi said the drungkhag had deployed the De-Suups, army, police, foresters, retired armed forces (RAF), customs and immigration officials keep vigil at all illegal routes and border gate. Local leaders are also monitoring the situation in the gewogs.
“But cow herders from across the border often try to cross the border. Our security officials on duty explain and send them back,” Lamdak Wangdi said.
The drungkhag clears the irrigation channel leading to fields in India so that farmers from the other side can’t enter to maintain them, the drungpa said.
I retired to bed on the night of August 10. I am still resting. The lockdown has given me a good rest. If you ask me, I would want this lockdown to continue.
At the four-way intersection on the Norzin Lam, I had spent years since the early 1980s when I was born. Dressed in traditional attire, I had provided shelter to the traffic signal man for decades. Now, I am alone and deserted. The pride I had as the home to the traffic signal men, which made Thimphu the only capital in the world without traffic lights is slowly fleeting away. Where are you my policeman?
I heard that there is a nationwide lockdown, which means restriction on movement. I pinched myself to ask if it’s a dream and if the busy traffic and the policeman would return. But it has been days, none of them have returned.
The city is dead, so I see and so I reflect.
From boring days of waiting for a few scooters, Mahindra jeeps and Ambassador cars, whose drivers I knew by name and address, this city has become crazy. They say it is the fastest growing city in the region. I take no pride in it. I saw how the capital city’s main thoroughfare had changed.
I used to laugh when visitors told me about traffic jams. I thought it was another variety of jam. But here, I stand to see it happen. The number of vehicles increased. It pains to feel the pain in the arms of my policeman who starts signalling for direction from 8:30 am to 6:30pm, seven days a week. There used to be one. It was increased to two. Now we need four man to control the traffic.
Covid-19 came as a relief to me. When the first case was reported on March 6, I laughed at the frenzy. Some eyeballed my policemen as they rushed to hoard essentials. The number of cases increased, so did those coming out. Just before the lockdown, traffic was back to normal.
Norzin Lam, where I stand has always been a problem. There was a plan to do away with parking spaces when the two multi-storey parking were completed. There was also Pedestrian Day planned to reduce the traffic once every month. None of them worked. I would love to wave to kids and families strolling around without the worry of speeding vehicles and rowdy drivers. We would have provided the best public space for the town that is increasingly getting congested.
For decades, I have heard planners talk about making Thimphu as a different city. I feel sad, none kept to their words or to the plans readied after numerous study tours abroad and millions spent in consultancy fees.
I am happy to see my friend, Pala, who bought a Maruti van after selling momos on his rickety Bajaj scooter for years. It was a good mode of transportation, a necessity. But I am angry with the growing number of vehicles and shrinking space. I am also sad because owning a car is a pride, not a necessity. Bigger the car, the bigger the pride. I know from how they look at me when they pass by.
Covid-19 seemed to have affected some families hard but I saw hundreds of new cars since March. I could make out from the registration plate. From BP-A, it is now BP-E. We were saying that soon it will be BP-Z or BG-Y.
Across the Thimpchhu, at the road safety office, I heard officials talk about numbers. This pandemic year, five months to be precise, they saw 3,386 new vehicles. As of July 31, there are 58,143 vehicles in Thimphu. “Wow. That’s almost one car for three people in the capital!”
I question myself. Do all members of the household own or need a car? The answer is somewhere else, with smart businesses and smart marketing people. Banks compete to avail cheap loans to buy cars, vehicle dealer have competitive schemes to lure the stupid residents. I felt sad when 20 percent of old Dorji’s meagre salary was deducted as “vehicle loan.” He is not. Driving around his new Baleno twice a week is enough for him.
While I am enjoying the peace at Norzin Lam, I am also breathing in the cleanest air for years. I would not age, but I was sick of the smoke and the carbon monoxide at Norzin Lam. We have been breathing the cleanest air in many years since I was born.
I wish for the lockdown to continue, but it is not fair. Livelihoods are affected, development plans are derailed and the economy is bad. The reality is when life returns to normal, everything is forgot- ten as we chase after income, profit and economic growth. Nobody will pause to reflect what we have learnt from our first nationwide lockdown.
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
Many residents in Phuentsholing were left panicking when they didn’t receive calls about their test results after the recent mass surveillance testing.
The samples were taken days ago and when the surveillance team left for Thimphu, they were in a dilemma.
Health Minister Dechen Wangmo in a press conference yesterday evening in Thimphu said that only positive cases would be contacted.
“We will only call when it is a positive case because there are other important procedures to follow as doctors have to check them and quarantine.”
If the health ministry officials were to call and inform each and everyone, the health minister said that thousands of people would have to be called. However, lyonpo said that they have also considered informing people through SMS.
A resident of Pipal Dara, Sonam Penjor, said that he expected a call because he had met so many people just prior to the lockdown.
Another resident in Pemal- ing said that he and his family worried the most when 12 new positive cases were reported recently.
“It was natural for us to get worried. We waited for two days and there was nothing,” he said.
He said that there were rumours of the places from where the 12 were detected, which got many worried.
“If they could have at least informed a few from one particular community or one person in a building, it would have eased the tension,” he said.
Meanwhile, during the conference, the health minister Dechen Wangmo also emphasised that people should be at home during the lockdown.
“But to be honest, this is not happening.”
The minister also shared that a few who later tested Covid-19 positive had been to others’ homes or had visitors in their houses. This only adds to more contract tracing, she said.
“If people had not been anywhere, then contract tracing may not have to go beyond one family.”
Phurpa Lhamo | Gasa
Despite Gasa’s harsh weather conditions and short cultivation season, the dzongkhag is self-sufficient in vegetables and dairy products.
As of August 20, the dzongkhag exported around 13.3 metric tonnes (MT) of vegetables. A majority of the vegetables were sold to Punakha and around 3MT of potatoes were sold to Thimphu dzongkhag.
Today, the dzongkhag cultivates various kinds of vegetables in its Khatoed and Khamoed gewogs, which are much warmer compared to Lunana and Laya.
On August 26, farmers from Khatoed and Khamoed donated around three boleros of vegetables, rice and fruits to De-Suups and the monastic body along with 50kg of butter and 40kg of cheese.
There are around 100 De- Suups in the dzongkhag.
Gasa Dratshang Umzey Tshering Dhendup said that around 80 monks live inside the dzong and around 12 monks stayed in the newly constructed dratshang. Villagers from the two gewogs had earlier donated fruits to the dratshang during kurim.
Dzongkhag agriculture officer Karma Wangchuk said that because almost everyone in the dzongkhag has a kitchen garden, there was no issue of vegetable shortage.
Prior to the lockdown, the dzongkhag took some major initiatives in agriculture to ensure that the dzongkhag had vegetables supply during the lockdown.
Greenhouse distribution, fallow land revival, electric fencing, bio-fertilizers and distribution of improved seeds were executed as part of the agriculture Economic Contingency Plan (AECP) with a budget of Nu 5.4 million (M).
Around 70 acres of land in Khatoed and Khamoed were also developed for cultivation.
The dzongkhag officials also initiated the Dzongkhag Zhiyog Lamten Dumra and Gomo Lhatshog Dumra by the Gasa dratshang. Under the Dzongkhag Zhiyog Lamten Dumra and the Gomo Lhats- hog Dumra by the Gasa drat- shang, small gardens were maintained by the civil serv- ants and the dratshang body.
The Royal Monetary Authority (RMA) has offered Treasury Bills (T-Bills) worth Nu 3 billion (B) for sale on behalf of the government.
T-Bills are a debt instrument issued by the government to mobilise fund from the market and can be negotiated and traded freely in the market.
The T-Bills, which have a maturity period of 91 days, are being auctioned and issued through the RMA.
Any Bhutanese person, firm, company, corporate body, financial institution and trust, among others, can subscribe the Bills. But the RMA will have the full discretion to accept or reject any or all the bids either wholly or partially, without assigning any reason, the central bank notified.
The sale of Treasury Bills comes at a time when the government is reportedly facing shortage of funds amid the Covid-19 pandemic. T-Bills can be used for financing temporary revenue shortfalls in the government budget.
However, Finance Minister Namgay Tshering downplayed the sale of T-Bills saying that issuing of Treasury Bills is a regular practice.
“This is issued to ensure un-disrupted cash flow in the market. This will help the economy,” he said.
According to the finance ministry’s Operation Guidelines for T-Bills, the Bills shall be listed and issued through the Royal Securities Exchange of Bhutan. The Public Finance Act authorises the Ministry of Finance to raise loan from any person, organisation, or government, either within or outside Bhutan.
The government estimates the domestic borrowing for fiscal year 2020-21 at Nu 13.604B, which will be financed through issuance of T-Bills and long-term government bonds in the domestic market.
As of today, the government has been using T-Bills for deficit financing and cash management. However, the government plans to raise financing through long-term bonds of different maturity, according to the finance ministry.
The Act also allows the ministry to borrow money to finance budget deficits, to refinance maturing debt and to maintain credit balance in the bank accounts by way of issue of public securities such as bills, bonds or commercial paper.
Given the rising number of Covid-19 positive cases in the country, the national lockdown may not be relaxed any soon.
The health ministry is carrying out health surveillance and tests for all the vulnerable people.
Health Minister Dechen Wangmo said the government imposed nationwide lockdown, as it was the best intervention to break the virus spreading chain.
“We now have to assess risks in all the places and then relax lockdown phase-wise,” she said. “For example, we have already relaxed lockdown in villages and the next phase will come dzongkhag wise depending on the risk findings,” she said.
She said the lockdown couldn’t be relaxed in any dzongkhag where the primary contacts of the index case in Phuentsholing tested negative. This is because one-time testing negative doesn’t mean that one can be free from virus.
“Lockdown has helped us in containing the virus as people confined to their own places. It could have been spread to all 20 dzongkhags if people were left to travel as usual,” she said. “For instance, about 1,000 people travel between Thimphu and Phuentsholing every day and lockdown could prevent this.”
Lyonpo said that lockdown minimised people’s movement which help tracing and testing of all the contacts of the index case. It also gave time for the ministry to plan and implement the measures accordingly.
Lyonpo said: “We must be careful before deciding to lift the lockdown. Our lockdown has been an example to many countries.”
She said that if lockdown protocols were followed strictly at the household levels, focusing on the family in which a member has tested positive would be easy.
Lyonpo emphasised that if the situation worsen in some places, lockdown in those places could be more stringent.
Ending hunger and poverty amid COVID-19 impacts will require leveraging agricultural technology, innovation and partnerships
Global hunger has been on a regrettable rise in recent years, and despite Asia’s economic clout, the continent – home to more than half of the world’s undernourished – has not been spared. Now COVID-19 is leading to a slow-down of regional economic growth and further threatening food security.
Southern Asia is particularly vulnerable, with the number of chronically underfed people projected to rise by almost a third to 330 million by 2030. It is also the only subregion in the world, where more than half the children from the poorest fifth of society are stunted, a condition that prejudices their futures. But there are challenges all around: The Pacific Island States have the world’s highest child wasting rates, and East Asia has the world’s highest absolute costs for a healthy diet – one that goes beyond mere calorie counts to offer balanced nutrition. On top of that, Asia and the Pacific is the region where obesity and overweight, for children and adults, are growing faster than anywhere else.
We are facing two pandemics. COVID-19, which beyond its health toll is crushing livelihoods, and hunger, a scourge the international community pledged to eradicate by the end of this decade – the Sustainable Development Goal 2.
Tackling them will require new ideas and more robust political will. Past progress was sustained by the benign trickle-down effects of strong economies. This is not the case anymore.
The facts have changed, and so must our minds.
We need to find ways to increase resilience across our food systems by identifying new marketing channels (like e-commerce), increasing efficiency to reduce losses, improve the quality of products available and storage facilities, which are critical to flows of healthy foods and income to those who produce them. Inclusive access to finance to strengthen and expand rural supply chains is also crucial.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has recently launched a new comprehensive COVID-19 Response and Recovery Programme to provide an agile and coordinated global response aimed at ensuring access to nutritious food for everyone by mobilizing all forms of resources and partnerships at country, regional and global level. In line with the UN agenda to “build back better”, and in pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the new comprehensive COVID-19 Response and Recovery Programme aims to mitigate the immediate impacts of the pandemic while strengthening the longer-term resilience of food systems and livelihoods.
So we are making headway, but we must, as a priority, attend to the most urgent issues at the very source by enabling farmers to be more dynamic, entrepreneurial and competitive through continual innovation.
We need smallholder farmers to produce nutritious foods, without fear of crop failures, and we need to get those foods to the mouths of the hungry across the region and beyond. To do this, smallholders desperately need access to financial resources, technology and innovation. We also need to educate people on the importance of healthy diets, so that farmers will have a solid base of demand to whom they can market those foods.
The Asia-Pacific region is as dynamic as it is large. It has some of the best agricultural scientists, institutions and innovative ideas. From Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific to China, India, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and virtually every country in between, innovators are proving that everyone can benefit from new technologies and science.
Examples range from deploying drones to monitor flood and pest risks, smartphone apps that can identify plant diseases, advanced genetics that build on crop and livestock breeding, precision agriculture and aquaculture systems that conserve natural resources such as water, indoor farming and consumer tools for nutrition monitoring and smart purchasing.
There is no time to waste. Everyone needs to lend a hand: governments, academia, the private sector, UN agencies, civil society organizations, international financial institutions and the people who bring us the food we eat – the smallholders. And our hands need to be working in unison to overcome pandemics that by definition affect and involve everyone.
FAO has rolled out the Hand-in-Hand Initiative to tackle these collective challenges, and the FAO Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific, which will be virtually hosted by Bhutan (1-4 September), is the perfect opportunity for forty-six Members and other partners to forge ways to expedite action and leverage resources.
By working together, learning together and contributing together, we can overcome both pandemics and transform the agri-food system.
Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
PII management will facilitate their journey back home
Phurpa Lhamo | Wangdue
About 400 workers of the Punatsangchhu-II hydroelectric project (PII) have submitted their names to project authorities expressing their wish to leave for India.
This came after nearly 500 workers of the Jaiprakash Associates Limited (Jaypee Group), a construction company working for PII, came together demanding to go home yesterday. The crowd gathered around 9am in front of the Jaypee Group office in Wangdue.
For the past few months, hundreds of PII workers had expressed their concern and wanted to leave for home. Most workers pointed out that they had stayed in Bhutan for long and now wished to leave. Others reasoned family issues and the upcoming celebration of major festivals in India like the Durga Puja.
The PII management led by chairman Lyonpo Loknath Sharma has ensured to help the workers leave at the earliest. Lyonpo Loknath Sharma reached Wangdue yesterday afternoon and immediately met with the workers. Lyonpo also visited the campsites to meet with the workers, listening to their concerns and hosted a dinner for the workers yesterday.
Lyonpo Loknath Sharma said that the worker’s immediate request was that they be sent home. He added that the workers were of an understanding that the government wasn’t allowing them to leave. “From our side, we can send them any time.
There are formalities to be completed from the Indian government side as well. That is why I am going to take all the forms and the list and go to the Indian Embassy.”
Lyonpo said that the management would request the Indian embassy to expedite the process. “Not all of them are from West Bengal, some are from other parts—each State has their own route of transit. Bus and trains are not available.”
Many workers of the project usually leave for home after a few months’ stay in Bhutan.
Jaypee Group today has around 2,800 workers. Prior to the lockdown, more than 1,000 workers left for home. Eleven workers who were to leave on August 11 were stranded because of the lockdown.
Lyonpo Loknath Sharma said that the workers leaving would disrupt the hydropower construction work. “But human beings are more important for us, their families are more important for us, their sentiments are more important for us.”
Lyonpo also expressed concerns over the worker’s experience in Bhutan and its impact in future.
After over 400 workers left for India last month, the construction companies of PI and PII announced vacancies. The project had plans to recruit Bhutanese workers. PII announced around 268 vacancies.
However, as of mid-July only 17 vacancies were filled.
Lyonpo Loknath Sharma said that the project’s plan to recruit Bhutanese had not worked. “We are also thinking about bringing workers from India as replacement. The management and contractors are working on it. If we can bring in around 500 workers we will be okay.”
However, Bhutanese would be given priority.
Critical works at PHPA to begin
Despite the shortage of workers at PII, the project management has plans to begin critical works in PI and PII.
Lyonpo Loknath Sharma said that the management had talked with the dzongkhag taskforce with regard to continuation of the critical works.
He added that the management was developing a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP). “We have some specific work such as at the powerhouse, which can be done with a certain number of workers.”
If possible, work at the critical sites will begin today. The workforce would be managed with the available workers at the project.
Besides the Covid-19 virus, many residents, mainly those running small businesses or private sector employees, in urban areas across the country are faced with a major problem which they say is more pressing than the pandemic.
Many businesses continue to remain shut. Economic activities have come to a halt since the government declared lockdown on August 11.
Some residents in Phuentsholing, which is a red zone and has new cases almost every day, were served notice to pay their rent already.
With no end in sight for the lockdown, a grocer in town said he was worried about meeting the basic needs of his family. For now, paying the rent is bugging him.
Bir Bahadur Tamang who runs a pharmacy shop in Gelephu town said it was difficult to earn even a few thousand despite having a permit to open his shop twice a week.
“I won’t be able to afford the rent this time for sure. Hardly any customer came to buy medicine,” he said.
Bir Bahadur Tamang and the tenants of the same building, who are running small businesses, received a one-time rent waiver of Nu 1,500 to date.
“It’s been quite sometime after the government announced a loan waiver. But it’s unfair to see that we are not able to get the benefit from the Kidu,” he said.
He will have to pay a rent of Nu 10,000 for the pharmacy shop and another Nu 5,000 as rent for the apartment where his family lives.
But his income this month is only Nu 8,000.
He said that the lockdown was an important measure put in place to combat the outbreak.
“But, it’s difficult when the benefit of the government’s initiative is not reaching us,” he said.
With a huge drop in businesses, private and corporate companies are also strategising how to minimise costs including cutting the salary of employees. Some are already on half salary. Others are drawing up more desperate measures as lockdown continues.
A shopkeeper in Samdrupjongkhar town, Namgay has similar concerns about paying rent for two spaces but without income. “Shop is the main source of income for me.”
“Although some homeowners have to pay loans, it would help if they could waive a small portion of the rent because I have to pay about Nu 100,000 a month for my apartment and shop,” Namgay said.
Lhamo, 35, from Pemagatshel, said that she would not be able to pay rent this month and the landlord has not indicated any discount in the rent.
“I don’t have other alternative sources of income and also have to look after my poor parents in the village.”
With restricted movement, cab drivers in the country are left with no income. Most have volunteered with the Bhutan Red Cross Society to help in Covid-19 response.
It has been more than two weeks for Karma Phuntsho, a taxi driver from Satsham in Paro without any income.
He is worried about the payment of rent and other dues, as his saving has already exhausted. “If the lockdown extends, I am worried.” His house owner hasn’t reduced the rent so far.
A young woman opened a restaurant in Paro after returning from the Middle East recently. Two weeks later, the nationwide lockdown shut her business. She is hoping for a rent waiver from the building owner.
Having invested all her savings in setting up the restaurant, she said that she was already running into loss.
She said that she would have to leave the restaurant if there was no reduction, as there was no business at all.
However, some landlords have waived the rents by certain percentage starting March. Pema from Lamgong said that her landlord reduced the rent to Nu 8,000 from Nu 12,000.
Meanwhile, a house owner, Sangay said that her family’s only source of income was the rent. “It is difficult during lockdown for my family as well.” She said that the rent took care of the family’s grocery and bills.
Additional reporting from Phub Dem, Nima, and Kelzang Wangchuk
Kelzang Wangchuk | Samdrupjongkhar
The Jomotshangkha drungkhag Covid-19 task force came up with their own design for the movement card as they lack the printing press or facilities like other dzongkhags.
The task force had designed the movement card and printed in black and white because they could not travel to Samdrupjongkhar to print the cards due to lockdown.
Officials used sketch pens to colour about 25 cards for the essential and medical suppliers.
The incident commander (IC) and Jomotshangkha drungpa, Lamdak Wangdi, said that the Jomotshangkha town was divided into four zones- north throm, east throm, upper throm, and lower throm.
He said the movement for cardholders is allowed for two hours. The four movement timings are divided between 8am to 6pm. “One movement card was issued to a household in the respective zone, and vehicle movement is not allowed.”
The drungpa said that since the drungkhag does not have printing presses or facilities like other dzongkhags, the task force printed the cards in black and white and distributed them to about 224 households in the four zones. There are about 1,500 people in the town.
He said that the task force members and De-Suups completed the distribution of the cards on August 25 and implemented the movement pass in the respective zones on the same day.
“People have to wear the face masks, wash hands and follow the health protocols.”
Meanwhile, the drungkhag task force lifted the lockdown in the gewogs. People in the gewogs are allowed to carry out farming and other works like before.
“For monitoring, we deployed police, foresters, army, De-Suups and retired armed forces (RAF), among others while the gups and local leaders also monitor the situation in the gewogs,” Lamdak Wangdi said.
For many Bhutanese with a single source of income, the last week of the month is the best week. It is, even if for a few days, the time when they have cash in hand or balance in their account. Rents and dues are paid, empty LPG cylinders are refilled, essentials are bought and if lucky, spare a few for a family treat.
This August, it is not going to be the same. The salaried group, civil servants and most corporate employees have little to worry, as the salary and the various allowances are credited in their account even if many stopped working since August 10. Daily wage earners, part timers and the thousands in the informal sector depending on small shops and eateries will feel the pinch of the lockdown this week.
Shops, except for a few identified, have not opened since they abruptly closed on August 11 morning. Many found themselves workless when they woke up with the news of the lockdown. After remaining idle for nearly three weeks, the greatest fear is the knock on the door from the landlord asking for house rent.
Businesses were affected since March when Bhutan recorded the first Covid-19 positive case. There were no complete shutdowns. The discount house owners gave after they benefited from the government’s monetary policy eased the burden. Some waived off house rents for a month or two, some gave generous discounts while some argued that they had no loans to pay.
The lockdown is different. Apart from a few critical industries, offices, shops and all businesses are closed. The hope is that there will be concessions because the little they have needs to be spent on essentials. The reason is that the second phase of the Covid-19 monetary measures are still in place.
Those with loans need not pay interest on the loan until September and there is a concession of 50 percent from October until March next year. Payment of loan itself is deferred for one year without penal interest. It would be unfair to avail discounts or waivers to all, but there are people whose means for livelihood has suddenly disappeared with the lockdown.
There is no compulsion and the government will not intervene as they feel it is the “moral responsibility” of the house owners. However, no one is certain when the lockdown will ease so that people could go about with their lives. Like in the first quarter of the year, some house owners will step up, without having to be told, to help their fellow citizens.
As we wait to see another week pass by in lockdown, whether the government should intervene or leave it up to house owners is worth pondering over. The government has come to the rescue with the monetary policies. If the lockdown, an extraordinary circumstance, continues for long, the benefits of the policies is a good reason to convince property owners to let some of the benefits trickle down to the tenants.
Phub Dem | Paro
With no new Covid-19 cases for a week, residents in buffer zones and gewogs in Paro started moving out of their homes yesterday.
Except for farmers working in the fields and herding cattle, there was no rush in stores nor people loitering in the open space.
Jitsiphu, which is the hub for shoppers in Tsento gewog, saw only a few customers.
Khandu Wangmo rushed to a nearby grocery store to buy some goods for her four-year-old child. She said that it was convenient to visit the shops and buy the required things rather than ordering it through service delivery.
“As service delivery is only for essential goods, we don’t get the things as per our desire.”
Besides, another resident said that it usually took two to three days for the ordered goods to reach home. “Easing the lockdown has been of immense help.”
Paro dzongkhag administration distributed movement cards to residents in the buffer zone on Wednesday.
However, movement card is not distributed in Tshongdue town along with high alert zone—Bonday, Chang Mendi and Woochu.
Paro Dzongdag Tenzin Thinley said, “Considering the population density and five positive cases from these areas, the place still remains a high-risk zone.”
He said that the dzongkhag would allow movement in the town area only after the health ministry and government declare it safe.
The dzongkhag is divided into three zones: town, buffer zones, and gewogs.
Chiwogs that are adjacent to the town zone and share boundaries with the area are identified as a buffer zone.
Each individual in the buffer zones is allowed to move around their zone for three hours. The movement duration is divided into morning, afternoon and evening starting from 8am to 7pm.
Movement of the individuals from the same building will have different timing.
Except for farm works and cattle herding, movement between gewogs is restricted.
Only a member from each household in gewogs is allowed to move from 9 am to 5pm. But it is limited to a maximum of five people working in the fields in a group.
Paro dzongdag said that the gewog officials, along with Food Corporation of Bhutan, would distribute essential items if the zones do not have shops in their area. Besides, he said that construction works were allowed in gewogs.
For Dawa Choden from Nemjo under Lungnyi gewog, the movement card won’t ease the hassle of buying essential goods. She said that the small general stores in her zone don’t have any required essential goods.
Another resident Tshewang Rinzin said that the cards would be helpful only for walking around the paddy fields and refresh oneself. “Otherwise, there is nothing in our area.”
Dzongdag Tenzin Thinley said that if the shops identified in the buffer zones don’t have the necessary goods, the residents were not allowed to enter into another zone. “But the essential service providers will continue to deliver the goods.”
He added that wholesale dealers would also deliver essential goods to the retail shops in gewog and buffer zones if the shops run out of stock.
As per the standard operating procedure, the identified shops have to setup handwashing facilities, and the customers should follow strict health protocols.
Neten Dorji | Trashigang
When the officials and volunteers came knocking and delivering the movement passes, residents of Trashigang were much relieved that the process to lift the lockdown has begun.
Residents have gradually appeared on the streets of Trashigang that donned a deserted look in the past two weeks.
Thukten Zangpo, who works at a private company, said he feels much relief after they were allowed to move around. “It has been quite tough and really hard to stay at home without any work for weeks.”
Another resident, Sangay Zangmo said she was happy that at least she could buy the food items thats her family wanted. “With movement cards, we can buy everything, as per our needs and choice.”
She said it is also time to support the government and follow the health protocol while everyone is out.
“We are very excited when we get the movement cards,” said Dolma Lhamo, who runs the business. “It has been really tough for me. Now I feel relaxed.”
The residents thanked His Majesty The King and the government for easing the lockdown and allowing them to move around in a regulated manner.
Another resident, Thinley Wangchuk said: “You can already tell that there is a sense of relief from people being able to do shopping themselves again. It brings a little more of that feeling of normal coming back.”
A civil servant said that for many people, they have been cooped up in their homes by watching television and staying with children. “Being able to get out again is a big deal,” he said. “But people need to be responsible and follow the government’s advice on health and safety.”
Officials monitor strictly. They ensure people follow every health safety protocol.
“I feel comfortable with the protocols we have in place,” said a graduate, referring to wearing face mask, washing hands and keeping physical distance.
“To stay at home is most difficult for youth like me,” he said. “It is a relief for me since we get four hours to move around.”
Deyjung wholesale owner, Yeshi Zangmo said that not many people are coming out like the first day of easing the lockdown. “During the lockdown, we used to get orders from more than 10 households in a day, now it has reduced,” she said adding that people now only order heavy things.
Meanwhile, the number of calls to Trashigang operation centre for delivery services has dropped after residents were allowed to move out of their homes. “We used to receive 70 calls in a day for essential items and other purposes. It has dropped to 40 calls today,” an operator said.
Tshering Namgyal | Mongar
Lhuentse dzongkhag is divided into three zones excluding the gewogs. Phaling town near the dzong area, Autsho in the lower and Khoma gewog area in the middle are the three zones. Phaling town has 140 households, Autsho has about 130 and Khoma has around 45 households.
De-Suups started distributing the movement cards since Wednesday.
Lhuentse Dzongdag, Jambay Wangchuk, said the implementation of movement card would begin from August 29, as they would need a day for sorting out the cards and do necessary corrections if there are any. There are two time zones, three hours each in the morning and afternoon where residents can shop from the identified shops.
The dzongkhag, according to the dzongdag has been doing well in terms of door-door delivery of essential items including LPG cylinders. The dzongkhag distributed almost all the essentials through Food Corporation of Bhutan F and farm shops, with only a few necessities unavailable with FCB arranged from identified shops.
The dzongdag who is also the dzongkhag incident commander said while gewog vehicles (Boleros) were deployed to cater essentials to rural communities, many volunteers came forward with their private vehicles to supplement the transportation needs.
A self-sufficient dzongkhag in vegetable and livestock products, Lhuentse dzongkhag supplied four DCM truckloads of surplus vegetables and 130 trays of eggs to Nganglam. The dzongkhag also sent 153 kg of butter and 1200 balls of cheese to Thimphu.
Meanwhile, 665 movement cards were distributed in Trashiyangtse yesterday after dividing the dzongkhag into four zones — Yangtse Throm I and Throm II zones, Doksum town zone and the gewog zones.
The dzongkhag Covid-19 task force has issued cards to all three town zones and also issued six special cards to single mothers and disabled persons.
People will be allowed to move around in their zones starting tomorrow.
Residents in respective zones can move around from 9am-5pm, with their specific time.
They are the undertakers, so to speak, the directors of the last honours. They are the managers and service providers both and much more. In these newfangled, difficult and unprecedented days, they are to many individuals and families the only friends and source of strength. It’s a hot day, Thursday, August 27. The place is crematorium at Hejo in Thimphu.
The expansiveness of the space suddenly unfolds under the vast blue sky and stretches on. And this is the picture: green army tents, not a single drunk swaying about, or the usual crowd of people and vehicles—utter silence. Here the departed are so honoured that the place inspires awe and deep reverence. Are they—the dead and gone and those they have left behind—the fortunate ones?
Five Red Cross volunteers are preparing the pyres. It’s not a good day today (going by Bhutanese astrology) to cremate body but the team of volunteers must always be prepared. It’s neither too early, nor too late. Last night they had a meeting—all the 12 Red Cross volunteers attend the late-night meetings—and the five who have taken upon themselves to manage the bodies decided that nothing should go amiss, whatever the case.
At least six bodies come to the Hejo crematorium every day. But then, how during the lockdown? These five volunteers, led by Rinzin Chophel, the chairman of Bhutan Taxi Association and a Red Cross volunteer, bring the bodies to the crematorium. Where the team works is a small information centre. The set-up is frugal and bare and there is just one man coordinating the whole and the next day’s events.
And there are the women Red Cross volunteers too. As you enter the crematorium, they stop you at the entrance. There is no gate but two straight lines that lead you to the hand-washing stand. Your temperature gets checked and your personal details are registered.
Death is an expensive affair; many families can’t even afford wood for cremation. And there are other things that must accompany the complete ritual. But here the Red Cross has stocked up 12 truckloads of wood. The families of the dead do not have to pay. What is more? The women Red Cross volunteers ensure that physical distance is maintained during the ritual ceremonies.
As things happen
Days before the nationwide lockdown, the Red Cross volunteers got together. It was difficult getting every volunteer involved but it had to be done. They saw that a plan was necessary in case the pandemic situation in the country got serious and decided that they would deal with all deaths related to Covid-19. There were mock sessions galore with experts and health professionals. But then they realised that they could do more—managing the crematorium in the times of Covid-19 meant they must take the full charge. Minimising the transmission threat was by far more important. They could certainly do more, a lot more.
The volunteers broke into small groups and thusly forged on: five for body management; three women at the entrance; one to handle the base information management; and three to ensure physical distance.
As in Thimphu, such Red Cross groups also are in Gelephu, Phuentsholing, Mongar, Trongsa, Bumthang, Tsirang and Samdrupjongkhar.
“We get the bodies and call the relatives. We arrange everything for them here. Sometimes it is difficult—when emotions are involved—but that’s only to be expected. We have learnt to deal with them very professionally and compassionately,” says Rinzin Chophel. “There are religious beliefs and traditions and there is practical urgency to consider. People often misunderstand us but that is not important. What is important is that we must protect every body from the pandemic, not just ourselves and our families.”
Wednesday, August 26, was a heavy one for the volunteers. Eleven bodies had to be cremated and there was a bit of crowd even with strict movement restrictions. Today, there are only 10 cars inside the crematorium compound.
Gempo Dorji, a teacher of Yangchenphug Higher Secondary School, who has lost one of his in-laws, says this new arrangement is very sensible. “Crowding, lavish food and drinks as is traditional in such situations in our society is insulting to the dead—I beg to differ. Covid-19 will go away one day but I wish this system of dealing with the dead became the new normal. It is good for both dead and living.”
Such views and sentiments can meet with derision in a society that is steeped deeply in traditional beliefs. Gempo Dorji is well aware of this. “But for the sake of our country and safety of all, particularly at this time, why can’t we adjust a little bit?”
Rinzin Chophel gets a call from the management base. It is urgent, from the referral hospital. The body management team must prepare the seventh body of the day.
“There is no space for failure. We have done well so far and can do better. We are always ready to serve our country,” says Rinzin Chophel.
And, in a jiffy, the proud undertakers are gone.
All contacts of the case were frontline workers as of yesterday
Nima | Gelephu
Sarpang like any other dzongkhags in the country was on its way to ease the lockdown when a frontline worker test positive for Covid-19 yesterday.
The 22-year-old frontline worker, who is the third positive case in the dzongkhag, visited Gelephu Central Regional Referral Hospital’s emergency ward with flu-like symptoms towards midnight on Wednesday.
The patient was referred to Thimphu yesterday.
Over 30 contacts of the positive case, all frontline workers were quarantined. The surveillance and contact tracing continues.
The close contacts of the case include three health officials who attended him at the emergency ward. The flu-screening centre located separately in the old hospital block is operational from 9am till 3pm.
The surveillance and contact tracing team from Gelephu CRRH collected over 80 samples from the point of entry in Gelephu and Bhur gewog.
The frontline worker was on duty at the point of entry near the border gate since August 7.
The patient had travelled till Samtenling (Bhur) gewog while on duty, according to the officials.
Medical Superintendent of CRRH, Dr Dorji Tshering said the man could have been exposed while at work. “But, we will have to rule out other sources of infection with active surveillance, which is underway,” he said.
He added that the officials were wearing protective gear like gloves, masks, and face shields, among others while on duty. “There could have been a breach of protocol but we have to rule out other sources of infection,” he said.
The contacts of the case also include officials from immigration, health officials, De-Suups, and police officials who were on duty at the Bhutan India border gate.
CRRH has temporarily suspended mobile clinic service that was started to provide the people with essential medical services during the lockdown.
The number of vehicles hitting the road reduced drastically, the roads and the queues leading to shops authorised to open during the lockdown saw fewer customers.
The third positive case was reported when the dzongkhag Covid-19 task force was charting plans to distribute movement cards to the residents. Zones were identified and movement within the gewogs eased.
The dzongkhag was divided into four different zones: towns that include Gelephu thromde, a buffer zone that includes four chiwogs surrounding Gelephu Thromde, and Sarpang tar, and gewogs.
A resident from Gelephu said it was worrying and also confusing how the patient was infected despite the border gate being closed since the lockdown.
“Earlier there was a risk from vegetable imports and other heavy vehicles. It’s scary now,” he said.
The two women who tested positive to Covid-19 were moved to the de-isolation facility for two weeks after testing negative on the RT-PCR test on Tuesday.
Export not hampered by lockdown or the pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic and the nationwide lockdown has disrupted trade – export and import – but the country’s biggest export, hydropower has not been affected even as hydropower generation has increased by 14 percent.
It has generally been a good year for the country’s hydropower sector as rains arrived as early as late May, according to the Druk Green Power Corporation Limited (DGPC).
The overall generation of the DGPC power plants—Tala, Chhukha, Basochhu and Kurichhu—has increased to 3,724 million units (MU) from January to July 31 this year as compared to 3,248 MU in the same period last year. This is a 14 percent increase.
For the same period, expected revenues (in terms of the billings) increased from Nu 6,431 million (M) in 2019 to Nu 7,315M in 2020, a 13 percent increase.
Bhutan exports about 70 percent of the energy generated to India.
The DGPC, however, recorded a decrease of 8 percent in the domestic consumption for the same period. The consumption decreased from 1,383 MU in 2019 to 1,272 MU in 2020, mainly on account of a slight dip in consumption from April to July.
The decrease in consumption is attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic affecting a few industries.
The Mangdechhu and Dagachhu power plants, which are subsidiaries of DGPC, also performed better this year, according to the DGPC.
MHPC as of July 31 generated 1,620 MU of power with an expected revenue of Nu 6,807M (in terms of the billings).
The Dagachhu’s performance this year has also been better with generation increasing from 156 MU in 2019 to 231 MU in 2020. Accordingly, the expected revenue increased from Nu 485M in 2019 to Nu 736M in 2020.
The generation of power at all the power plants is said to be taking place without any problems despite the Covid-19 pandemic with the full support of the government and other entities.
DGPC managing director Dasho Chhewang Rinzin said that the overall performance for the 12 months, however, would depend on the hydrology in the remaining months of the year. He said that the Mangdechhu was generating power at its full capacity.
“Export of electricity to India has not been affected despite the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Dasho.
Hydropower revenues constitute at least 24 percent of direct revenues to the national exchequer and offset much of the balance of payments with India. DGPC contributes about 14 percent of the country’s GDP.
As the economic development is inexplicably linked with the growth of the hydropower sector, a strong growth in the hydropower generation is expected to offset the Covid-19-induced fall in GDP.
Thimphu residents began growing vegetables in earnest because of Covid-19.
A few people were lucky enough to have their first fresh harvest before lockdown was enforced.
What’s happening to the gardens?
Beans have matured; chili and maize are maturing. Soon, if the lockdown prolongs, the vegetables will go to waste.
Sangchu has plots in owns two plots in Motithang and Wangsisina. He planted beans, cabbage and maize in Motithang, and chili, bean, pumkin, tomato and eggplant in Wangsisina.
“I don’t know what’s happening in the gardens now,” he said.
He was last in his garden in Motithang on August 10, the day before lockdown was imposed. “Some vegetables must have already started to rot,” he said. with his movement card, he can go only until Changangkha Lhakhang.
What does these worries measure up to? Are they big? Are the small?
A civil servant said he had a vegetable garden in Debsi. He planted vegetables fearing ban on vegetable import. “I planted turnit, radish, spinach and chili but cant go to harvest them due to lockdown.”
He received calls from his friends informing him about the vegetables being stolen in Debsi. He said he couldn’t risk going to check on his garden given the Covid-19 situation. “I may have to request the government to allow me to go there if I ran out of vegetables.”
A private employee who lives in Babesa said he could harvest vegetables from his garden in Ramtokto only once. He has been requesting Desuups to allow him to harvest his vegetables since the sixth of lockdown.
Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said people were calling him and the grievance cell saying that they were not been able to harvest their vegetables.
Those who have grown vegetables in commercial scale are allowed to harvest. Ministry of Agriculture will also buy the vegetables.
“But at the individual level, we cant allow people to travel around to harvest vegetables,” Lyonchhen said. “People should understand what is more important right now, the vegetable harvest or the pandemic.”
Tshering Namgyal | Mongar
Dairy farmers of Ngatshang and Chaskhar gewogs in Mongar ended their decades-old marketing problem a few months ago when they drew a contract with Koufuku, an FDI company based in Chenery, Trashigang.
Every day, the company collected more than 1,000 litres of milk from the dairy farmers groups of the two gewogs.
However, with the beginning of nationwide lockdown, they went back to producing butter and cheese at their homes. They sell their products in the locality and send the surplus to Mongar.
The sector distributed 2,046 balls of cheese, 211.5kg of butter, 624 litres of
milk and 1,404 trays of eggs in the gewogs. The farmers sold 4,041 balls of cheese,
551kg of butter and 486 trays of eggs to Mongar town residents.
The surplus of 1,047kg of cheese and 711kg of butter was sent to Bhutan Livestock Development Corporation Limited (BLDC) in Thimphu on August 25.
The dzongkhag livestock sector in collaboration with the regional agriculture and marketing co-operative (RAMCO) facilitates marketing for the dairy farmers.
The food supply and delivery team of Covid-19 task force collected their products from farmers in Shermuhung gewog and the nine dairy farmers groups in Mongar gewog. The milk processing unit that bought milk from the groups remains shut due to the lockdown.
Assistant district livestock development officer, Norbu Tshering, said 3,784 balls of cheese, 93kg of butter and 1,127 trays of eggs were still in stock in gewogs.
Meanwhile, Lhuentse dzongkhag has also collected 1,113 balls of cheese and 125kg of butter from Khoma gewog and LUC in Gulibi, Minjey gewog. The products were sent to BLDC along with those from Mongar.
A surplus of 70 cartons of eggs has been sent to Nganglam yesterday and planning to send another 60 cartoons today. Lhuentse dzongkhag delivered around 40 cartons of eggs within the dzongkhag.