Every pandemic is an outcome of its time. Simply look at how technology has evolved over time. So, will the pathogens and diseases. But advancement in technology has better equipped men to deal with new diseases. Malaria, Tuberculosis and plague, for instance had wiped out close to a quarter of human race when it first emerged. These diseases are not life threatening anymore. Pandemics like Covid-19 are also undesired outcomes of globalization, which is bound to surface.
The unlimited speed and multifarious network of global connectivity has enriched the global economy. This, however, has also made the world more vulnerable to pandemics to spread at an exponential rate. It remains to be seen how the world combats this invisible epidemic in form of a pathogen.
This is why a bit of global perspective is essential to set a context.
So, the disease is going to cripple the global economy. We have two simultaneous battles to fight-eliminating the disease and preventing a devastating economic recession. With the US anticipating a major recession since 9/11 attack, most European economy at standstill and China perched at epicenter of the pandemic, it is apparent that global economy is headed downward. The race has already begun. The faster the world contains the disease, the softer will be its impact.
The Asian Development Bank has estimated that developing Asia (excluding China) would experience a loss of $22 billion or 0.24% of its GDP under the moderate-case scenario (assuming that the pandemic would result in restrictions lasting up to three months).
From a layman’s point, there is going to be a sharp decline in domestic consumption and investment across the globe as a result of restrictions on movement, hitting the tourism sector, which is the primary revenue source or economic stimulators in most Asian countries. Consequently, this will ripple down to supply-side disruptions, impacting trade and production linkages in other sectors.
The rest of developing Asia is expected to experience a loss of $22B or 0.24% of its GDP from tourism alone, under the moderate-case scenario.
Saudi Arabia and Russia are already engaged in oil price war after they refused to cut the supply to stabilize price in reciprocation to demand suppression in the aftermath of the Covid-19 outbreak, which led to closure of factories and declining movement of both surface and air transport. In China alone, automobile sales have plunged 80% and passenger traffic is down 85%. This trend will repeat in other economies under lockdown.
The worst impact could be the loss of job and wages, looming from the financial market. Some economies have initiated rate cuts and deferment of mortgage payments but it is all contingent on the how fast can the world contain the virus and how long would it take.
Most visibly, governments across the globe will divert their budget and (or) external funding into the health sector at the cost of production and job creation. This is the need of the hour, albeit the impact aftermath could possibly be on foreign aid flow from developed world and international organizations to the developing world.
What about Bhutan?
Bhutan’s economy is modest both in terms of size and substance. Yet it is complicated enough to replicate the global practices because of its uniqueness.
Hydropower is the main source of government revenue and India, the single largest market. While the Covid-19 is not likely to hit the power generation, it should be concerned about the declining demand for energy. For instance, plummeting demand for fuel has sparked a price war between the OPEC countries.
The export market for Bhutan, however remains cushioned by the bilateral power purchase agreement between Bhutan and GoI, which guarantees that India will buy all the surplus power at a pre-fixed tariff.
Domestic market will be hit in the worst-case-scenario or in case the factories had to be shut. Hotels and institutions, classified as LV bulk consumers will be paying trivial utility bills with inoccupancy extending indefinitely. This will directly cost the government coffer as domestic sales of power plunge.
The recently commissioned Mangdechhu is estimated to bring in an additional revenue of Nu 7B annually. However, bulk of the revenue has already been appropriated for pay hike of public servants, leaving behind a slender fiscal space to re-appropriate the national budget for emergency situation such as this pandemic. The ministry of Finance has already estimated a fiscal deficit of Nu 28 in the 12th Plan.
The government is also planning to divert the planned budget to fight Covid-19 and in doing so, it may have to pull out money from capital works because current expenditure comprises of salaries and allowances. If capital works are squeezed, construction sector, which already heave an NPL of Nu 4B and victimized by restriction on labor import, may be subjected to a big blow. The spillover will hit the financial market and slow down the construction of hydropower projects.
Tourism, the country’s largest source for convertible currency is currently at standstill. According to tourism monitor report, Bhutan received 274,097 visitors in 2018, which is an increase of 7.61% over 2017. Of the total arrivals, there were 71,807 international and 202,290 regional arrivals. Total tourism receipt from the international leisure segment was USD 85.41M.
A total of 271 TCB certified tourist accommodation facilities in the country comprising of 136 star hotels (3, 4- and 5-star accommodation) and 135 Village Home Stays (VHS) remains affected, going by the 2018 figures. There are over 2,300 tour operators and over 1,500 guides.
The year would have proven lucrative for tourism after the Lonely Planet ranked Bhutan as top destination early this year, had Covid-19 not turned the tables.
The ADB has estimated that Bhutan’s tourism revenue could decline by USD 0.7M, if the travel restrictions prolong up to six months. This is not considering the indirect benefits. “Tourism arrivals and receipts in many developing Asian economies are expected to decline sharply, as a result of numerous travel bans as well as precautionary behaviour,” according to the ADB’s study on economic impact due to Covid-19.
These demand shocks can spill over to other sectors and economies via trade and production linkages. For instance, travel restriction has already hit two airlines, hotels and restaurants. The ripple effect will be on the grocery stores, retailers, handicrafts, farmers and other service providers like transport industry. In all these chain reactions, loss of jobs and wages should be the biggest concern because most of these establishments are private firms associated with job insecurity.
“There have been substantial production disruptions as a result of forced business closures and the inability of workers to get to work, as well as disruptions to trade and business as a result of border closures, travel bans, and other restrictions on the movement of goods, people, and capital,” according to the ADB.
The NPL in service sector, mainly construction and tourism has ballooned to 30 percent of the portfolio last year and it could prove troublesome for the banks if the sector is further exposed to the Covid-19 shocks. Hoteliers, alone feed the financial institutions Nu 329m in monthly EMI. Stretched over a three-month period, it could cross Nu 1B and cross Nu 2B in worst-case scenario.
For Bhutan, the disturbing factor is credit and import driven consumption, which has already skewed current account balance. Notwithstanding the fact the India is the country’s import destination for more than 80 percent of goods and that third country imports also land on Indian port, Bhutan could face serious blockade if Covid-19 explodes in India forcing the Indian government to take lockdown measures. This will be a testing time for Bhutan-India friendship.
While there are views on deferment of loan repayments or rate cuts, the Bhutanese banking system is not equipped with sophisticated products to cushion the impact. A rate cut on loans may accompany with rate cuts on deposits, particularly the corporate deposits which forms a major share of funds for the banks. Any laxity in payment deferrals and rate cuts could also result in misappropriation, as the hospitality sector is already a beneficiary of host of other fiscal incentives including tax holiday. It is imperative for the authorities to study the balance sheets of private establishments before announcing a rate cut or defer repayment.
FDI is likely to take back seat for quite some time because the financial contagion spreading across the globe transpired by market loss, movements in exchange rates, stock prices, sovereign spreads, and capital flows will take some time to recover.
As the global economy comes at standstill, Bhutanese working abroad could either lose their jobs or return home. Consequently, inward remittance could also plunge.
In pressing times, people can find solace in the country’s farsighted Constitution, which mentions that the country must maintain a minimum foreign currency reserve enough to meet 12 months of essential imports.
While short-term fiscal and monetary tools are available to confront immediate impacts, focus should be on long-term measures because there is an opportunity to transform the economy from the pandemic.
Bhutan achieved egg self-sufficiency after bird flu scare. The ban on chilies resulted in locally grown jitshi ema. In times of corona, can our farmers and CSI’s spot a big opportunity?
AWP has taken the lead to manufacture sanitisers and it could well capture the Indian market along the border if production scales beyond the domestic demand. Big business names across the globe are already doing their risk assessment and identifying new opportunities to explore.
For Bhutan, it would be appropriate to kick start two flagships that have the potential to transform the economy while tourism is put to rest- the CSI flagship and digital Drukyul.
CSIs, because there is a pressing need to boost local production, particularly the agri-business. The better we substitute imports with locally sourced products, the more immune we become to global food shortage should the pandemic persist longer than expected. Probably, there is also an opportunity for the government to lobby for shift in dietary habits.
Hoarding will be inevitable should the situation worsen, but for a dependent economy like Bhutan, traders and suppliers across border stand to gain the most. The government should not only monitor prices of goods in its territory but also use its diplomatic channel to calm unsubstantiated inflation across the border.
We must give entrepreneurs a chance to find solutions that would sustain post pandemic and possibly transform the economy.
Most of the solutions in times of crisis and worst-case scenario rest with Digital Drukyul. It will ensure undisrupted public service delivery, smooth functioning of the government agencies and business firms.
At the same time, it is also wise to capitalize on what is already there. Schools have started to use Google classroom and other social media channels. Banking transactions are made easier with apps but more could be done with fintech tools, which are already there in the market. Bhutan telecom has made it easier to avail services via online forms. There is already an app that delivers food from various restaurants in the capital. LPG delivery is also made possible with a phone call. Bus tickets and taxis can be booked via mobile apps. G2C is already supervising host of public services.
These are examples of services that are possible to avail through an online platform. Lessons from the advanced economy elucidate that these kinds of services proved most beneficial under lockdown.
Covid-19 could permanently shift working patterns as companies across the globe are forced to embrace remote working. The IMF has also sent its employees to work from home, for instance.
Startups such as Slack and Zoom and established giants including Google and Microsoft are offering their tools for free, in the hope that people who start using them in a crisis may carry on once normality returns.
Studies also show that this kind of distributed work evolution has increased the company’s efficiency while providing flexi time to their employees.
Meanwhile, hand washing and sanitization drive has never been this effective. Even the Global handwashing day, observed across the country didn’t bring much impact. Banks, offices, shops and restaurants among others kept sanitizing their facilities and sanitisers for public use. This is a good initiative but it should not end with the pandemic. We have just found a reason to lead a hygienic life amid the pandemic.
He is a former business and economic journalist with Kuensel
The World Water Day (WWD), observed on March 22nd every year, presents an opportunity for us to reflect on something that we often take for granted – water.
Bhutan has one of the highest per capita availability of water in the world. With an average flow of 2,238 cubic meters (m3) per second, Bhutan generates 70,572 million m3 per annum, which equates to no less than 94,500 m3 per person per year, and that is the highest in the region.
As a transient visitor to Bhutan, I am often reminded that water has always been an integral part of Bhutan’s tradition and people’s lives. Bhutanese people have shown the utmost respect for the Deities who protect watersheds, lakes and rivers in the Kingdom.
However, the water we worship, cherish and rely upon is becoming scarce. While visiting rural areas, I have come across communities facing acute water shortages as water sources, including wetlands and lakes, are drying up. This problem is exacerbated in the dry season. Almost 99.5 per cent of Bhutan’s population has access to improved water sources, yet only 63 per cent has 24-hour access to drinking water. In water-rich Bhutan 32.9 per cent of people consider adequate water to be the primary concern. Recently, the Environment and Climate Change Committee of the Parliament, while deliberating climate action, recommended further research to determine why our springs and streams are dissipating.
Recognizing that water and climate change are inextricably linked, this year’s theme of the WWD calls for climate policymakers to put water at the heart of action plans.
Amongst the 17 SDGs, the sixth goal on water and sanitation is said to be one of the most challenging and off-track goals globally. Despite some progress, today, 1 in 3 people – around 2.2 billion worldwide – live without safe drinking water. Most countries are unlikely to reach full implementation of integrated water resources management by 2030. By 2050, up to 5.7 billion people could be living in areas where water is scarce for at least one month a year. This situation creates unprecedented competition for water, and it calls for much more efficient use and management of water to meet the growing demand.
Globally, extreme weather – expected to increase in frequency and intensity because of climate change – has caused more than 90 per cent of major disasters over the last decade. Bhutan is not an exception as it is highly vulnerable to climate change and its consequences, most of which are related to the water sector. The rising temperature induces glaciers to melt, which in turn causes glacial lakes to burst, flooding communities living downstream. This also magnifies the risks to hydropower dams constructed along many of our river systems.
Future climate projection conducted by the Government shows that temperatures in Bhutan will continue to soar, particularly in northern parts of the country. So, we, the global community, must act quickly to reduce carbon emissions. At the same time, we have to adapt to the fast-changing environment.
Water stores carbon and therefore it can help mitigate climate change. Peatlands cover only three per cent of the world’s land surface but store at least twice as much carbon as all of Earth’s forests. Wetlands soak up carbon dioxide from the air. Just as Bhutan has protected its rich forest as an essential carbon sink, we now need to protect and expand these types of environments.
As the only carbon negative nation with more than 70 per cent of its land under forest cover, Bhutan is already contributing more to global climate action than any other country. It has already been investing in clean energy and electric transportation. Water-efficient irrigation systems, rainwater harvesting, smart distribution systems, improved management and governance, and wastage reduction are critical and practical measures that can be used to mitigate the impact of climate change on water. For example, cities around the world are working hard to reduce water leakages as up to 50 per cent of water is lost due to failing infrastructure.
With financial support from the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the Royal Government of Bhutan and UNDP are developing the country’s first National Adaptation Plan, focusing on the water sector. We are looking at water availability for drinking, sanitation, energy and agriculture to identify appropriate adaptation options. UNDP is also working closely with the Government to enhance the resilience of smallholder farms in eight Dzongkhags. Farmers are exceptionally vulnerable to climate change. Yields are affected by variation in rainfall and crops are damaged or lost due to the frequent occurrence of extreme weather conditions. Climate-smart agriculture will help us meet the increasing food demand without depleting precious resources such as soil and water.
These are some humble contributions that UNDP is making in support of the ongoing and future efforts of the Government. Yet we cannot just look to the Government to solve our looming water crisis. Everyone has a role to play. From promoting zero-waste, reuse-recycle, switch off lights, buy and eat local produce, to taking a shorter shower, there are many surprisingly easy steps we can all take to slow down climate change and to conserve water in our daily lives (but not cutting short on handwashing for Covid-19 prevention!).
As we observe World Water Day, let us reflect on the footprint we leave on Mother Earth, how we affect our water resources, and how each one of us can contribute to the movement for climate action.
Ms Azusa Kubota
UNDP Resident Representative
The unsung heroes who treated the first Covid-19 patient shares their story
In the evening of March 5, when the country was in deep slumber, a team of doctors and nurses including support staff at the national referral hospital were dealing with a possible Covid-19 positive patient.
Hours later, Bhutan confirmed its first positive Covid-19 case, an imported case in an American tourist.
As the news of the new coronavirus spread across the country, a growing number of Bhutanese found themselves face-to-face with the possibility of contracting the disease.
While some were thrust unexpectedly to the forefront of a possible national health crisis, others have trained their whole lives for a moment like this. These were the staff of the national referral hospital – doctors, nurses, cleaners, drivers, and other supporting staff.
The frontline fighters
Three doctors – two specialists and a general doctor including seven nurses were actively monitoring the 76-year-old patient until he was air evacuated on March 13. In total, 34 health workers and support staff were engaged in tending the American patient. 26 of them are currently quarantined.
With panic and uncertainty surrounding the new coronavirus, apprehension grew among the health staff in the initial days.
Senior clinical nurse and the in-charge of the intensive care unit (ICU), Tshering Dolkar, was one of the first staff who came in contact with the American patient at the isolation ward.
“All of us were scared in the beginning because it was a new disease,” she said. “However, as days passed, it all became normal for me and my team. We’ve been trained to do this all our lives.”
The 40-year-old nurse who has been providing clinical assistance for almost two decades shared that early preparedness for any possible positive cases at the hospital helped them manage the patient in a professional manner.
Another nurse, who requested anonymity, said that preparations at the hospital began as early as February. Covid-19 wards were identified and emergency drills were conducted regularly.
“By the time we had our first case, it all came naturally to us. While there were apprehensions among a few, we all did what we were trained for,” she said. “The patient and our team became like a family since we were in constant touch. Whenever possible, he would thank us and the country for taking good care of him.”
Besides the nurses and doctors physically attending the patient, there were support staff contributing to the treatment at the isolation ward.
Yeshi Dema, 27, was one of the three cleaners assigned at the isolation ward. “In the beginning, I was scared and also angry for being selected to do the job,” she said. “I could not afford to get sick since I’m the eldest in the family and the sole bread earner.”
She shared that she was constantly worried about her four-year-old son and her ailing mother at home. “As worried as I was for them, they were concerned about my safety too. During our regular video-chats at night, I used to tell them there was nothing to worry about.”
For Tshering Dolkar, besides her decade-long clinical experience, it was her daughter’s support that kept her going under intense pressure. “While my mother was a little worried about my safety, they all knew what I had signed up for.”
Tashi Phuntsho, one of the three drivers assigned for the duty said his family’s support kept him going. “At times she (wife) would call me after hearing all the fake news and get worried,” he said.
The 27-year-old said that like many, he was anxious too in the beginning. “However, I knew that I was safe because of the protective gear we were given and from the advise seniors gave us.”
Although frightening, he said that the experience was enriching. “These few days of working in high-risk situation have taught me so much. I can confidently say that I’m now prepared for any worst case scenarios, should there be any.”
Tshering Dolkar said that the biggest fear in the isolation ward was not of contracting the disease but keeping the patient healthy. “Given the patient’s condition, we were all worried. We were worried about the impression the world would have about our country if we had let our patient, a guest of our country, die.”
She said that having a cooperative team was the biggest asset during the recent emergency. “Doctors did not restrict themselves to treating the patient only. They were equally involved in keeping the area clean and provided all the support they could. We had a really good team who were ready to give everything.”
Following the enriching experience all of them had after dealing with the patient, Tshering Dolkar said that they are now more equipped and aware on how to attend to similar cases in the future.
“We wish to see our patient back in our country in good health soon. His daughter had written to our team upon his arrival in the USA,” she said. “We provided the best of the services we could in times of such national emergency. We pledge to offer the best of our service even hereafter.”
…travellers declaring false travel history remains a challenge
The news of a Covid-19 suspect getting caught at Bongaigoan, a bordering town in Assam near Gelephu has made the town’s residents apprehensive.
The suspect, a migrant worker from Assam was found around midnight on a train to Guwahati after he had escaped the quarantine facility in Kerala on March 16.
Bongaigaon, which is about an hour and half drive (49km) from Gelephu, is a business centre for people in the border town. Sources said that there are Bhutanese still visiting the town daily. “There are people coming in and going there frequently, which is why the news of the escapee was alarming.”
However, officials in Gelephu said that all the necessary measures including a 24-hour surveillance team is deployed at the point of entry in the border town. “We are strictly monitoring the entry and exit of people and should there be any risk in the nearby areas, we’ll act accordingly,” said an official.
Teams comprising of police, health staffs Desuups and volunteers man the border gate on a shift basis. Quarantining of travellers has also been initiated. As of yesterday 72 Bhutanese are under quarantine of which 29 are under home quarantine.
Sarpang Dzongdag, Karma Galay, said that challenges however lie in people not declaring authentic travel history. He said that six people entered the gate by providing false travel history yesterday.
Following a tipoff, the group of six individuals who had returned from West Bengal, India were traced and quarantined on the same day.
Sources said that the group included five vendors and a driver who had gone to Falakata under Alipurduar district in West Bengal on March 16.
Gelephu residents are more concerned about the quarantine exemption provided to day labourers and boulder truck drivers.
A resident who requested anonymity said that boulder drivers ferrying consignments to Bangladesh pose high risk of infection. “They spend three to four days along the way which makes them potential carriers of the virus.”
He said that with the number of Covid-19 cases increasing in India it would be wise if all travels were completely closed until the situation improves. “When travel restrictions on tourists have been imposed, there is no point keeping the Gelephu border open,” he said. “If the entry of day workers are also temporarily closed, it could help us monitor the illegal routes too, as there will be no Indians left in the town.”
Meanwhile, the 24-year-old escapee had fled the quarantine facility with two other suspected coronavirus infected men from Kerala. The two men are from Odisha and West Bengal.
The Assamese was travelling by the Kanchanjungha Express, train number 13175. He was arrested from coach number ER14425. He boarded the train from Parak in Chennai and from there to Howrah by Howrah Mail.
From Seldah station in Kolkata, he took the Seldah-Silchar Kanchanjungha Express and was heading to Guwahati station, according to Times of India (ToI), an English daily paper in India.
According to ToI, all the passengers in the particular coach were medically screened before the train left. All of them have been advised to undergo for home quarantine.
The details of the train the Covid-19 suspect took from Chennai to Bongaigaon:
Train number: 13175
Coach number: ER-14425
Train route: Chennai- Howrah by Howrah Mail Seldah- Guwahati by Kanchanjungha Express
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
With more Bhutanese living across the border moving to Phuentsholing and many travellers quarantined, the point of entries (PoE) initiated to battle the Covid-19 are getting busier in Phuentsholing.
Fifty people were quarantined on March 18, taking the total number of quarantined people to 86.
Bhutan Post’s bus that returned from Kolkata on March 18 evening with 24 passengers was isolated. Passengers details were filled in the health declaration forms and moved to quarantine facilities respectively.
With the news of the first Covid-19 positive case in Kolkata, vigilance among the people has drastically increased.
In the town, water tanks have also been installed in several key areas. Many people use them but there are still a few who don’t use the facilities. Response officials are urging people to use the facilities as much as possible.
Phuentsholing drungpa Karma Rinchen said that they would introduce a permit system, where people will have to show as and when they enter and exit the gates.
He said it is to monitor that no Bhutanese would sneak inside Phuentsholing without revealing their travel history.
Meanwhile, at 7:50pm of March 18, Ugyen Dema, 29, and Nima Zangmo, 30, were busy cleaning their new room. It was a classroom in one of the schools in Phuentsholing. Both were living in Chinese Lane until yesterday.
Ugyen Dema, a housewife, said it was risky living across the border.
“The virus would infect most of us if it is reported in Jaigaon,” she said, adding that they were also advised to shift and not wait for the worst-case scenario.
Prior to shifting to the classroom yesterday, Ugyen Dema and Nima Zangmo said they went to look for rental apartments but couldn’t find one below Nu 12,000 a month.
Their families have taken the classroom. They brought items they needed and would continue paying the house rent in Chinese Lane.
Jigme Choden, who stayed in Gumba Road, said her family has transported important items such as cookers in a room provided in one of the schools in Phuentsholing thromde.
“Today, we will shift and start staying there,” she said, adding there are four members with two children.
Jigme Choden also said that most of her neighbours in Gumba Road have shifted. Although she tried to get a house for rent in Phuentsholing, she said it was difficult to get one.
“When I got a house, the rent was exorbitantly high, up to Nu 20,000 per month,” she said.
Another Bhutanese living in Pragati Toll across the border, Thinley Wangchuk, said he is adjusting with a cousin for about a week before he shifts to the accommodation the government would provide for his family.
“Although the cousin’s house is packed, we will adjust here for some time,” he said.
Thinley Wangchuk works in one of the industries in Pasakha. However, his company doesn’t have accommodation facilities.
People gather for meetings and campaigns
The government has advised the public to avoid mass gatherings as a precautionary measure to stop the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) from spreading in the country.
However, public gatherings, including Dzongkhag Tshogdu (DT) sessions and Covid-19 sensitisation meetings, have not stopped. Religious activities that involve gatherings have not stopped totally.
Health Minister Dechen Wangmo said that the idea of advisory on mass gathering was about social distancing. She said that a distance of one metre should be maintained between two people if people needed to come together.
“In the traditional Bhutanese context, a meeting of three or more people could constitute public gathering. The idea is to practise social distancing,” she said, adding that the definition of mass gathering was subjective.
However, the health minister added that all kinds of gatherings, including training programmes were “highly discouraged” unless they are absolutely necessary.
The health minister said that meetings such as DT and Gewog Tshogde (GT) sessions could be held, as they did not involve many people.
According to dzongkhag officials, DT sessions had to be held as dzongkhags needed to submit their budget proposals to the Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC) by within this month and that local governments also needed to discuss issued related to Covid-19.
The health minister also said that it was not a right time to carry out activities involving groups of people, such as the recent cleaning campaign organised by the Guide Association of Bhutan, due to high risks of contact.
The joint parliamentary committee formed to advise the government on Covid-19, also on Monday recommended the government to clearly define the number of people that would constitute a mass gathering.
“Mass gathering is considered one of the risky modes of transmission as evidenced from the spread of the virus in several countries,” the committee stated.
The definition of mass gathering differs from 50 to 1,000 people, according to the committee.
Nepal, which also confirmed only one Covid-19 case, banned gathering of more than 25 people from March 18, Kathmandu Post reported. It reported that the ban was imposed as a precautionary measure although the only coronavirus patient had recovered.
Similarly, the Indian union territory of Delhi on March 16 announced a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people till March 31 in view of the growing number of Covid-19 cases.
Bhutan is technically does not have a Covid-19 case as the only Covid-19 patient, who was a 76-year-old American tourists has been evacuated to his country.
If borders are sealed
Chimi Dema | Tsirang
The vegetable capital of the country, Tsirang dzongkhag, had been tasked with a new assignment.
As the country prepares for the worst-case scenario in the light of global Covid-19 outbreak, the dzongkhag is exploring the possibilities of supplying vegetables to nearby dzongkhags should the borders need to be sealed.
Agriculture officials in the dzongkhag are identifying major vegetable producers and vendors in the dzongkhag.
Dzongkhag agriculture officer, Dorji Gyeltshen, said the initiative was to see the quantity of vegetables that each farmer group produces in a week or a month and also to get the quantity that are supplied outside the dzongkhag.
“This would help us understand the amount of surplus that could be supplied to other parts of the country if there is a need,” he said. “We will also collect information on different varieties of vegetable farmers grow.”
Dorji Gyeltshen also said local leaders were asked to track food resources and production as well as the surplus quantity in their respective gewogs.
At the ninth Dzongkhag Tshogdu yesterday, dzongdag Pema also urged the local leaders to increase production and prepare for supplying vegetables to other districts if the borders need to be sealed but prioritising the self-sufficiency at home first.
Known for its mass production of crops and vegetables in the country, Tsirang has been supplying vegetables to Thimphu, Sarpang, and Dagana. Some vendors even sell it in Trongsa and Bumthang.
Given the past supply experiences, Dorji Gyeltshen said it might not be a problem even if they have to supply to nearby dzongkhags.
He said the dzongkhag’s annual performance agreement (APA) had targeted to produce about 3,331 metric tonnes (MT) of vegetables this season. “We have already produced about 3,538MT of vegetables comprising of 19 varieties so far.”
Majority of the harvest this year has been cabbage (579MT), followed by beans (563MT) and radish (422MT). Production increased after ban imposed on the imported of the above vegetables.
While all 12 gewogs in the dzongkhag have ventured into vegetable farming, Dorji Gyeltshen, said farmers in nine gewogs grow on a commercial scale given the accessibility to market.
The major vegetable producing gewogs are Mendrelgang, Gosarling, Patshaling and Kilkhorthang, among others. Of the 6,000 households involved in vegetable production, about 2,500 grow on large and commercial scale.
The nursery for winter vegetable farming usually starts in September and production begins from early January until June. The season for summer vegetable farming is between February and October.
Meanwhile, agriculture minister Yeshey Penjore said that to ensure a continuous supply of essential food items, the government is stocking food resources through Food Corporation of Bhutan Limited to last at least six months.
He said the government is now investing on land development to encourage and enhance local cereal, vegetable and livestock production. “But this doesn’t mean we will achieve food self-sufficiency in the next six months.”
Lyonpo Yeshey Penjore said the government is planning to roll out a stimulus plan within a few days. The details would be shared only after it is adopted.
Labour pains can never be gratifying. But after ten hours of pain, Sangdag Pem, 28, is a happy mother to welcome her baby, a daughter. News of a royal birth reaching the birthing centre of the national referral hospital made her happier.
The birth of her daughter coincided with the birth of the second Royal child yesterday.
“I can’t be happier than this; my daughter shares birthday with the Prince. It is humbling and exciting,” Sandag Pem said, cuddling and feeding her newly-born. “I feel blessed,” she added.
The new mother recalled being overtaken with emotions upon hearing the announcement from the Lingkana Palace yesterday afternoon. “I feel lucky that my daughter is born on this day.” She gave birth to her daughter weighing 2.9kgs in the early hours of the day.
Cheki Zangmo, 34, is another happy mother. She gave birth to her third child in Thimphu hospital yesterday. The overwhelmed mother said: “Never in my wildest dreams did it occur to me that the birth of my child would coincide with the Prince.” She said such rare coincidences would clear future obstacles for her son.
Like Sangdag Pem and Cheki Zangmo, most of the mothers in the maternity ward were excited to share their child’s birthday with the Royal child. “I am wordless. The day is special and my daughter will cherish her birthday” rejoiced the new mother, Tshering Wangmo. “I pray my lucky son would be able to serve The King, country and the people,” added the emotion-laden mother.
As of 9pm yesterday, the national referral hospital’s birthing centre recorded 11 births, Gelephu and Mongar regional referral hospitals recorded a total of three births.
At a time when many countries are battling the rapid escalation of Covid-19 positive cases China, from where the pandemic began, is witnessing an encouraging recovery rate.
For the first time after Covid-19 outbreak, China yesterday saw not a single local infection.
Scare is spreading. But why the disease is gaining the upper hand, especially in the countries that are now responding with high alert, is because of lack of cooperation from their citizens.
The same danger is coming to Bhutan.
We have repeatedly intercepted people who have not been honest with their travel history. One way, what this indicates is that Bhutan is vigilant and will go extra mile to keep its citizens safe. The other way, irresponsible people are bringing the threat of the disease closer to home.
At such times, the role the media is playing is important. Social media leaders are increasingly realising what could happen if they choose to not act. Twitter, for example, has put in place measures to stop messages that could potentially bring the people closer to risk.
Here is the global perspective.
Iran’s death toll from coronavirus has risen to 1,284. The country is the worst effected in the Middle East today. France has begun advising people to abstain from hugging their love ones and, Italy’s virus death toll has come closer to China’s as outbreak spreads.
The Philippines has declared a month-long lockdown and thousands are leaving the country. But as the Dutch PM put it, hygiene and sanitation are the best ways still to keep the Covid-19 at bay.
Health experts say that Covid-19 is winning because nations and people are not doing enough. Asia is big. Half of it is now able to keep the pandemic at the distance. But the efforts could fail.
Where is Bhutan and Covid-19 together?
Bhutan does not have Covid-19 case. Travellers are being quarantined. Many are making it open and, more importantly, they want to self-quarantine for the health of the citizens at large. Those who are put on quarantine are doing their best to educate the people.
But there are also those who will put the whole nation at risk.
Yesterday, eight Bhutanese were found to have been untruthful with their travel history. And then two women did the same. Put together the country has so far intercepted 12 such cases.
There is a serious challenge for the nation today.
Vigilance is the only option.
The countries that are succeeding today say that there is no better preparedness than strict and uncompromising vigilance.
How Bhutan is fighting the pandemic will depend largely on the behaviours of its citizens.
Govt pondering on stopping the movement of Bhutanese vehicles via India except for essential services only: PM.
— Kuensel (@KuenselOnline) March 20, 2020
12:04: Those in quarantine were considered as a positive patient until proved negative, so they were placed under strict quarantine: PM said.
12:04: Covid-19 update:
Those who are in quarantine must be considered positive until proven otherwise and they were checked regularly : PM
12:00: Online teaching is not mandatory. Other options will be made available by the govt. : PM said.
Govt exploring ways if they can pay advances to students studying abroad on govt scholarships to cover rising costs due to Covid-19: PM said.
— Kuensel (@KuenselOnline) March 20, 2020
11:55: Covid-19 update:
Bhutanese residing outside, who face any problems because of covid-19 should contact government
11:54: Covid-19 update:
Govt is helping those returning to Bhutan from abroad, and but if they can remain put in their places practising precautions would be most ideal: PM.
11:50: Covid-19 update:
About 85% of people who eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly and drink plenty of water would be not easily affected by the virus: PM.
Those attending to the Covid-19 positive case are at huge risk of contracting the virus but it is their professional responsibility and they are doing their best: PM
— Kuensel (@KuenselOnline) March 20, 2020
11:20: Covid-19 update:
Our main concern is to prevent the virus everything else is secondary. Parents can play a vital role in the continuation of their children’s education, this can be an opportunity for children to learn many things that are not taught in schools: PM.
The positive Covid-19 patient’s condition is stable and remains asymptomatic: PM.
11:28 Covid-19 update:
No test is 100% specific but this test or the PCR test is highly sensitive in the case of Covid-19. There is no equipment or human error in conducting this test: PM said.
Bhutan will continue to remain in the Orange category.
Covid-19 Press Conference:
The new Covid-19 positive case will continue to remain in isolation and poses no risk at all to the public in any way: PM.
— Kuensel (@KuenselOnline) March 20, 2020
11:20:Despite the new positive case in the American tourist’s partner, there is no reason for the public to panic or worry: PM said.
11:20:The driver and guide of the American tourist tested negative. They will be given the option to either stay at home or at the quarantine facility: PM said.
11:19: Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said the Covid-19 patient’s partner test result is positive.
Others were all negative.
The second Royal Child of Their Majesties The King and Queen, a prince, was born yesterday, on March 19, coinciding with the 25th day of the first month of the Male Iron Rat year.
His Royal Highness was delivered safely at the Lingkana Palace in Thimphu.
A news release from the Royal Office for Media stated that Her Majesty and the royal baby were in good health, and His Royal Highness The Gyalsey was delighted to meet his younger brother.
“Their Majesties express their gratitude to the medical team, the Zhung Dratshang and to everyone for their well-wishes and prayers,” the news release stated.
“While this remains a very happy occasion for the Royal family and the nation and people of Bhutan, Their Majesties wish to remind all Bhutanese to be mindful, responsible and supportive to each other in the wake of the Covid-19 virus.”
The release also stated that Their Majesties have everyone whose lives have been affected by this global pandemic in their thoughts and prayers.
Leaders and citizens alike poured their good wishes for the good health of Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen and the Royal Prince and expressed their happiness.
Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said that the successful birth of the second Royal Prince was the result of the collective prayers and aspirations of the Bhutanese people and reassuring indication of the continuity of the destined Wangchuck Dynasty.
“Like the arrival of a new member bringing joy to every family, the birth of the second Royal Child enlivens hopes and bliss of every Bhutanese, across the world,” he said. “On behalf of the people of Bhutan, I offer our humble prayers and gratitude.”
Opposition Leader Pema Gyamtsho (PhD) said, “I cannot think of a better time for this wonderful news on the arrival of our second Gyalsey not just for us Bhutanese, but also for the global community at large. The birth of the Royal Child gives us all reason to believe and look forward to a better and brighter future ahead.”
Parliament Speaker Wangchuk Namgyel said, “Even as we realise just how important the Yab-Sey archetypal relationship is to our collective folk memories, we are blessed with yet another precious jewel.”
“I join the nation to offer my humble Tashi Delek to our beloved His Majesty The King and Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen. We cannot buy happiness. Happiness is born to us!”
“The news of the birth of the Royal Child brings warmth, happiness and light into the lives of the Bhutanese.”
Most of the people Kuensel spoke to said that it was news of hope and lifted their spirits during this tense period following the Covid-19 pandemic.
A 77-year-old from Paro, Bidha upon hearing the news of the Royal Child’s birth said a prayer: “With the birth of the Prince, may the country be blessed with peace, harmony, and prosperity.” She said that she was extremely happy for His Royal Highness the Gyalsey Jigme Namgyel because the prince’s wish of having a sibling to play had been fulfilled.
At an annual Lochay in Haa, people joyfully shared the news and happiness, showering blessings to the newborn Prince’s good health and long life.
“I pray that with the birth of the Prince, the pandemic subsides. We are grateful that the Prince was born healthy.”
Dorji Gyeltshen, who runs a restaurant in Phuentsholing, said, “In this troubled time, when the country could lockdown, when families are tense, business is down because of the coronavirus, the birth of the Royal Child is such comforting news. It brings peace and happiness.”
Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, on behalf of his country and the people, tweeted congratulating Their Majesties and the people of Bhutan.
“Hearty congratulations to His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen, His Royal Highness The Gyalsey and the Royal Family on being blessed with the birth of the Second Royal Child. India joins the people of Bhutan in rejoicing on this happy occasion.”
Meanwhile, 14 babies were born in Mongar, Gelephu and JDWNRH hospitals yesterday.
“I am wordless. The day is special and my daughter will cherish her birthday,” a new mother, Tshering Wangmo said.
Additional reporting Rajesh Rai, Phub Dem, and Choki Wangmo
One of the most beautiful moments in human life is the miracle of birth. The cry of a newborn baby goes straight to the heart, as we see in the smile of a tired mother, relief of an anxious father, and the delight of the family, friends, and community.
The birth of the second Royal Child of His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Her Majesty Gyaltsuen Jetsun Pema, at Lingkana Palace in Thimphu on March 19, raises a cheer from young Bhutanese while older members of the Bhutanese family express their joy with a “Chabsu Chhey” (acknowledging the blessings of the Triple Gem).
Our Prince comes like a ray of sunlight when Bhutan – in fact the world – is going through a dark period, struck by a disease which is bringing societies to a halt. The Coronavirus is creating havoc across the world, introducing a new level of distress and forcing a fundamental social change in human behaviour.
He comes as a reminder that the human existence can’t avoid suffering but there is always hope around the corner.
This year, we are at the beginning of a new lunar cycle. It means new beginnings. But we do not wait for things to happen; we strive to make them happen. It is comforting, therefore, even as we begin the year with major challenges, that His Majesty The King has been traveling across the southern breadth of the country, personally inspecting our preparedness along a long and porous border which is starkly vulnerable when threatened by a pandemic.
This is a good year to welcome our Prince. People born in the mouse year are believed have the knack of turning unlucky events into good fortune. They are also sensitive to other people’s emotions but firm when necessary and generally live contented and stable lives with a large circle of close friends. So the stars tell us that our Prince will be smart and a quick thinker, giving us the optimism, energy, alertness, delicacy, flexibility, vitality, and the enterprising spirit that we need today.
The mood around the birth of our Prince is not one of ostentatious revelry but of meaningful prayer and reverence. We perform sacred ceremonies to remove obstacles and to influence the causes and conditions that create an environment that is conducive to wellbeing and happiness.
In keeping with tradition, we celebrate the birth of our Prince with prayers being conducted around the country. Kurims are also being performed at sacred Buddhist sites in India and Nepal. Bhutanese teachers from all Buddhist traditions are performing prayers. Our Hindu community is conducting pujas (prayers) at the mandirs (Hindu temples). Bhutanese well-wishers are celebrating by offering prayers at home and at local lhakhangs.
Animals, birds, and fish are being saved from slaughter (tshethar), the protective energy of the environment is being recharged (sachu bumtar and luzay lomoen), prayer flags are being hoisted, lhakhangs and choetens are being constructed or renovated, the country’s sacred thongdrels are being unfurled. His Holiness the Je Khenpo is conferring a Sangay Menlha Wang which will be televised from 2pm, for all the people of Bhutan to join. The Zhung Dratshang will also conduct Namgay Tongchoed from March 21, for 3 days.
All this is important because our Prince will play an important role in his generation – our future. We come together, in prayer and in celebration of this auspicious birth, we are consciously pledging our unity. A stronger Royal Family means closer unity and more resilient identity.
The images of our Royal Family with the people at national and public events is a familiar sight. Whether we see His Majesty carrying Gyalsey Jigme Namgyel through maize fields or playing soccer with school children or just chatting with citizens around the country it is the atmosphere of an extended family. In four short years, His Royal Highness Gyalsey Jigme Namgyel, has traveled around the country and people have been able to greet him.
Their Majesties, and therefore the Bhutanese people, are in for an even more interesting family life. Gyalsey Jigme Namgyel now has a Royal sibling to play with and share the experience of growing up together, along with all other Bhutanese “brothers and sisters” around the country.
For now, we wish Their Majesties and His Royal Highness, as Yab, Yum, and Royal Acho – and our entire Royal family good health and happy moments together. And we wish the Royal children a happy childhood, an important time of life to be fully lived, and enjoyed.
The Assam man who escaped from a quarantine centre in Kerala and was on his way to Assam was caught at the Bongaigaon railway station this morning, according to the Times of India, an English daily newspaper in India.
He was with COVID-19 symptoms when quarantined in a Kerala hotel. Bongaigaon is about 49 kilometres away from Gelephu.
The 24-year-old man, along with two other suspected coronavirus infected men, quarantined in Kerala, have fled the facility on March 16. They are from Odisha and West Bengal.
The 24-year-old was travelling by the Kanchanjungha Express, train number 13175. He was arrested from coach number ER14425. He boarded the train from Parak in Chennai and from Chennai to Howrah by Howrah Mail. From Seldah station in Kolkata, the person took the Seldah-Silchar Kanchanjungha Express and was heading to Guwahati station, according to ToI.
The man is in the Railway Hospital, New Bongaigaon guarded by RPF and GRP personnel to prevent him from escaping. According to TOI, All the passengers of the said coach was medically screened by railway doctors before the train left and all of them have been advised to go for home quarantine.
There is no information on the other two escapees.
The second Royal Child of Their Majesties The King and Queen, a Prince, was born today, March 19, 2020, corresponding with the 25th day of the 1st month of the Male Iron Rat year, in Lingkana Palace, Thimphu.
Her Majesty and the royal baby are in good health, and His Royal Highness The Gyalsey was delighted to meet his younger brother, a press release from the Royal Office for Media stated.
“Their Majesties express their gratitude to the medical team, the Zhung Dratshang and to everyone for their well-wishes and prayers.”
“While this remains a very happy occasion for the Royal family and the nation and people of Bhutan, Their Majesties wish to remind all Bhutanese to be mindful, responsible and supportive to each other in the wake of the COVID-19 virus. Their Majesties have everyone whose lives have been affected by this global pandemic in their thoughts and prayers,” stated the press release.
Country is COVID-19 free as of today
Bhutan is COVID-19 free, but the government is preparing for the worst after a single positive case was reported in West Bengal, the Indian state that borders Bhutan.
Lyonchhen Dr Lotay Tshering, at a press conference yesterday, said that lone positive case in the West Bengal is an imported case similar to the one Bhutan had.
“Measures to treat the patient and contact tracing is underway in Kolkata and should there be any more positive cases, we would be informed. Then accordingly we will have to strategise.”
As the disease is reported in places closer to the country, Lyonchhen said that stricter measures would be put in place.
In its effort to ensure continuous food supply in case of a complete lockdown, the government is stocking fuel and essential food items to last for at least 12 days or until the movement of vehicles across the border is restored.
However, he said that the public should not worry since the Indian government has assured continuous supply of essential food items, fuel and medicines even in the worst-case scenario.
With schools across the country closed indefinitely, Lyonchhen said that learning contents would be uploaded online and students could download them to continue their study.
He said that the government is in talks with the two telecom service providers to slash internet charges even as government explores solutions to teach students using IT when schools remain closed.
IT specialists are also engaged at the Thimphu Techpark to explore methods to help in online learning and in building a contact-tracing app.
On the Bhutanese living abroad, Lyonchhen said that while there are no plans to charter a flight to bring them back, all necessary measures and support are being provided for those who are returning home.
He said that Bhutanese returning home should get in touch with Missions and Embassies in their country of residence and also plan their travel carefully since most of the country have imposed travel restrictions.
The government has also extended the travel restrictions indefinitely. The two-week restriction imposed on tourists earlier ends today.
To discourage gathering and close contact among people, the government also suspended business operations of all drayangs, nightclubs, discotheques and other joints that draw large crowd.
The primary concern for now, the Prime Minister said was to prevent the entry of the disease in the country. For this, he said strict restriction on travels including incoming tourists were imposed.
“The second major concern is to monitor and contain the spread of the disease should there be any more positive cases inside the country,” he said. “This is why we have asked to close all schools and institutions including entertainment centres as a preventative measure.”
Lyonchhen said that although keeping schools open was important, the current situation demanded a temporary closure. Closing the schools and institutions was not due to the detection of any new positive cases, he added. “There is no reason for us to hide information. Believe and trust the government on information it disseminates on COVID-19. This is the time to come together.”
The main reason for taking all these measures according to Lyonchhen was due to the deteriorating scenario in the region and across the world.
The Prime Minister explained that this is not a lockdown situation for Bhutan but a strategic maneuver in case of a worst-case scenario.
Government to inject liquidity into banks
The government is planning to roll out an economic stimulus plan within a few days for the most affected sectors to help them cope with the unprecedented economic impact of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering at the press briefing yesterday said that the government was working with the Royal Monetary Authority (RMA) on monetary policies, including possible suspension of loan instalments for affected enterprises and individuals.
The need to keep employees that have lost jobs economically engaged is being looked into, according to the Prime Minister. The government estimates that there are about 50,000 people engaged in the tourism and allied sectors.
The Prime Minister said that the economic impact on hotels and the number of employees that have been rendered jobless were being assessed. While some employers are reportedly willing to retain their employees, others have laid off their employees.
The government, Dr Lotay Tshering said, would roll out the economic stimulus plan based on the number of affected enterprises and people and how.
“We will announce the economic stimulus plan within this week or by Monday,” he said.
As one of the monetary measures, the government plans to inject liquidity into financial institutions to enable investors to avail loans and maintain continuity of economic activities.
“It’s a normal practice for the government to inject liquidity into financial institutions so that the money available for investors. We have already held discussions with the RMA,” Dr Lotay Tshering said in an earlier press briefing on March 14.
According to the Prime Minister, banks lack enough liquidity.
He said that economic stimulus plan would be rolled out in phases, the first of which will be targeted at the most affected sector. The first to take a hit were the tourism and allied sectors and thousands of their employees.
Some of the channels through which the economy is expected to be hit are declines in domestic consumption, disruptions in supply of goods and services and expenses in health services.
However, he said that the government would be cautious not to exhaust monetary resources while rolling out the economic stimulus plan.
“If we are not careful, there are chances that all the money would be exhausted by the time we contain the virus,” Dr Lotay Tshering said. He added that both long-term and short-term economic interests would be considered.
He also expressed concerns about possible Equated Monthly Instalments (EMI) defaults.
A Thimphu-based tourism entrepreneur said that EMIs should be suspended until the situation improves. “For a few months, financial institutions and the government should consider EMIs for private enterprises, including hotels, tour operators,” he said.
However, the health of the financial institutions has also become a concern as the economy will face the ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr Lotay Tshering said that the government would to take care of the people in such situations despite the economic concerns. He also hinted at looking into tax policies as one of the possible economic contingency plan.
The Prime Minister said that the government had a huge concern on the economy as almost everyone and enterprises will be impacted. The magnitude of the economic impact will depend on how the uncertain situation will evolve in the coming days.
In its efforts to protect the livelihoods of tour guides, the Guide Association of Bhutan (GAB) last week requested the government to come up with plans to keep guides economically engaged.
GAB president Garab Dorji said that the government had assured that keeping tour guides, and those in hotels and tour companies engaged in different activities like up-scaling training and similar activities was possible.
There are more than 4,300 tour guides in the country, according to the GAB.
There will be no tourists left in the country from March 23. The ban on tourists was supposed to last for two weeks, but the government has announced that it would be extended.
With the price of petrol dropping by Nu 4.01 and diesel by Nu 5.24, fuel price in the capital has dropped to the lowest in recent months.
The price of petrol at Bhutan Oil Distributor (BOD) in Lungtenzampa is Nu 58.63 a litre since March 16, a reduction from Nu 62.64. Similarly, price of diesel is now Nu 53.52 a litre, a drop from Nu 58.76. The price of fuel is the same in BOD, Motithang.
At Druk Petroleum Corporation Limited at Chubachu, the price of petrol is Nu 58.74 per litre at present, a decrease from Nu 62.74. The price for diesel dropped from Nu 58.75 to Nu 53.50 a litre.
At Damchen Petroleum Distributors in Changzamtog, petrol is now Nu 58.74 per litre from Nu 62.74. The price for diesel is Nu 53.50 a litre, a decrease from Nu 58.75.
Petrol price also reduced to Nu 58.64 per litre from Nu 62.49 at the newly opened State Trading Corporation of Bhutan Limited (STCBL) oil station in Ramtokto. Similarly, price of diesel is now Nu 53.40 a litre, drop from Nu 58.50.
Officials at distributor said that unlike the past years, this year recorded sharp slash in fuel price. “The fuel price drop came into effect from March 16 and the LPG price from two weeks ago.”
According to Indian media reports, the drop in price is due to the decline in global fuel prices. Bhutan imports petroleum products from India and price fluctuation could be attributed to the Indian economy.
When the Indian government raises tax rates on crude oil or the refineries in India, fuel price increases in Bhutan.
Meanwhile, the price of subsidised liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) has increased. However, the price of non-subsidised LPG has dropped.
At Motithang BOD, the price of subsidised LPG cost Nu 589, an increase from Nu 579. The non-subsidised LPG cost Nu 882 at present, a decrease from Nu 936.
However, at Druk Petroleum Corporation Limited at Chubachu, subsidised LPG cost Nu 589, an increase from Nu 583. But the price of non-subsidised LPG is same as that of Mothithang.
The price of kerosene remained same as Nu 41.66 per litre at Motithang, Lungtenzampa, and Damchen Petroleum Distributors at Changzamtog.
Bhutan is doing well in the face of COVID-19 threat. There are fears, there is even panic. This is natural.
What is not natural is the dark pictures that the people have begun painting about the disease and nation’s preparedness.
Schools are now being asked to remain closed because gathering of a large number of people could be risky. The lone COVID-19 positive case in the country has flown out. The people—28 of them who had interactions with him, in varying degrees—have all tested negative.
What this means is Bhutan has no COVID-19 positive case as yet. Efforts are being made to keep it this way.
But let us look beyond. The world is shutting down. The important question that we must ask is whether the countries in the region and beyond are bolstering their efforts like Bhutan has and continues to, minute by minute.
Bhutan’s priorities are changing and, will continue to change, because we are reacting to the threat that is coming closer to home. Because we do not have a single COVID-19 case in the country today, precaution and prevention are still our best weapons.
Media, particularly social media, are failing the nation. Inane and questions born from ignorance are only helping spread the fear. There are those who will only consider the country’s economic stats when what the entire country really needs today, this hour, is a clear focus to keep the pandemic away.
Arrangements are being made. If the Bhutanese living across the border need home, the government has a plan for safe and secure homes for all. The digitalisation of education has not taken off but efforts are being made to not interrupt the education of thousands of children in the country.
Bhutan’s response, the way we are standing up to the challenge, is not because we are in dire straits. The country is preparing for the worst-case scenario because regions and nations are failing to keep the epidemic at bay.
What we must know is that South Asia is better prepared than the rest of the world.
The scourge waiting to come to Bhutan and the region is, therefore, a small problem. Hoarding and stocking can be devastating.
Looking beyond is important, yes, but having the courage to look in is by far more important. Now comes the real challenge—to keep it this way.
What we must know is that the government can do only so much. A large number of Bhutanese are returning home from abroad. The number of those under quarantine will only increase in the days to come. What this means is that Bhutan has put stringent measures in place to stop the disease from entering the country.
However, so much depends on the people and their individual actions. Every one of us will be affected somehow or the other but, fortunately, we have so far been able to work together to keep our nation and people safe.
There is no space for selfish acts and questions. That’s how we should carry on. We can do that, each individually, by just washing our hands, maintaining sanitation and hygiene, and not flustering unnecessarily.
Some are ready to go home and work on farms
About 20 tour guides are busy at work at the Guide Association of Bhutan’s (GAB) office in Thimphu—ruffling through papers, taking down details, and continuously having telephonic conversations.
In the past 3-4 days, these guides had been volunteering at GAB’s office to collect details of more than 4,000 tour guides in the country. With the tourism sector badly hit with the COVID-19 outbreak and the earlier two-week restriction on tourists, most of the guides are rendered jobless.
The office is collecting information of the guides to deploy them in different sectors based on their skills and expertise even for a minimal fee to sustain before the government lifts the restriction, which now is extended “until further notice.”
GAB records show that out of 2,900 active guides, 1,866 are freelancers whose main source of income is from tourists. GAB’S executive director Sonam Tashi said: “Freelance guides are the most affected with their source of income gone dry within these few weeks.”
Yesterday, with the government’s announcing an extension of the two-week tourist restriction, the situation is only expected to worsen. While some guides have decided to go to their villages and start farming, others are exploring opportunities to engage themselves.
A freelance guide, Jinpa Phuntsho, the single bread-earner in the family had been participating in voluntary services in the past two weeks. “When guides sit together, we come up with ideas to involve ourselves during this tiring time,” he said, adding that in his 20 years, it is the first time he witnessed such impact.
“I am ready to take up any kind of job in a government or private sector but if the situation worsens, I will go back home and work in my farm,” Jinpa Phuntsho said. But he is also looking forward to domestic tourism. If tour operators could develop tour packages, he said, it would help guides sustain. “It would promote and engage us and generate revenue for the government.”
Another freelancer, Yeshi Gyeltshen, had 18 groups cancelled within two weeks. He said the earnings from these cancelled groups could have sustained him for the whole year. However, he participates in GAB’s activities.
GAB is preparing for the worst. The association’s priority is on the active freelancers. Sonam Tashi said that the office was proposing trainings for guide and conduct interaction meeting among guides to develop new ideas.
The guides are ready to take up works in construction site for a minimal fee, while others are interested to take up roadside tourism activities such as cleaning washrooms on the highways. Most of the guides are skilled and had experience in the vocational and health sectors, teaching, driving, business and farming among others.
Yesterday, more than 300 guides cleaned the thromde area and about 40 guides donated blood at the national hospital.
On March 17, the Tourism Council of Bhutan met with key stakeholders to prepare and implement projects and create new job opportunities to engage the unemployed.
An employment taskforce was formed and is expected to finalise the list of projects within two days.
Tshering Namgyal | Lhuentse
As the name suggests, a dairy farmers’ group called Lhamo Norgyuen (the goddess of wealth) in Minjey gewog in Lhuentse is thriving today.
The group, which was initially formed in 2013 by 26 farmers, failed and most members resigned. Some members even left the villages.
However, 16 members from three chiwogs of Bragong, Jalang and Minjey, revived the group and each member earns about Nu 7,000 to 25,000 a month from selling milk. Each member of the group rears three to 10 Jersey cows.
According to the group members, they have been actively processing and selling the dairy products like butter and cheese since last year and the group sold over 1,100 kg of butter and 16,000 balls of cheese. A kilogramme of butter is sold at Nu 300 while cheese is sold at Nu 40.
Last year, a member, Jampel Dema, who is also the accountant, ran the processing unit. She marketed the products herself. Other members were paid Nu 35 a litre of milk. A record with the unit the shows processed cheese and butter fetched them around Nu 1 million last year.
However, since the beginning of this month, they have agreed to let a group of members, Jampel Dema as the leader and other members taking turns to help, run the unit. The group pays Jampel Dema a monthly salary of Nu 8,000 in a month.
Members said it was much convenient to market their products and it had improved their livelihood.
A member from Jalang chiwog, Yeshi Tshomo, who earned about Nu 9,000 a month from selling 10-litre milk a day, said the group benefitted her market her dairy products easily.
Jampel Dema said except for some surplus butter sold in Thimphu in summer last year, cheese, milk and yoghurt were easily absorbed in the local market,” she said.
However, beginning this month, the group also commenced making yoghurt after they exhibited their first product during the national day celebration last year at Autsho.
The group managed to sell more than 2,300 cups of yoghurt were sold in the market until now. Each cup of yoghurt is sold at Nu 18 to 26 depending on the distance and the transportation cost involved. The customers are mainly schools and livestock products selling counter at Lhuentse town.
Group members said they would now focus more on yoghurt and supply to the schools in the dzongkhag and beyond.
Minjey gewog extension officer, Tashi Tshering, said dzongkhag and CARLEP project also supported the members with 30 percent subsidy on cattle, and material and technical support for dairy shed, silo pit and biogas, besides four to five times dairy-related training in a year.
CARLEP project supported the processing unit with equipment like butter churner, cream separator, milk pasteuriser, curd making machine and deep freezer.