We are into the third week since the first Covid-19 positive case was reported in the country. As of now, we have only three positive cases. All are imported.
There is no stone left unturned to stop the spread of the virus. His Majesty The King is providing leadership and guidance. Touring the southern borders, His Majesty is ensuring that Covid-19 or problems related to it is not affecting any Bhutanese.
We are well ahead in terms of preparedness when most countries are overwhelmed with the disease. Our region is prone to pandemic. Population, poverty and ignorance make us vulnerable. It is now predicted that the number of cases could spiral out of control and make South Asia the next epicentre of Covid-19.
It is scary. But we are preparing to the extent that the advice is that there is no harm in being over prepared.
The government is doing everything in its capacity to ensure that the people are safe. They are also calling on the people to cooperate. The citizens are cooperating. Those quarantined for their safety, safety of family, community and the country are sacrificing a lot. One lost a parent when in quarantine and still chose to stay in for the safety of others. The sacrifices are immense.
Covid-19 has brought the economy to a standstill. The private sector is the worst affected. Some businesses have closed door, some have lost jobs some are on the verge of losing. We are beginning to feel the impact. But those affected are not demanding the government to act soon. They know the priority. They are waiting and the government knows they are waiting.
But we are Bhutanese and we come together to face disasters together. The government has not asked for help as yet. But individuals, organisations, associations, well-wishers and even those living far away and affected badly have the country and the people in mind. The contributions, small and big, are encouraging. We can be assured that the Tha Damtsi, a unique character of Bhutanese is still alive.
The story of a shopkeeper sponsoring two mobile phones to students so that they can get access to the online lessons, the story of farmers collecting rice to contribute to hotels serving as facility quarantine and the groups donating television sets are all heart-wrenching. Politics have taken a back seat with political parties supporting the government in its fight to keep the people safe.
With guidance from the helm, we are well aware of our priorities. Our concerns are simple but important. We are concerned about our students missing classes, traders losing business, youth losing jobs and people not getting vegetables. While many countries are not finding quarantine facility, we are even concerned of how to keep ours not only safe but also entertained.
The Prime Minister and his team is calling for cooperation and assuring those affected that there are plans to help them out. Some have already started rolling out. Filing business income and corporate income taxes are deferred, fiscal and monetary policies are being fine-tuned to be announced soon.
As we enter the last week of a busy month, we look forward to a new beginning. Together we can fight Covid-19, together we can rise above all challenges.
This is the Bhutanese spirit.
The right to privacy is a fundamental right under Article 7(19) of our Constitution, which states: “A person shall not be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence nor to unlawful attacks on the person’s honour and reputation”. Article 7(9) gives the right to privacy not only to the person himself or herself but also to the family from arbitrary or unlawful interference. The protection of privacy has become ever more important. With the ever-increasing number of Bhutanese on social media and as the so-called investigative journalism becomes bolder, the vulnerabilities of leakage of personal information to the public is high. In name of investigative journalism or breaking news or to seek popularity on social media by some netizens or to fulfil vested interests, many innocent citizens may become a victim.
Alan Westin defined privacy as “the claim of individuals, groups, or institutions to determine for themselves when, how, and to what extent information about them is communicated to others”. Therefore, the right to privacy is not just protection from divulging personal information but also the right to protect how to divulge and to what extent. This also indicates that, though a person may agree to give his or her personal information, a person who receives the information does not have the right to use the information as one wishes. A scholar said that in a democracy, it is our responsibility to “develop privacy standards that are capable of structuring the right kind of information use”.
This week, the right to freedom of the press and the patient’s right to privacy confronted each other. During one of the Press Conference, some of the journalists questioned the Minister of Health why the information about the first Bhutanese Covid-19 case was kept secret including travel history. The Health Minister responded that the right to privacy of the patient is the priority and there were no benefits out of additional information. The Minister also rightly pointed out that since Bhutanese society is very small and revealing information would make the patient’s identity easy to know. The right to health privacy is among the most important privacy issues because, “certain diseases have long been associated with great stigma (e.g., leprosy, HIV/AIDS); other diseases are correlated in other people’s minds with certain lifestyles and behaviours”. Revealing health information may also pose a threat to the possibilities of getting jobs, reputation and respect within the communities. For example, many might distance themselves from a patient who is diagnosed with Covid-19 in the present case even after she recovers from the disease due to fear of getting infected.
However, should the media or even any person may reveal details of the patient there is no statutory protection of the right of the patient in Bhutan. Further, Bhutan does not have any privacy torts which “provide remedies for intrusions into areas where one is receiving health care or public disclosures of private medical information”. Therefore, it is important to enact a privacy law that will regulate the “confidentiality of the relationship between patients and their physicians or other health caregivers” in the country. The media and individuals must remember that, as per Article 7(2) of our constitution, among others, a person shall not infringe on the rights and freedoms of others which includes the right to privacy.
Sonam Tshering Lawyer, Thimphu
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.
Physical distancing is one of the most effective ways to prevent the transmission of Covid-19. However, many of the public places in Thimphu are facing difficulty in limiting the number of people coming into close contact.
At the Centenary Farmers’ Market (CFM), for example, thousands of people gather every day.
Sherab Lhamo, a vegetable vendor, said was now having to deal with more than 2,000 customers due to panic-buy after Covid-19 cases in the country. “It is risky but without selling vegetables, we have no other sources of income.”
She said that in case there was a Covid-19 case at the market, it would be disastrous. Contact tracing will be difficult. What’s more, vendors faced difficulty in maintaining hygiene and had no time to wash hands frequently.
CFM management has installed four hand-washing facilities at the market’s entrances. Four more is expected by the end of this week. A few days ago, the management also distributed 250 litres of hand sanitisers among the vendors. Four television sets have been installed to provide timely information to the people in the market.
Manager Tshering Tenzin said: “The management has informed people to maintain physical distance but with rush it is difficult to monitor.”
Automobile workshop area in Olakha is facing the same problem. Although the number of visitors thinned after Covid-19 cases in the country, maintaining physical distance is a challenge due to space crunch and nature of work.
In an effort to encourage physical distancing, the referral hospital in Thimphu this week introduced red lines. This is expected to prevent spread of infection, maintain a distance from each other in outpatient and inpatient departments at the hospital.
The banks too are facing the same crowded problem. At the Bank of Bhutan’s branch office in Chubachu, taps have been installed and hand sanitisers at convenient and sensible locations. Visitors are required to register their details at the entrance to make contact tracing easy.
The bank has witnessed about 80 percent reduction in the number of visitors. The bank also has marked red lines for physical distancing.
Public relations and media officer with BOB, Pasang Norbu, said the bank was encouraging digital banking to avoid crowding.
Press release from the Prime Minister’s Office yesterday urged individuals to maintain physical distance at grocery outlets, vegetable markets, fuel depots or other public places such as banks and hospitals. The Road Safety and Transport Authority has been instructed to design and implement strategies for passengers using public transports to maintain physical distance.
“All business entities must ensure and make it conducive for their customers to maintain physical distance. While open-air shows are disallowed, television programmes must be modified for participants to observe physical distance,” the press release stated.
Yesterday, UNICEF Bhutan received USD 450,000 from the Government of Japan to support Bhutan’s efforts to fight Covid-19.
Bhutan Foundation handed over medical supplies and equipment worth Nu 1.13 million to the health ministry.
The donated items include oxygen and therapeutic respiratory apparatus, personal protective equipment, orthopaedic appliances, syringes, surgical equipment, and other disposable medical supplies.
The medical supplies will be distributed to various health facilities and hospitals in Bhutan.
Personal protective equipment and disposable supplies include face masks, hand sanitisers, face shields, disposable gowns, and surgical gloves.
The donated supplies were obtained in partnership with MedShare, an American organisation that sources and delivers medical supplies and equipment to communities around the world.
The Bhutan Foundation has been working in partnership with health ministry over the last decade to develop emergency medical services, provide health services to nomadic populations, and promote public health research in Bhutan.
In appreciation of the hoteliers, who offered their facilities as quarantine centres, DHI and companies have decided that Bhutan Power Corporate (BPC) and Bhutan Telecom Limited (BTL) will provide free electricity and free data services to all private quarantine centres.
“The service is effective for the duration the facilities are used as quarantine centres,” a press release from DHI stated.
According to DHI, the decision to provide free electricity and data services to the quarantine centres was based on the request of the Prime Minister.
Lyonchhen had asked DHI to consider waiver of the electricity bill payment for hotels being used as quarantine centres and reducing the cost of data packages to support continued education with the school facilities being closed.
BPC has identified 76 establishments for free service.
“Besides making data charges free for these quarantine centres, Bhutan Telecom is at the advanced stages of discussion with the Ministry of Information and Communications, and the Ministry of Education. They have generally worked out the technicalities and details,” a press release from DHI stated.
“The proposal is to provide additional data on existing data packages, which will translate into reducing the data charges per unit.”
Tax waiver demands may not be met immediately
The government has already started to provide relief packages to sectors affected by the Covid-19 pandemic even before the economic stimulus plan is announced.
Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering informed the media yesterday that the government was bearing some portion of salaries of affected companies. In return, the companies have been asked not to lay off their employees.
About 12,000 have been affected due to loss of jobs, according to him. The government, he said, would take care of not only those that have lost jobs but also their dependents.
“It is the government’s responsibility to look after the livelihoods of people,” he said.
According to the prime minister, the economic relief package is targeted at affected employees and business enterprises that have incurred huge losses.
As a monetary measure, Section 66 of the Public Finance Act authorises the finance minister to use public funds to defray expenditure of such exceptional nature.
A full report of such expenditure and its impact on the budget policy and fiscal framework statement will be made to Parliament for ratification through the Supplementary Budget Appropriation Bill.
However, a major relief measure in the wish lists of affected enterprises are tax waivers, which needs the prior approval of Parliament.
However, the prime minister said that there were no plans to call a parliament session to discuss the fiscal and monetary relief measures.
Dr Lotay Tshering said that the fiscal and monetary measures that the government was coming up need not be presented in the parliament. “If there are any measures that should be presented to the parliament, it will be done so later,” he said.
An extraordinary session of Parliament can be called if the exigencies of the situation so demand under the Constitution.
The prime minister said the Speaker, the National Council Chairperson and the opposition leader had offered their support to the government if an extraordinary session should be called.
Speaker Wangchuk Namgyel said that an extraordinary session might not be required at this time. “If there is a need, the government will submit a Bill in the Parliament,” he said.
The opposition party’s spokesperson MP Dorji Wangdi said that tax measures would definitely need parliament’s approval. But he added that the government could defer the payment.
The prime minister hinted that the fiscal and monetary measures would be at the policy level, which is within the ambit of executive power. “If legislative decisions are required we are ready to assemble any time,” he said.
He said the parliament session is not yet closed and that members would assemble any time if required.
The closing ceremony, which was supposed to be held on March 6, was deferred after the country confirmed its first Covid-19 in the morning of the same day.
Dr Lotay Tshering said that work on the economic relief package was almost completed. He said that announcement of the plan got delayed as there was a need for some amendments in the original plan.
However, he added that the economic relief package would be different from normal economic stimulus plans. The economic relief plan would be dynamic depending on how the situation will evolve, according to him.
The government, the prime minister said, was working with the joint parliamentary committee on Covid-19. The prime minister said the government was doing more than the committee’s recommendations.
Phub Dem | Paro
The tourism industry is feeling the brunt of the covid-19 crisis and the effects are spreading to small scale industry including handicraft shops, local producers and community service providers like Horse Contractors Association (HCA).
Ponies and handicraft stalls which usually hover over the base of a famous tourist hotspot Taktsang, at this time of the year, is empty today.
Usually a busy street, Paro town wears a deserted look now.
There are 69 handicraft shops in Paro.
According to the executive director of Handicrafts Association of Bhutan (HAB), Chorten Dorji, 90 percent of the shops were closed since March 2.
He, however, said the impact of Covid-19 was felt immediately after its outbreak in China.
He said that the sales dropped by 96.25 percent. “The employees were worried about their monthly salary because most of them were send on unpaid leave.”
HAB compiled an economic impact report under the tourism stimulus package.
The report stated that 95 percent of the shops are operating from rented house and almost 50 percent of the shops have a loan.
A handicraft shop owner in Paro town, Tashi Wangmo, said she opened her shop earlier this week after closing it for two weeks.
The 45-year-old woman, who has been in the business for the last 14 years, said she was expecting to earn some income to take care of her groceries.
As the sole bread earner in a family of six, she said if she continued to stay at home without doing anything, there was no one to take care of the family’s monthly expenditure such as rents and loans.
She has to pay Nu 95,500 as rent for two handicraft shops, a hotel, and her rented home.
Tashi Wangmo said that her savings from the peak season could only cover the expenditure up to April. “What if I can’t pay the rents on time? I can’t afford to lose my shop. I am worried.”
Last year, she earned Nu 70,000 during tsechu. And peak season left her with a net profit of Nu 300,000.
Tashi Wangmo said she is going around the village to sell necklaces and incense sticks.
There are 185 handicraft shops in four dzongkhags of Thimphu, Paro, Punakha, and Bumthang with 526 employees.
The owner of Heritage Handicraft, Tenzin Yeshi, said he had to close his shops a week ago and sent 14 employees on unpaid leave.
Excluding loan repayment, he has to pay Nu 170,000 a month for rent and salary. “I tried exploring alternatives. But there isn’t anything we can do because our business solely depends on tourists,” he said.
Home-based handicraft product suppliers are also affected. There are 190 handicraft producers in the country. The producers include home-based craftsmen, contract weavers, and tailors.
Meanwhile, the members of HCA that provide pony riding services to the tourists in Paro are returning to their farms.
According to the chairman of the HCA, Tshering Phuntsho, the pony services were discontinued after the first positive case in the country.
Although the members’ only source of income was providing pony services, he said that without the business, the members were leasing lands and have started working in fields.
There are 35 members in the association.
During the layoff period, HAB with support from Tourism Council of Bhutan would emphasise on reskilling and upgrading skills in innovative souvenir designing which is expected to reduce the import of handicraft products in the future.
The plan also includes reskilling of handicraft vendors in Taktsang base, Pele-la and handicraft shops in Thimphu and Punakha that are currently dealing with imported crafts.
The interim activity includes an inventory of authentic Bhutanese handicraft product in three dzongkhags-Thimphu, Paro and Trongsa, sales management and basic bookkeeping training, conduct market analysis and prepare integration of the craft sector into the tourism market.
HAB proposed a total budget of Nu 17.98 for the lay off period to provide alternative sources of income for the craft sector.
What can the government do?
HAB recommended the government and the central bank to defer loan repayment of handicraft shops and producers without interest or penalty until the market returns to normal.
It also proposed the government to look into possibilities of reducing or extending monthly rent for those who lost their business and jobs by deferring the loan repayment of landlords.
It also stated that the government should waive off monthly rental of Authentic Bhutanese crafts vendors, and proposed that the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources to employ those workers who were sent on unpaid leave through relevant schemes.
The annual Paro tshechu this year will be a closed-door affair.
Dratshang Lhentshog’s secretary has written to all Lam Netens and principals of monastic schools across the country requesting them to restrict spectators or public gatherings during annual religious festivals.
To help control the spread of Covid-19 pandemic in the country, Dhuenmang Lhentshog, the highest decision making monastic body of Bhutan, decided to allow religious ceremonies related to annual tshechu and mask dances inside the dzong or lhakhang.
However, rabdeys and goendeys (religious institutions) are not allowed to perform Boechhams and culture programmes, which are normally performed at the courtyard of the dzong or lhakhang. Gathering of spectators will not be allowed.
The Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs has also issued a notification stating that any major event including tshechu and religious ceremonies for the year should be conducted inside the Rabdey to avoid public gathering.
To contain the spread of Covid-19, the government has announced the prohibition of all the sports that involve physical contact.
Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said that minimising the people-to-people contact was critically important.
This mean football, volleyball, basketball, archery and degor are all prohibited until further notice.
Prime Minister said that the government was trying hard to discourage public gatherings.
A press release from the Prime Minister’s office stated that the fitness centres such as gym, yoga and meditation centre should ensure minimum attendance.
Response to the announcement has been positive.
Since the first Covid-19 case in the country on March 5, most of the sports federations and associations called off training for athletes. National and international competitions have also been cancelled.
The Mewang Gyalsey Traditional Archery Tournament’s final was also postponed.
Kelzang Wangchuk | Samdrupjongkhar
People in eastern dzongkhags need not worry about ration shortage, as Food Corporation of Bhutan (FCB) is supplying continuous rations to respective dzongkhags.
FCB officials say they would supply 1,895.77 metric tonnes (MT) of rice, 186.83MT of oil and 76.09MT of dhal for the six eastern dzongkhags for three months.
Lhuntse would receive 154.25MT rice, oil 15.20MT and 6.19MT dhal, Mongar will receive 405.63MT rice, oil 39.97MT and 16.28MT dhal while Pemagatshel would get 263.52MT rice, 25.97MT oil and 10.58MT dhal.
Samdrupjongkhar would receive 392.68MT rice, oil 38.70MT and 15.76MT dhal, Trashigang would get 497.57MT rice, oil 48.44MT and 19.73MT dhal while FCB would supply 188.12MT rice, oil 18.54MT and 7.55MT dhal to Trashiyangtse.
According to records maintained by the FCB until March 24, they supplied 26.800MT rice, oil 2.610MT and 1.050MT dhal to Jomotshangkha while they had stocked up 240.119MT rice, oil 35.508MT and 0.367MT dhal at Samdrupjongkhar godown.
FCB supplied 140.742MT rice, oil 6.382MT and 1.497MT dhal to Pemagatshel, Lhuntse received 52.5MT rice, oil 5.5MT and 1MT dhal, Trashiyangtse received 43.650MT rice, 3.200MT oil and 1MT dhal, Mongar received 49.810MT rice, 12.420MT oil and 0.040MT dhal while FCB supplied 232.650MT rice, oil 19.531MT and 9.344MT dhal to Trashigang.
Officials said they would supply the remaining rations within the deadline as they have hired more than 50 private trucks to transport the rations to the respective dzongkhags.
Residents of the eastern dzongkhags say they are not worried about rations as FCB is supplying and stocking up at their respective godowns.
Meanwhile, FCB officials say transporting rations is difficult.
FCB’s regional manager, Pema Wangchuk, said they won’t be able to meet the deadline as it is difficult to transport it along Indian highways because of the lockdown. “About two to three trucks remain stranded along the highways as Indian security officials stop them every day.”
He said Indian security officials do not allow the trucks even if the drives provide the official documents, adding that the mirrors and glasses of the two FCB trucks were broken on March 26.
FCB also faces the labour challenges.
The regional manager said FCB officials and volunteers load and unload the rations at the moment, adding that a group formed by the Samdrupjongkhar thromde community also helps in loading and unloading.
“As we strive to stay ahead of the spread of coronavirus, with His Majesty’s guidance, the government has introduced highest level of preventive measures all along. This includes recent closure of all border gates early this week.
Reinforced by an efficient containment system, the government is making efforts to come out of the pandemic with slightest of burden on the people of Bhutan.
Stepping up the arrangements, and acknowledging importance of minimising contacts among people as effective fight against COVID-19, the government puts forward following restraints to prevent the spread of the disease.
Relevant authorities and agencies are requested to act on the instructions with immediate effect.
Gatherings for religious purposes are discouraged, prompted by the fact that countries have experienced outbreaks from such events.
Gathering at any social events like birthday, wedding or promotion are disallowed.
Picnics or similar outdoor functions are prohibited.
All congregations at work, official dinners, functions or gatherings at workplace eateries are discouraged.
Individuals are required to maintain physical distance from the rest at grocery outlets, vegetable markets, fuel depots or other public places.
While in queue to avail of services like banking or hospital, individuals are required to maintain physical distance.
All non-essential and leisure travels within the country are restricted. Movements in groups, within the towns and communities are also discouraged.
Road Safety and Transport Authority is instructed to design and implement strategies for passengers using public transports to maintain physical distance.
Bhutanese travelling abroad must seek prior approval from Ministry of Foreign Affairs even before you start processing formalities for the travel.
Business and entertainment
All movie theatres, snooker rooms and video parlours should be closed.
All business entities must adjust timing and engage employees in a way that there is no crowding.
All business entities must ensure and make it conducive for their customers maintain physical distance.
While open-air shows are disallowed, television programs must be modified for participants to observe physical distance.
Games and sports
No games or sports that require physical contact like football and basketball are allowed.
Traditional games, including archery and khuru are prohibited in all communities.
Fitness centres like gym, yoga and meditation centres are urged to ensure minimum attendance at a given time for clients to observe adequate distance.
Civil service, corporate, private, and other agencies
Agencies will have to devise and institute “work from home” system.
Agencies are encouraged to use technology for meetings and correspondence of all kind.
In such emergencies, we have no doubt everyone has to shoulder immense workload. We are all expected to work beyond normal office hours. Here, we would like to state that as public servants, one should be guilt-ridden if you are not contributing or are not fully engaged in such times. Irrespective of where you are working from, you must come forward and make the most of your time.
Individual responsibilities in pursuing these actions are highly appreciated and would have lasting impact on government’s efforts to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the country as well as beyond. However, given the fact that we have no room for complacency at this time, those who don’t abide by the instructions will be dealt with strong legal action.
The government will monitor and update the instructions in keeping with evolving situations on the ground.”
@Prime Minister’s Office, PMO Bhutan
… then decides to make voluntary contributions to Covid-19 fund
The Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO) has made numerous recommendations to the government, which includes deferment of loans and taxes for tour operators, in view of the Covid-19 pandemic.
ABTO is hoping that some of the recommendations will be incorporated in its economic relief package that the government is expected to announce soon.
Saying that tourism is the worst-hit sector, the ABTO recently submitted to the government for cost-sharing of the salary of the existing full-time employees on a 50-50 basis between the government and the employer.
The proposed measure, according to the ABTO’s submission, should be implemented for the next six months from April 2020.
The ABTO recommended deferring business income tax (BIT) and corporate income tax (CIT) filing deadline beyond March 31. This was aimed at helping maintain continued cash flow in the sector.
The association has also recommended waiver of BIT and CIT license renewal fee for 2020.
The ABTO is also seeking a complete waiver or 50 percent tax rebate to tour operators once the travel restrictions are lifted.
There is also a plan to seek postponement of sustainable development fee (SDF) on regional tourists.
The ABTO also wants lowering loan interest rates and data charges.
In its monetary recommendations, the association sought working capital loans to facilitate tour operators to cover all of the company’s immediate expenses for the next year.
The ABTO wants the government to provide the capital loans to be made available at a zero or very minimal interest rate and repayment to be done over a period of four years.
The ABTO solicited soft loans for marketing, product development and staff retention after lifting of travel restriction. They sought the soft loans to be interest-free until the return of normalcy.
The association also recommended deferment of loan repayments for one year.
The ABTO also suggested the government to allow cancellation charges as per respective tour operator cancellation policy or individual tour operators’ willingness to refund 100 percent in good faith.
For postponement of trips, allowing tour operators to en-cash excess tour payments maintained with TCB to help in cash flow to pay for rental, salary, utilities and sustain livelihood was the recommendation.
The association has also made its submission to waive 30 percent BIT on the released amount and those tour operators who would like to redeposit the equivalent Ngultrum at a later date to be allowed and deposited amount to be converted into USD.
The executive director of ABTO, Sonam Dorji said that the association has also proposed various training and skills up-gradation programmes for employees and tour operators.
“However, fiscal and monetary measures are crucial parts. We are not expecting all the recommendations to be accepted,” Sonam Dorji said.
He said that he was expecting the economic stimulus packages to be dynamic and unveiled in a few days.
ABTO to make contributions in Covid-19 fund
In view of individuals and organizations coming forth in solidarity with the government to combat Covid-19, the ABTO decided to seek voluntary contributions from members to support the national effort.
“This shall be an act of unprecedented solidarity at a time when our nation and the fellow citizens need helping hands the most,” ABTO states.
The ABTO decision to make the contribution was aimed at galvanising support from other sections of the society and sending the message of national unity and togetherness.
“Any amount you contribute will be meaningful in (the sense) that we come together under the ambit of ABTO to show our empathy, which our fellow citizens will duly acknowledge and appreciate. It is an opportunity to show that we genuinely care and that we shall leave no stone unturned to help avert this looming disaster,” ABTO states.
The ABTO has already received Nu 216,001 from tour operators. The amounts contributed from the individual companies range from Nu 5,000 to Nu 50,000.
To meaningfully engage students amid growing fear of Covid-19, the Ministry of Education (MoE) yesterday launched ‘Bhutan e-Learning’.
Starting today, students from PP to 12 can learn their lessons through television.
The ministry has so far recorded 67 video lessons.
The lessons will be broadcast on BBS two at 9am and BBS one from 12 noon starting today.
For class PP to six, lessons are on English, Dzongkha and Mathematics. For class seven to 12, the lessons are theme-based.
MoE’s Officiating Secretary, Karma Tshering, said that for classes seven to 12, the lessons were based on selective topics from the syllabus.
He said that competency-based questions would be given to assess students’ progress. “There is no exam as such.”
Officiating secretary said that the ministry would discuss with print media to convert the broadcasted lessons so that students do not miss the lessons.
Education Minister Jai Bir Rai acknowledged the concerns shown by the parents and teachers. “Some parents have even bought smartphones for their children because of this initiative. But then parents should also discuss with teachers to engage the children gainfully.”
A book called ‘The guidelines for curriculum implementation plan for education in emergency (EiE)’ was also launched yesterday.
This book contains guidelines on implementation of e-Learning in school education, roles and responsibility of different stakeholders, early childhood care and development and special education needs, non-formal education, reaching the unreached through print media, and volunteer teachers of Bhutan.
Hoteliers expressed quarantine payment should be uniform
Yangchen C Rinzin
The disposable food container that we discouraged people from using for environmental reason is the most wanted packaging material with hoteliers running out of it.
Hoteliers who have their property used as quarantine facilities serve packed food thrice a day besides tea and mineral water. Hotels provide food as per the menu the health ministry provided besides bottled water, tea or coffee in their rooms.
Without the packaging materials available in the local market and the border closed, they cannot restock. “We’re united to help but we need help too. We contacted some of our dealers in Jaigaon but it is not easy to get, as the borders are also sealed,” said a hotelier in Phuentsholing.
Hoteliers quickly said they were not complaining, but sharing a ground reality where they require help to sustain and meet such small, but crucial material to keep the facility running. “We’re also in need of basic toiletries to provide them everyday,” another hotelier said. “Business communities could come together and help or donate, as it’s important to provide only packed food.”
When the first Covid-19 case was detected, a few hotels came forward offering their property as quarantine facility to the government. However, as many Bhutanese started returning to Bhutan, more hotels are used as quarantine facility especially in Thimphu, Phuentsholing, Punakha, and Paro.
Hoteliers wait for payment
Although it has been reported that the Nu 1,000 a day per person is paid t the hotels, hoteliers, it was found, had not received the money as of now.
According to the contract signed between hoteliers and government, government would pay utility bills, internet charges and monthly salary of hotel staff involved the facility on the condition that hotels retain their total staff. However, it does not mention how much would be paid to the hoteliers.
“We’re not demanding for the payment, however, the situation on ground is different and it is crippling us, as we need to buy vegetables and meet other expenses,” a hotel owner said. “The payment has not been finalised yet, no hotel has been paid as of now and we need to pay salary too.”
Many shared that payment should be uniform for all the hotels irrespective of dzongkhags, as they are providing the same services of running the facility.
Many said they are using their own resources and vegetable stocks or supplies to cook food and are now running out of vegetables, as the borders are sealed.
“There is a need of standardised directives on the payment and we’re only requesting for assurance, as we have to keep running,” said a Paro hotelier. “We’re encouraged to help government and to retain staff, we need income.”
Cabinet Secretary, Sangay Duba said that government is well aware of the dire need of packaging materials including vegetables and already working on the modality.
The newly appointed Secretary said that with the sudden announcement of India’s lockdown, there is a need to prepare a mechanism to bring in goods. “We are already working on making use of available local materials from Sarpang.
On the payment, although some of the hotels volunteered, the government has decided to pay all the hotels.
It was decided that a budget hotel will be offered Nu 1,000 per head (bed) and Nu 1,500 for two beds or more, which is inclusive of all charges. Three-star hotels will be offered Nu 1,200 per bed and Nu 2,000 for two beds or more.
Cabinet Secretary said that government would definitely pay and there are quarantine focal appointed in every dzongkhags and they can submit their bill and claim the payment.
“The finance ministry will release the money but no one has submitted the bill,” Cabinet Secretary said. “We’re waiting for the bills.”
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has provided USD 100,000 to support the government’s response to Covid-19 through UNICEF.
“This vital funding will allow UNICEF to procure, deliver and distribute essential medical supplies and equipment in support of the Ministry of Health’s Covid-19 response,” said Dr Will Parks, UNICEF Bhutan Representative.
UNICEF will use the fund to procure, deliver and distribute one Covid-19 laboratory test equipment and medical equipment including personal protective equipment (PPE), and an oxygen concentrator for the Ministry of Health. UNICEF’s expertise is leveraged to support governments globally to procure essential and emergency medical supplies.
ADB’s Country Director Kanokpan Lao-Araya said, “This is ADB’s initial assistance to support the Royal Government of Bhutan’s swift efforts to monitor and contain the Covid-19 pandemic, provide effective treatments, and protect healthcare workers.”
She said that the ADB stands ready to work with the government and development partners to provide additional assistance, including countercyclical support to meet the needs of people most affected.
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
With the lockdown in India, the number of Bhutanese entering Phuentsholing has decreased. Only eight people entered the border town yesterday. All were quarantined.
However, with yesterday’s eight Bhutanese, the coronavirus (Covid-19) response team in Phuentsholing has quarantined a total of 1,050 Bhutanese in different hotels.
Prior to India’s lockdown, RSTA had also arranged 12 buses to pick up Bhutanese from Bagdogra on three different occasions and brought back 368 Bhutanese to Phuentsholing, who are all quarantined. No buses were sent after the lockdown in India.
Government made it mandatory to quarantine Bhutanese entering into the country on March 16. On the first day of mandatory quarantining, Phuentsholing response team quarantined 26 Bhutanese, mostly students returning from Sikkim. They are yet to conclude their 14 days’ quarantine.
Meanwhile, the number of hotels offered as quarantine centres have doubled.
The Hotel and Restaurant Association of Bhutan (HRAB) representative in Chukha, Jigme Tshering said that there are a total of 43 hotels as quarantine centres. The number of beds has increased to 1,477 from 548 beds.
This includes both hotels under the association and others with 35 hotels used as quarantine facilities.
Initially, 22 hotels have offered the facilities. These hoteliers have offered their volunteer services and just asked for a minimal fee of Nu 600 for the three meals per day.
However, in his recent visit to Phuentsholing, the Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering met with the hoteliers and promised to top-up the charges with the condition that hoteliers retain their staffs.
“Can we go to the hospital?”
“Will there be a flight to pick us up?”
“Any symptoms with the guide and the driver?”
The questions are many. And this is through messages, just to Kuensel on Facebook. With the demand for information in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, Kuensel’s editors, reporters and the layout team are engaged in answering endless queries. We do not have all the answers and so refer them sometimes to the relevant agencies or direct them their websites.
If the questions are many and there are information. The only problem is it is not managed well and not channelled effectively.
Covid-19 has become a pandemic; the flow of information has caused an infodemic, an excessive amount of information. And this is not helping those who want information. It is creating confusion, misinformation, and even panic. The biggest irony is information to quell panic is exactly doing the same. This is a communication crisis.
Since the first case of Covid-19 was reported in the country, all eyes and ears are on the disease. Any information related to the new coronavirus is welcomed, shared and talked about.
This has led to competition among agencies to break the news first or share it. The sources are many and the temptation of relaying them through Facebook, the most preferred social media medium, has become hard to resist.
Any information, whether from the ministries, the prime minister’s office or other agencies is first released on Facebook, which is then shared and re-shared. Mainstream media picks it from there when missed or break it when it can independently confirm the piece of information.
Is it helping the purpose? It is a big no.
From the questions coming from people who really need information, it can be surmised that the way information is shared had not helped anyone except for giving a greater dose of dopamine, a substance the brain release when for instance you see your post on social media shared or liked. This is not the intention.
Some information leads to panic even if it is not intended. There is no ban on import of vegetables. The borders are closed but the government has measures to ensure supply. The panic-buying at all vegetable markets resulted from not having clear information or not disseminating it in the correct way.
We have recorded only three positive cases until today. All are imported. The precautionary measures have disrupted life. There are restrictions and people need information to get through their daily lives.
Each agency circulating notifications or announcements through Facebook is not helping anyone. What we don’t need today is misinformation spreading faster than new coronavirus.
What we could have today and sort out the information jam is a centralised dedicated agency or a website where all queries could be answered real time. That way, we need not refer people to Drukair for flight information, agriculture department for information on essentials, or the trade ministry on fuel or LPG.
A lot of problems could be solved with good communication management, which then could spare time, energy and resources for important agencies to focus on the problem.
Tshering Namgyal | Mongar
Business is usual in Mongar although the number of people visiting the town has been on a decline amidst the Covid-19 scare.
Businesses had been hit, but the groceries and shops are well stocked even if there is a sudden rush for essentials. Choney Wangmo of Phuntsho Rabgay Trader, a prominent grocer in Mongar town, said some villagers and civil servants started buying three to five bags of rice after the border lock down.
Choney said she stocked more than three truckloads in addition to her regular consignment. Her problem is in the increase in transportation cost. “A truck is charging now charging around Nu 50,000 to reach a load to Mongar from Phuentsholing via Thimphu, which is more than double the charge of Nu 24,000 via Nganglam highway,” she said. “While we are mandated to not increase the price, I don’t think we can stock more than what is brought in by our two trucks,” she said.
Another grocery shop owner, Pem Zangmo said stocked more than five truckloads of goods. Her two trucks have been stranded for about a week in Phuentsholing because there are no labourers to load goods.
The people of Mongar need not worry as the Food Corporation of Bhutan’s Mongar depot has 405.63 metric tonnes (MT) of rice, 39.93MT of edible oil, and 16.28MT of pulses.
FCB’s Mongar depot manager, Birkha Bdr Darjee said more than five trucks ferrying essential goods reach the depot every week and the whole stock is expected to reach Mongar within April. He said the stock would be maintained at the depot that has a capacity of 800MT. The remaining will be stocked in schools.
While some shops, dzongkhag and regional offices have kept hand sanitiser and hand washing facilities, most of the residents in Mongar town are not worried about the virus.
Not many bother to take part in the awareness programmes. In the recent awareness programme conducted for town residents in the middle of the town, there were only about 20 people.
Thromde thuemi Namgay Dorji and BCCI member Tawchu said there are more than 200 shopkeepers in the town and they were reluctant to attend although they were informed.
“We are planning to go shop to shop to advocate on the precautionary measures,” Namgay Dorji said.
Meanwhile, a passenger bus plying from Mongar to Samdrupjongkhar has been stranded since yesterday without passengers. RSTA officials said the bus is likely to resume on Sunday.
Chimi Dema | Gelephu
Vehicles ferrying food and other essential items to Gelephu are allowed movement from across the borders despite the 21-day lockdown in India.
As of March 25, a truck carrying Liquid Petroleum Gas and six fuel tankers were allowed movement after about a three-hour stop in Assam.
Four trucks were allowed to transport food stocks from India.
Officials with Bhutan Oil Distributors said that they had been at the Gelephu-Datgari checkpoint since 9am on March 25.
“But we had to wait until noon due to movement restriction,” an official said.
The movements of authorised vehicles continued without interruption as of yesterday.
At the border gate, officials and volunteers on duty disinfect vehicles and screen drivers.
As a Covid-19 preventive measure, drivers cannot come out of the vehicle while unloading goods.
No Bhutanese from across the borders had entered the country since March 25.
Meanwhile, Sarpang has so far quarantined 183 people including 65 at home. Majority of them are students who have returned from colleges in India.
Many of those quarantined at home have returned even before the move came into effect, said Sarpang Dzongdag Karma Galay. “They were advised to comply with the standard operating procedure of quarantine.”
To ensure strict compliance, health workers and police personnel make timely visit.
Dzongdag Karma Galay said that 16 hoteliers volunteered to offer their facilities as quarantine centres.
Only four hotels were used for as of now, he said.
The hotels are giving all rooms for free but a minimal charge of Nu 350 for three meals per person per day.
Dzongdag said that the response plans were being discussed to enhance surveillance, tighten border control, and to strengthen preventive and response measures.
Security personnel are being deployed at all the entry points to ensure effective surveillance.
Centenary Farmers Market (CFM) in Thimphu had run out of chilies yesterday even at an exorbitant rate of Nu 400-500 per kilogram.
In two days’ time, the Office of Consumer Protection (OCP) has received 36 complaints related to price escalation of vegetables.
A kilogram of chili normally costs Nu 100 to 200. Following Agriculture Minister Yeshey Penjor’s Facebook announcement about temporary restriction on imported vegetables in the wake of Covid-19, there was a sudden rush at the market and subsequent price rise.
A customer said that the authorities should check and monitor the vegetable prices. “Most of the vegetables now cost double the normal price now. “Last Saturday, a kilogram of cauliflower was Nu 80. Now it is Nu 150.”
Yesterday, a man walked into the Bhutan Agriculture and Food Regulatory Authority’s (BAFRA) office. He said that the price of doma had increased from Nu 40 to Nu 100 within a day.
Chief programme officer of OCP, Jigme Dorji, said that upon receiving information about the price hike on the vegetables, particularly chilies, the department deployed teams to the vegetable markets and advised the vendors to refrain from charging unreasonable prices.
He said brokers and agents inflated the price and the office was tracing them to establish the rationale behind price hike.
To avoid price escalation and hoarding of essential commodities in the market, OCP in collaboration with other departments of the economic affairs’ ministry has formed teams to carry out regular market surveillance and monitoring.
The team is expected to sensitise business entities on legal requirements to engage in fair trade practices and to avoid charging unreasonable prices and also to educate them on the consequences of unethical trade practices.
“The office has directed the regional trade and industry office to form teams in collaboration with dzongkhag, drungkhag and gewog administrations to continue carrying out similar tasks,” Jigme Dorji said.
A BAFRA official said that vendors did not have a choice when the brokers raised the price of the vegetables. “The broker might pay Nu 100/kg to a farmer but he charges Nu 350 from the vegetable vendors.”
He also said that the sellers could be taking advantage of the situation when there is rush to the market to panic-buy.
The Department of Agriculture (DoA), in a move to encourage local production yesterday, announced that the department in collaboration with the National Land Commission and Thimphu Thromde was mobilising land and other resources. Land would be made available for people to be used as kitchen garden.
DoA will carry out initial land development and seed supply activities. Interested individuals and laid-off workers can apply for land.
“Tourism Council of Bhutan is coordinating with the tourism companies to engage laid-off workers in agriculture,” says DoA’s announcement.
Yesterday evening, agriculture ministry issued a notification stating that the ministry did not issue official notification banning the import of fruits and vegetables and the public should not be confused. Import, however, will be subject to coronavirus containment protocols at entry points.