Almost a month after the government asked people to practise physical distancing, people are reportedly found not abiding by it.
At Lungtenzampa taxi parking, a group of taxi drivers were in deep conversation. They are waiting for passengers but their daily chit-chat overtook their search for passengers.
Driving cab for the past 15 years had been Phuntsho’s sole vocation, gossiping in groups with his fellow taxi drivers another. It has been hard for him to distance and avoid his friends despite repeated reminders about physical distancing. “I try to remind myself to keep a metre distance from my friends but we end up forming groups.”
“I am self-conscious from time to time but old habits die hard,” said Phuntsho smiling, adding that at home, he is cautious with safety and cleans himself before interacting with his family. He physically distances himself from his two children to reduce risk.
In the Centenary Farmers Market (CFM), a vegetable vendor, Sonam Yangdon, said she was accused of being rude while trying to distance from her customers. “I am following the directives for everyone’s safety. With a huge crowd at the market, it is the riskiest place but people don’t understand.”
She interacts with more than 30 customers every day.
CFM manager, Tshering Tenzin, said the management had created safe distance with red lines for customers but the effort had been futile. “Unless the individuals take responsibility and take the precautions, it is difficult to monitor.”
He, however, said it was difficult to maintain physical distance while doing business. “From next weekend, the management is planning to seek help from the police to monitor physical distancing among shoppers.”
The automobile workshop in Olakha is a commercial hub. Due to the nature of their work, the mechanics were not taking any safety precautions. They were mostly seen in small groups without any handwashing facilities, sanitisers and facemasks.
Few people Kuensel talked to said that although they were mindful about physical distancing, it is hard to sustain the practice since there was no record of community transmission in the country. Many said that they were at ease because they feel their friends and families won’t have the virus.
Physical distancing, however, is not a luxury for Sonam. He lives in one of the slums in Thimphu with four other members. They share a room and have no choice to physically maintain a metre distance.
Despite repeated government announcements to maintain physical distance, many official meetings also do not abide by the advisory.
Officials around the world say physical distancing is the key to slow down the spread of the pandemic. But experts say that it is hard and against the basic human instinct to socially isolate.
Beginning yesterday, the government announced the closure of all businesses by 7 pm and scrutiny of those people visiting public spaces or roaming in groups of three.
The move is expected to minimise the risk of community transmission as increasing numbers of people come out of the quarantine centres.
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
An Indian construction firm, AFCONS Infrastructure Limited, which executes the Phuentsholing Township and Development Project at Toorsa, Phuentsholing, donated 20 two-way handheld radio transceivers (walkie talkie) to desuups and police yesterday.
The transceivers are worth Nu 210,000.
The firm’s project manager, Ravichandran, said the contribution was in line to its corporate social responsibility for emergency and disaster management.
“It is a culture coming from the top of the management,” he said.
The contribution was made through thromde.
Phuentsholing thrompon, Uttar Kumar Rai, said the contribution comes at the time when handsets have become necessary. “The handsets will be used while patrolling along the border areas.”
Meanwhile, AFCONS has also pledged the thromde to contribute stone aggregates worth Nu 800,000, which will be used for base course works at Toorsa to help people at the housing colonies to have better roads during the monsoon.
Ravichandran has also recently made a personal contribution of Nu 310,000 to the thromde to make two bore wells for drinking water facility at Toorsa. About 150,000 litres of water can be pumped from these bore wells.
AFCONS currently employs 150 Bhutanese.
The threat is ever-present but we have largely succeeded in keeping the Covid-19 pandemic at a distance. What we must now know is that the challenge facing Bhutan is not just the disease; keeping the citizens inside the borders is becoming a bigger problem by the day.
If there is a new positive case in the country tomorrow, it will not be because of the failure of the government and all the sectors working round the clock to prevent the spread of the pandemic to keep the country and the people safe. Irresponsible people who with pathetic impudence are flouting the rules ought to the blame.
Border lockdown is critically important because of the mode and rate of transmission. It has been almost a month since we put a hold on international border crossing to prevent the importation and spread of Covid-19 in the country, but people continue to ignore government notifications that restrict international border crossing. This poses a serious risk of the disease spreading in the country.
When everything is well taken care of by the government from the supply of essential items to education to interest waiver on loans to sizeable financial assistance to those who are directly affected, why some Bhutanese continue to sneak in and out of the borders clandestinely can be explained only by who they really are—selfish opportunists who are ready to throw a spanner on the His Majesty The King and the government’s effort to keep the Bhutan and Bhutanese safe.
We have bolstered our vigilance along the porous borders but the people sneak in and out of the borders continue to remain our biggest threat today. This side of the border, to minimise the risk of community transmission given the increasing number of people completing the 21-day quarantine period and all businesses and shops must close by 7pm and people visiting public spaces or roaming in groups of three or more are now being scrutinised by law enforcers.
As His Majesty The King said recently, “The reckless action of a single person who clandestinely crosses the border for trade, or to meet acquaintances, or to bring someone to Bhutan, risks spreading the coronavirus in their community and in the country. It will completely undermine all our national efforts. Therefore, to be 100 percent successful in our fight against the coronavirus, it will require the unstinted cooperation of each and every person.”
Pandemic besides, people who engage in illegal businesses are our biggest threat today. In a span of less than a week, the police intercepted two drug trafficking cases. The standing rule says that the people who violate the regulations will be dealt with seriously. This should happen.
And, so, if we are to succeed in preventing local transmission, “we can neither be complacent, nor can we let our guard down.”
Neten Dorji | Trashigang
Farmers in Radhi, Trashigang, started cultivating vegetables on large scale to minimise import and to supply to other gewogs in the dzongkhag.
The farmers, who formed a group called ‘Chuthawong commercial vegetable group’, started cultivating in 27 acres of land, some of which were left fallow until now.
A member, Choining Wangmo, said that soil is fertile and all types of vegetable could grow. “While government supports everything, we are taking the opportunity to grow vegetables on a large scale.”
She said with the uncertainty of when the Covid-19 pandemic would end, it is the right time to grow vegetables and earn.
She joined the group to learn skills in vegetable gardening and share her own skills with friends.
Another member, Thinley Pem, said it was the right time to invest in agriculture.
She said the group intends to first supply the vegetables in the gewog and then supply in the market.
Radhi gewog agriculture officer, Pema Wangchen, said that since Radhi is situated below an altitude of 1200ms above sea level, all types of vegetables could grow. “Once we are done with land management, the demarcated land would be handed over to the group for cultivation,” he said. The project is supported by Commercial Agricultural and Resilient Livelihoods Enhancement Programme and the government.
He said that the group intended to focus on two off-season vegetables, tomatoes and chillies but they asked them to grow all vegetables. “If the project succeeds, the group could produce enough vegetables for Trashigang dzongkhag. If not, it should be sufficient for people of Radhi gewog.”
Out of 27 acres, 15 acres has been developed in which vegetables would be grown. The land was partially cultivated by farmers but half of it was left fallow for more than two decades because of human-wildlife conflict.
Trashigang police arrested five men for abusing and illicit trafficking of controlled substances.
Police made the first arrest on April 10 based on a tip-off where two men, aged 30 and 32, were arrested from Chazam checkpoint around 11pm.
Police seized 42 capsules of SpasmoProxyvon Plus (SP+) from two men.
Police claimed that upon interrogation, they traced the distributor, purchasers and transporter of drugs in the locality. “They are all from Trashigang,” an official said. “We are investigating the main distributors.”
On April 13, police arrested another man from Trashigang town for possessing 72 capsules of SP+. He told police it is for self-consumption.
Police also arrested another man for possessing cigarettes but it was within the permissible limit.
Two men are on bail and three are still under police custody.
Tshering Namgyal | Mongar
Lhuentse police detained a 66-year old man from Khoma gewog in Lhuentse for allegedly poisoning an 84-year-old woman from Serphu village on April 10.
The woman died after drinking Cocacola juice the suspect sent to his wife, a 53-year-old woman but the wife shared the juice with the deceased and her grandchildren.
Sources in Lhuentse said the juice was mixed with ectoparasiticide, a drug used to kill fleas and ticks in animals.
The man, who lives in Khema village, sent the juice through a neighbour. Serphu village is an hour’s walk away from Khema.
The neighbour handed the juice to the wife, who was weaving cloth, around 5pm. After drinking a few sips, she shared the juice with a neighbor’s 10-year-old daughter who came to her house. The girl took the juice home and shared with her 16-year-old sister and 84-year-old grandmother.
After the four fell sick, family members called the hospital and they were brought to Lhuentse hospital in an ambulance.
The deceased died an hour and half after she was admitted at the hospital.
The wife and neighbour’s two daughters were reported to be in stable condition as of yesterday.
Health officials said all the patients were treated with activated charcoal on the way as well as after reaching the hospital, which helped them to vomit and reduce the impact of poison.
“We tried to save the deceased but she was in critical condition. She collapsed three times on the way to the hospital,” a health official said. “She was a heart patient.”
The suspect told police that he sent the poison to his wife since they were not in good terms.
Livestock officials said ectoparasiticide is highly concentrated and they usually dilute it with water.
Kelzang Wangchuk | Samdrupjongkhar
After carrying out site verification on the mining activities in Rishor which was blamed for damaging houses and land in the locality, Samdrupjongkhar dzongkhag administration has forwarded the report to the Department of Geology and Mines’ regional office on April 9.
It also stated that if not addressed, there is high risk for the damages to aggravate during the monsoons and might affect life and property losses to the people living nearby.
About 21 households in the locality complained that the mining affected and damaged their houses. The report stated that of the seven houses that were damaged, one was severely damaged.
It also stated that since the mining site is located right below the village on a difficult terrain and having no occurrences of similar damages in other places as naturally occurring land degradation process, it seems obvious that the damages were caused by the mining activities
The report, however, mentions that it is just a general observation and not technical.
According to dzongdag, Tharchen Lhendup, dzongkhag administration formed an investigation team and carried out the site verifications on February 19 after the gewog administration forwarded the case to the dzongkhag.
“We were no aware of the case before as nobody reported to the dzongkhag,” he said.
According to the verification report, during its initial phases of the mining when SD Eastern Bhutan Coal Company has begun coal extraction works at Rishor in 2004, there was substantial distance between the village and the mining area.
“However, the mining area has been expanded over a period with prior approval and prerequisite clearance from the relevant agencies and stakeholders,” it stated.
The reported stated the current issue where 21 households reported of house and land damages have occurred after the mining was closed, which was approximately six months ago.
The team upon reviewing the record maintained with the company found that the company paid monetary compensations to the villagers either directly or with the involvement of gewog administration.
The dzongkhag reported stated that the dzongkhag is not in the position to intervene to decide on the compensation, as it has become too complex. “Thus, any issues related to the compensation should be resolved within the parties concerned or refer to the court directly.”
Meanwhile, it was learnt that Jigme Namgyel Engineering College (JNEC) playground and basketball court also sank with huge risk during monsoon.
Tharchen Lhendup said they forwarded the findings and recommendations to the geology and mines office for further investigation, as they don’t have the expertise.
Meanwhile, the regional geology and mining office had forwarded the report to the Department of Geology and Mines (DGM) in Thimphu to send a team of geologist, mining engineers and experts, who can be able to assess the cause and effects and to ascertain the damages technically.
Tenzin Zomkey, a class 12 student, studying in Armenia, took a long ride back home from Singapore in a flight that was returning with cargo yesterday.
After her school closed on March 20, she decided to return home. She was staying with her relatives in Singapore.
Although it was a rare case for a lone passenger flying in a giant airbus, she said that it was a routine flight. She said: “It is relieving to be finally home.”
Of all the passengers who returned to the country earlier and talked to Kuensel, Tenzin Zomkey was the first to say that she wasn’t scared of the virus. However, she said that her parents were worried.
Tenzin was screened and tested for the virus at Singapore airport. She tested negative.
Her college is likely to resume around mid-August. But she said it might change as the outbreak was unpredictable.
She is staying in the facility quarantine centre in Paro.
Borrowers who pay EMI to doubly benefit
Yangchen C Rinzin and Ugyen Penjore
Those who have availed loan and could afford to pay their “equated monthly instalment” (EMI) could doubly benefit from the monetary measures as the central bank directed banks to ease the burden on the people.
The Royal Monetary Authority (RMA) as a relief measure during the Covid-19 pandemic has asked banks to waive off interest on loans for three months and defer monthly loan instalment repayment by three months.
The installments, all of it, if paid during the three months, – April, May and June, will be adjusted towards principal repayment. In other words, the whole amount would be deducted from the remaining principal amount.
Banks during normal times do not do this.
A portion of the monthly instalment, the size depending on the loan amount, is adjusted against the interest accumulated. The remaining is then deducted from the principal amount.
In these three months, there is double advantage as the monthly interest is waived and the principal amount could be significantly reduced. The bigger the loan amount, the bigger is the benefit.
Paying the EMI would help banks with liquidity flow.
The National Pension And Provident Fund (NPPF) is encouraging its customers with steady income and can afford to pay to continue paying the regular monthly instalment. NPPF lend housing loan, their biggest portfolio, besides education and home loans and student loan.
An official from NPPF said that those with bigger loan would see more benefits, as the interest component that will be waived for three months would also be huge.
The other beneficiaries are those whose loans are “new” or those who borrowed in the recent past. This is because the interest component is the highest when the loan is “new”. “The interest is on the principal and it is automatic that bigger loans would have bigger interest,” said the official.
Roughly calculated, a Nu 3.5 Million loan at 10 percent interest for 20 years would see 85 percent of the monthly instalment adjusted towards the interest component in the initial years of repayment. “This would decrease as the loan gets older and a bigger portion is adjusted toward the principal,” said a banker.
Clearing the misunderstanding on the deferment of EMI for three months, bankers said the EMI repayment would be extended by three months for those choosing not to pay in the three-month grace period. “We will not ask clients to pay the three month’s installment at once when the situation improves,” said a banker. “The loan period will be extended by three months.”
Rent waiver vs interest waiver
With the loan interest waived and the EMI payment deferred for three months, tenants are expecting landlords to waive partial or full rents for three months.
This would depend on how much the landlord would save from the interest waiver besides the “moral responsibility.”
If the savings from the interest waiver is substantial, it is logical to pass it down to the tenants. “But then, the building is not solely built on loans. What about the owner’s equity (own money),” said a banker. “It is best if left to the house owner.”
House owners are doing their own maths to see how tenants can benefit from the waiver. “I could afford to give 50 percent discount as the saving from the interest waiver is not substantial,” said a house owner.
Tenants, he said are also benefitted because the interest waiver is not only on housing loans. “My tenants are salaried people who, if availed loans, will benefit too. How will they help others?”
Another house owner said that she will wait until April end to decide. “I know who is affected and who is not. It is not complicated.”
After lighting butter lamps and offering prayers at a simple ceremony yesterday morning, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering launched His Majesty The King’s Relief Kidu for all those who have lost jobs, businesses or are placed on reduced salaries due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The relief Kidu will provide immediate financial support for three months, until June.
“Besides defraying the living expenses and sustaining demand for goods and services, the Royal Kidu would also boost morale and provide assurance and hope despite the current hardships,” an earlier press release from the Prime Minister Office stated.
Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said that for an ordinary Bhutanese, in the Covid-19 situation, one can only worry and care about their own family and the immediate circles. Likely so, it is important one takes care of the family in this challenging time.
“But thinking beyond a household, out of compassion and concern for the entire country, is His Majesty The King who offers respite to the suffering of every Bhutanese in all parts of the world.”
“To think properly, every word and action of His Majesty translates as a kidu for the people of Bhutan at all times. However, today, the launch of Druk Gyalpo’s Relief Kidu is an antidote to those who have been affected by Covid-19.”
The Kidu is for those who have lost jobs and livelihoods. There are those who have been directly hit and others who don’t have the means to feed their families the moment their work stops. It covers both formal and informal sectors.
Lyonchhen said that His Majesty’s Kidu during Covid-19 was not just limited to that.
“Given the fact that coronavirus is harsher on those with underlying conditions and old age, His Majesty initiated several Kidu packages to protect the vulnerable section of the society from Covid-19 at all cost,” he said.
Making sure all Bhutanese have enough food and essential supplies during the emergencies, the government was commanded to go beyond basics and procure enough to sustain for at least six months.
Bhutanese abroad, who were in need of financial support for logistics while battling the disease were ensured accommodation.
His Majesty also granted Kidu to students studying overseas and who are seeking to return but unable to afford, Lyonchhen said.
“To encompass the vastness of endeavours His Majesty undertakes for each one of us is incomprehensible and beyond our human conception. It is also for the same reason that Bhutan will see through this turmoil and restore the country to a new realm.”
While the relief Kidu will help the needy to see through this difficult time, Lyonchhen said the government was preparing plans and programmes to restore livelihoods.
Dasho Sonam Kinga, a member of the 8-member specialists’ team that formulated the relief Kidu, said that granting the relief Kidu was an unprecedented move out of His Majesty’s sheer foresight and wisdom.
“Elsewhere around the world, governments are beginning to discuss the measures that Bhutan has already implemented following the His Majesty’s command,” he said.
He said the relief Kidu would be provided as swiftly as possible.
“Relief Kidu will be for a period of three months. Beneficiaries will receive the Kidu from the month in which they have applied,” he said.
“Despite so our best efforts in terms of preparedness and resources, given that there would be a large number of applications, we urge aspiring applicants for their patience and understanding should there be any delay in response to their queries.”
For instance, if a person has applied in April, he/she will receive the Relief Kidu for April, May and June. If the person applied in May, he or she will receive the Kidu for May and June. Likewise, if the application is filed in June then the Kidu would for June.
How does the system work?
About 15 operators are stationed at the centre to attend to calls to 1188, the toll-free number set for the Kidu registration.
The applications are entered into a system that is fully developed by Bhutanese IT experts from RMA, CBS, national service secretariat, and a few other related sectors.
“The system is as transparent, robust, and efficient as it can be and the icing on the cake is that it leaves little room for human error,” Governor, Dasho Penjor said.
Applicants’ details are run through numerous databases including that of the economic affairs and labour ministries, the civil registry, associations in the tourism sector, among others for thorough screening. This process completes more than 80 percent of the verification.
The applications then go to a set of trained volunteers who sieve through the details and prepare the papers for the committee who submits them for grant of the Kidu.
On successful application, the individual will be granted the monetary Kidu which will be directly deposited in the individual’s account.
India extending its total lockdown period until May 3 would not affect the supply of essential goods it has pledged to Bhutan, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering assured.
The additional 18-day lockdown imposed to control the spread of the novel coronavirus in India, Lyonchhen said, would also benefit Bhutan.
“Extending the lockdown was to flatten the infection curve, which is mainly achieved by restricting movement of people,” he said. He explained that when public gatherings and movements are restricted, the transmission rate is comparatively lowered over a period of time. “A country may detect over 100,000 positive cases but they would detect this over a period of five months rather than just in five weeks.”
Lyonchhen said that when multiple positive cases are detected in a short period of time, the pressure on health services and infrastructures get overwhelmed.
“Even though this is a harsh decision to make, it is always good to break the chain,” he said. “When India is able to fight the virus properly and effectively, it is a good thing for us.”
Supplies to continue
Despite the lockdown in India, Lyonchhen said that the supply of essential goods, although with some delays, is continuing to arrive in the country. “We are grateful to the Indian government for keeping their words and irrespective of the condition in either of the countries, we’ll continue to get this support.”
Lyonchhen said that agriculture and economic affairs ministers are actively engaged to ensure the supply of food items and other essentials.
He said that while it is the responsibility of the government to ensure the supplies continue to come in, retailers and individuals could stock the supplies in their respective places so that the distribution flow is not affected.
He added that if individuals could buy what is enough for their family and pay the retailers, the retailers could make payments to the FCB distributers instantly, who would then pay the suppliers in India.
With the closure and restriction on movement of vehicles across the border with a few exceptions, Bhutan is in a semi-lockdown situation since March 23.
All schools across the country, entertainment centres and other public spaces that attract crowd have been closed until further notice.
Lyonchhen said that preempting the situation, all public gatherings were restricted as a component of social distancing. On Monday evening, the government also announced that all businesses would have to close by 7pm.
While travelling outside for any Bhutanese is strictly monitored, the government is facilitating all incoming Bhutanese with a condition of 21-day mandatory quarantine period upon their arrival in the country.
The Prime Minister said that it would be difficult to provide a specific date as to when things would return to normalcy. “We are on a very high preventive mode for now.”
He, however, said that as long as the country manages to effectively control and maintain the current status, the government would consider reopening the schools region-wise if there is no local transmission of Covid-19 and if the global scenario subsides. “Should it be considered, reopening of schools would begin from the rural areas.”
Lyonchhen said that should there be any case of local transmission within the country, activities would be further restricted to prevent the outspread of the disease.
Have we won the battle? No. Are we on the right footing? Yes.
This would be the situation if fighting the Covid-19 pandemic were a battle. With all the five people detected with the virus now testing negative, technically recovering or recovered, we are on the right track in our effort to prevent an outbreak in the country.
The leadership and the guidance provided by His Majesty The King, the effective strategy adopted by the government, the cooperation from the people helped us in early detection and curbing the further spread of Covid-19. Call it the Bhutanese Model, it has been effective thus far.
However, without any new case in about two weeks and many leaving the quarantine facilities, there is a concern that people are getting relaxed. Suddenly, we are seeing more people on the streets. The streets are becoming busier, people are travelling and normalcy is returning.
Thousands of people were allowed to go home after completing the 21-day mandatory quarantine period. Although they were tested and cleared of the virus, there is a small window where even negative could test positive. Cases of recovered people testing positive in many countries are reported. As it is a novel coronavirus, nothing can be ruled out.
With the group coming from affected countries, the government is taking no chance. The government has notified that all business should close shops by 7pm and gatherings, in more than three people, is discouraged. These are purely preventive measures. We have learnt that prevention is the best cure in this epidemic. Countries are locking down, borders are shut and people are canned to stay home.
Here we are not thinking of a lockdown. A little restriction should be bearable especially when it concerns our own health. It is a good sign to see things return to normal, but relaxing too much under the false confidence that we have successfully contained the virus could be disastrous.
Social distancing measure, the cheapest and most effective means of preventing the spread, now proven with evidence, is thrown out of the window. We disband a group of three people, but others gather in packed rooms and auditoriums. Some are organised and attended by those who advocate social distancing. Those questioning are considered to be paranoid.
Restaurants, shops and bars are all seeing more and more people. There is a feeling that the Covid-19 pandemic is over. The risk is still there. Some are sneaking out while some are sneaking in illegal goods including banned substances.
Complacency could be our worst enemy. What we have worked in national unison could be undone with just one new case in the community. The success so far is because we were cautious, prepared well and managed to contain the spread.
All the government and health experts are asking us is to stay home. What if the call was to come out and work? We can surmise that many would stay home.
There is nothing wrong is staying home for a while. After all, as someone said, it is the year of the Rat and little bit of hiding at home will ensure the safety of individual, family, community and the nation.
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
From ferns to cheese and butter and eggs, farmers in Samtse and Chukha are continuously contributing local produces to the Covid-19 cause in Phuentsholing.
Starting from April 2, as of yesterday, more than 15 farmers’ groups and communities have contributed.
On April 13, a group of people from Dogar village in Dophuchen contributed 300 bundles of ferns, seven cartons of eggs, 211 chees balls, 18kg butter, juice, and water.
Rin Dorji, a corporate worker in Thimphu said that he discussed about the initiative with the villagers back home at Dogar.
“Although we don’t have much to contribute our objective was to contribute whatever we could as a community in this difficult times,” he said.
The Dogar group also included people from those communities working in private sector, corporate and government offices.
As of yesterday, Phuentsholing has received close to 2,000 bundles of ferns, more than 30kgs of local butter, more than 100 trays of eggs and more than 860 cheese balls from different communities of Samtse and Chukha.
Apart from vegetables and dairy products, farmers have also contributed rice.
Purna Bahadur Rai, a representative of Bameygang village in Dophuchen said all the people in their community searched for ferns in their community forest. The villagers contributed 1,005 bundles of ferns.
“We contributed whatever we could after having discussions among the villagers,” the villager said.
Purna also said that villagers from Dumtey gewog were also planning to contribute for the Covid-19 cause.
Chairman of Khamed Tapthang Vegetable Group, Vishnu Basnet from Darla gewog said this is the time to help the government and country at large.
“It is a crucial time,” he said.
Alleged locals calling them “coronavirus”
Phub Dem | Paro
Patients and their attendants who returned from Kolkata yesterday didn’t have nice stories to share as they alleged of being discriminated while in Kolkata amid the Covid-19 outbreak.
Ten patients along with 16 attendants shared their experience soon after reaching the Paro international airport.
A focal person of patients referred to a hospital in India, Jigme Dorji, shared several incidences where locals in Kolkata called Bhutanese ‘Coronavirus’ while visiting public places.
He said drivers and bikers by the road when seeing Bhutanese pass by called them ‘coronavirus.’ “Although no one was harassed or abused, every time I go out to buy groceries people called me by the name of the virus,” he said.
This, he said was the only reason why he returned home. “Otherwise, I would be looking after Bhutanese patients there.”
Pema Tshering, a father of a child, who had undergone a heart surgery, said locals there describe Bhutanese as the Chinese virus. “Perhaps they mistake us for Chinese because they call us Chinese virus,” he said.
He said some vendors even denied selling vegetables to the Bhutanese. It has been 21 days since the patient was discharged.
The parents tried to come home but due to the lockdown in India, they had to stay back. Pema Tshering said that he was worried about his child since the child was fragile and was at risk.
He said that it was a relief to be back home. “The surgery was successful and my family is back safe and sound. I am blessed.”
Another patient attendant said it was risky to go outside to buy essential items considering the crowded population in India. “It was difficult to maintain distance and there were risks of infecting the virus.”
There are more than 20 patients still in Calcutta, according to a health official accompanying the patients yesterday.
She said that the health staff were on home quarantine but they had to accompany the patients in case of emergency.
Drukair’s relief flights brought home 59 Bhutanese from Calcutta and Bangkok yesterday.
Swab samples of all patients and attendants were sent to Royal Centre for Disease Control in Thimphu.
Covid-19 is a global health crisis unlike any other, causing immense human suffering, destabilizing the global economy and upending the lives of billions of people around the globe. Over 25 million people could lose their jobs in the wake of the pandemic, according to the ILO. And IMF and UNCTAD estimate that Covid-19 is likely to cost the world economy a staggering one trillion US dollars in 2020 alone.
For the past few decades, Asia and the Pacific has been the economic engine of the world, but the coronavirus outbreak is wreaking havoc across economies, as several countries go into lockdown mode, driving businesses and factories to a standstill. For many countries, the crisis comes on top of recent shocks and pre-existing vulnerabilities like extreme poverty, growing inequality, trade war, natural disasters, and climate change.
The Royal Government of Bhutan, under the leadership of His Majesty the King, has acted proactively against the threats of Covid-19. Thanks to a targeted and remarkably effective response, we have not seen the community transmission of the virus in Bhutan at this time. However, the economic impact of the pandemic has been transmitted and the consequences are evident. About 50,000 people in the tourism and affiliated sectors are already impacted.
Despite the unprecedented disruptions, stimulus packages that are being designed by many governments around the world present an unprecedented opportunity to realize low-carbon, sustainable and inclusive development. While massive resources are injected into the economy at a rapid speed, the question is: how do we resist the temptation to go back to the old normal, characterized by unsustainable consumption and carbon emission and instead, co-create a new normal? Do we have the courage and wisdom to act decisively and quickly? The world must catalyze on unintended positive consequences of the pandemic and not repeat the mistakes of the past. What could be silver linings for the global community and for Bhutan?
Accelerating Climate Action
Amidst the Covid panic, we almost lost focus on the longer-term crisis faced by humanity – devastating climate change and biodiversity loss. The pandemic has brought air travel almost to a complete halt, pushed industries to slow down and reduced the demand for energy. Some megacities are seeing blue and clear skies for the first time in a long time. While transport and industry must resume, can they do so along less-polluting pathways? Can we avoid a post Covid relapse into the devasting patter of unsustainable emissions? The pandemic may be showing us that we can recover economic activity with sustainable outcomes, giving us an opportunity to make the very changes that countless summits and rounds of negotiations failed to deliver.
With the fiscal stimulus packages being introduced around the world, governments can, for example, target measures towards investments in low-carbon equipment and facilities, and further promote sustainable tourism and agriculture. We might all fundamentally rethink how we organize knowledge sharing and meetings and invest assertively in technology to minimize non-essential travel.
For this to happen, significant investments in reliable and affordable digital technologies, internet services and hardware are required. The 2019 UNDP Human Development Report identified ‘access to technology’ as one of the emerging factors contributing to today’s inequality. The Covid-19 crisis proved measures such as physical distancing, on-line schooling, working from home are privileges reserved for a few. Only 20 percent of the population in the least developed countries have access to the internet. In Bhutan, while 58 percent have an internet connection, mostly through mobile phones, less than three percent have access to broadband.
Technology has played a critical role in tracing people, sharing real-time data, and sharing information on the pandemic. Also, technology has been advancing the medical research and response, such as 3D printing production of PPEs. The pandemic has given impetuous to technological advancement, E-governance and e-business development as many governments spearheaded transformation by streamlining and digitizing government services in support of improved business environment and public services. This trend must be part of the new normal, and it will certainly be beneficial for Bhutan where service delivery is in general greatly challenged by its complex geographical setup.
Transforming the economy
In Bhutan, debates around how to strengthen self-sufficiency on food production and securing the labor force in sectors such as construction and agriculture have already begun. The pandemic has shown how inter-linked we all are as members of the global community, and at the same time, how important it is to be self-reliant. This need not be contradictory goals.
The recovery plans around the world are building in measures to enhance resilience and reduce the vulnerability of countries and communities at a time of the crisis. Indeed, communities and local innovators in Bhutan have come forward with solutions to tackle one of the most complex and persisting crisis – be it developing real-time tracking apps to strengthen health service systems, or developing fallow land to increase agricultural production for greater food security. The crisis presents opportunities to accelerate the vision of the Royal Government to build national capabilities in critical skill areas such as agriculture and other areas of vocational training.
Guided by the ethos of Gross-National Happiness (GNH), Bhutan as a community of people has always shown an incredible level of compassion and inclusion, including caring for the sick and the elderly, or others less fortunate.
As this pandemic adds to the existing inequalities faced by vulnerable populations, particularly informal workers, migrants, elderly, women and people with disabilities, Bhutan has shown that it need not be so. The pandemic, along with quarantine measures, has increased the unpaid burden on women (they do three times as much unpaid care work at home as men) and there has been a reported rise in domestic violence. Vulnerability-targeted cash transfers, credit lines and jobs go a long way to ease the economic burden. At the same time, the values that underpin GNH are called on even more during times of societal stress. And Bhutan can demonstrate to the world that we can get through this without resorting to violence, stigmatization and discrimination.
The Covid-19 crisis will shrink fiscal space in all countries. This will have direct implications for countries ability to invest in SDG-related public expenditures, leaving a significant dent in the Last Decade of Action before 2030. Rolling out ambitious recovery packages takes time, particularly to reach the most vulnerable. Access to accurate and real-time data on the extent and nature of the vulnerability is key for targeted and effective interventions.
Preparing for the new normal
While countries around the world are grappling with the response to the pandemic, we must start visioning and preparing for our new normal. Recovery can be steered toward more sustainable and inclusive pathways that demonstrate very tangible economic, social and environmental gains, and help countries realize a future that is fully aligned with the aspirations of SDGs. It is up to all of us to turn this page.
Contributed by Azusa Kubota
Resident Representative, UNDP Bhutan
With the Royal Monetary Authority (RMA) rolling out monetary and fiscal interventions, one of which is deferment of housing loans and waiver of interests for three months, all eyes are on landlords for possible concessions or full waiver of house rents.
Although the measures are effective only from April to June some house owners have already shown their generous side by waiving either 50 or 100 percent of rents.
The government and financial institutions (FIs) are of the view that waiver of rents should be left to house owners. This means that there is no legal obligation for house owners to waive rents.
President of the Financial Institutions Association of Bhutan and CEO of Royal Insurance Corporation Limited (RICBL), Karma, said the decision would depend on house owners.
However, officials said that it was a moral responsibility of landlords to see if the loan deferment could benefit their tenants. The three-month interest waiver has been granted as Kidu.
Landlords are expected to come forward voluntarily as the relief measure is expected to generate confidence and positive vibes during the pandemic for a “better and more prepared tomorrow”.
The loan deferment and interest waiver means that during the three-month period there would be no accumulation of interest and fines on all loans including housing loans, except loans to financial institutions, to government and on staff incentive loans.
The president at the launch of the relief measure said the deferment of loans and the waiver of interests would affect their cash flow. But he said that the measure was a sacrifice on part of the financial institutions.
He said Bhutan was going through a difficult time and that it depended on the kind of measures that were taken for the country to see through the pandemic. He cautioned the pandemic could take Bhutan into recession if measures are not taken now.
“The kind of measures we take are extremely important in order for Bhutan’s economy to stabilize and see through this vulnerable period with the least damage to the economy and lives of our people,” he said.
He said that proper implementation of the measures would be important. “The broader shoulders should carry the biggest load. In this case, the government and shareholders of financial institutions are carrying the biggest load,” he said.
Financial institutions and the government are bearing the cost of interest waiver on a 50-50 basis.
He said that the biggest losers would be the government and shareholders as three months’ interest has been waived off.
“But it’s worth it. After all, what is a financial institution like RICB, BOB or BDBL without a vibrant financial sector in the country? We are what we are because of the economy and borrowers,” he said.
He said that it was in the interest of the financial sector’s own survival that the rest of the economy was supported. The financial sector, he said, was prepared to “preserve” businesses and borrowers.
“Financial institutions will have time to rebuild their balance sheet, but that will depend on the soundness of the economy,” he said, adding that financial institutions were happy to be playing the role.
…from interest waiver and EMI deferment
In shouldering one of the biggest afflictions of the Covid19 pandemic, financial institutions are likely to forego an estimated income on interest to the tune of Nu 1.68B in three months.
This is only half the total interest income for the financial institutions, including the microfinance service providers, the central bank has estimated. An equal portion of the amount comes in as government compensation, meaning that the waiver of the interest for the three months alone comes to around Nu 3.37B.
Announcing the monetary measures in response to Covid19 yesterday, the central bank warned that should the pandemic protract over time, pressure will only heighten across all sectors of the economy while tourism is affected the most.
Monetary measures, however, are aimed at providing short-term relief to sectors facing financial distress in addition to assisting businesses. To complement the monetary measures, the government has also announced fiscal measures deferring the tax payment.
While the RMA said that financial sector is in a position to provide such bold interventions, it will also ensure that the sector remains stable and resilient.
The president of Financial Institutions Association of Bhutan, Karma, said that financial sector has time to rebuild its balance sheet if the economy remains stable. “So, it is in our own interest to do what is right for the economy,” he said.
Deferral and waiver explained
Deferment of loan repayment is a moratorium for repayment of loan installments. Usually when a loan EMI is deposited, a part of the amount is payment against interest accrued and the other is deducted from the principal outstanding. In the subsequent month, a new principal is derived after deducting the repayment made in the previous month. This process follows through until the principal become zero.
Deferral could apply to all loans including employee loan availed by government and corporate employees. However, Governor Dasho Penjore said that employees could choose to continue paying EMIs. In doing so, the entire EMI will go in principal deduction as interest is waived. “There is a big benefit to salaried employees whose incomes are not affected,” Dasho Penjore said.
However, this will directly eat into bank’s profit and shareholders will have to face the impact.
If loans are deferred and no EMIs are deposited, the principal amount remains the same. This means that the principal outstanding in April will be reflected as principal outstanding for the month of June. While there is interest waiver, the central bank clarified that no penal interest will be charged. However, a late fee shall be charged during the deferment period.
The deferment of loans for three months is on all loans except loans to government, inter-bank borrowings and staff incentive loans provided by banks to its employees.
The deferment applies to both performing and non-performing loans. However, interest waiver applies only to performing loans as on February 29. For term loans, overdraft and working capital loans, interest waiver are based on loan outstanding as of April 10. This is the cost that government and financial service providers would share.
FIs will bear additional cost. For instance, the financial sector will be providing additional gestation period of three months in addition to the maximum gestation period specified in the prudential regulations of the RMA. There is also an interest waiver for loans under gestation.
Based on the credibility, business relations and after carrying out proper assessment, financial institutions are also encouraged to provide term-based soft working capital loan for tourism related business. Banks will also use these yardsticks to derive the loan amount.
The tenure in this case is fixed at four years including the gestation period of three months at five percent interest rate. To enable more lending, inter-institutions borrowing are also allowed to facilitate this loan product. This means that banks or other financial service providers can borrow from other financial institutions at four percent to facilitate this loan.
A collateral is required for this term based soft working capital loan but since the loan to value ratio is 100 percent clients can avail loan amounting to 100 percent of the collateral value.
Officials from the RMA said that this loan is to support the tourism-related businesses severely affected by the pandemic. This is why clients have to submit proposals based largely on payroll, rent and utilities with signed commitment that loans will be used to meet operational cost including financing of payroll. To avail this loan, client should maintain a performing loan account as of February 29.
Another kind of loan is aimed at the cottage and small industries (CSI), which will be handled by the National CSI Development Bank. This microloan of up to Nu 500,000 at an interest of 2 percent per annum is aimed at promoting RNR and rural activities.
Working capital loan is also provided to CSI at four percent interest.