Could we put the economy on hibernation mode?
Covid-19 comes with a brutal double whammy. If we go out and work, it makes us sick, if we stay home our economy crumbles. With no end in sight to this disease anytime soon, it has everyone worried about how long we can remain cooped up and if we can sustain an extended distancing behind closed doors . Across the globe as countries miss the early window of containment, the virus rages on and so does the economic contingent. Both are equally deadly. If the German finance minister has to take his own life, unable to cope with the gravity of the situation, it speaks volumes about how deep our troubles really are.
Hibernation, a colleague proposed recently. Put the economy on hibernation. Arctic frogs remain suspended in frozen environment with minimal energy expense. When the conditions become right they come to life and hop on with their usual business. Can we do this to our economy? We have a small experience from our rupee crisis period when many restrictions were put in place. But this time it would be on an unprecedented scale.
Thanks to the quick responses of our leaders, Bhutan has been highly effective with our containment efforts until now. We are also blessed with a strong leadership and low population density. Our partial restrictions look far better than full lockdowns of many other countries. Partial restrictions if managed properly may be better because we need to keep our vitals running while maintaining a flattened infection curve. Although, given the available health facilities in the country, the curve may have to be quite flat. Our health workers, civil servants, teachers, power plants, banks, telcos, police, army, farmers, transport and such other vital activities have to be kept functional. Many of these jobs can be also carried out from home maintaining the required distance. While these life giving activities are currently sustained, we have already shut down many of our economic activities. As things slow down we will have to start tightening our belts.
Our taste for imported liquor has to change and we may have to give up our dreams of a new Prado. Pay cuts and job losses will be the new normal. As things slow down, the first institutions to be impacted will be the Banks and they are vital to the economy. As much as many hate them, we also need them. With no income from tourism and increasing loss of jobs, our Banks biggest credit basket that comprises tourism, housing and industries will be hit hard. As NPL sky rockets, their capital and reserves will not be able to support such losses. This can lead to insolvency tradings and run on the banks in the worst possible time.
However, a silver lining arises from three factors. Much to the dismay of the World Bank, IMF and pressure from the business sector, banks in Bhutan carry a hold on a significant amount of property mostly in the form of land and building as security. They have stubbornly held on to this practice. Another cushion comes from RMA refusing to adopt IFRS accounting system and their stringent requirements on provisioning. Because of this, the NPL amount is not netted off against the value of the properties held towards bad loans. The third factor is our high lending rates. This is where the Government and RMA can step in. Now these stumbling blocks of economic growth has the potential to become the building blocks to prop up the economy. The Government can leverage on the properties and provide sovereign guarantee. RMA can then relax on the NPL and make coordinated efforts with all Banks to bring down interest rates, on both lending and deposits at the same time. RMA can also relax guidelines on defer payments, reamortization, extension of repayment terms, all designed to reduce EMI. Suspension of interest where required may be also enforced. Government can then mandate landlords to reduce rents by the same proportion. To make it sustainable, Banks may have to reduce salaries of their own but this would be indirectly compensated by reduced house rents and reduced EMI.
Everyone needs a shelter. With dwindling income of individuals and landlords pressed by banks for repayment, it would be impossible to maintain extended stay home policies without causing too much social distress. Affordable housing may be one of the most effective and immediate ways of easing the economic burden on individuals. All without the Government having to spend a Cheltrum.
Covid-19 has taught us how vulnerable we are in terms of food shortage. We have huge employment opportunities in farming, but we need strong policies and our workforce needs to be reskilled. We have our construction sector presenting even bigger opportunities. Unfortunately, we are all in the unchartered territories, and no one is quite sure what to do or how this will end. Psychologists say there are three kinds of people. Those who panic and go on hoarding toilet papers on one end. At the other end are those who are scared but the only way they know how to deal with it is to defy it and they are the ones who ignore social distancing. The best are the one in the Goldilocks zone who are cautious, prepared and willing to deal with it. Unlike the US, we do not have 2 trillion, that could sustain Bhutan for a thousand years at our current GDP, but we may be able to slow down and partially hibernate.
The Covid-19 pandemic is putting enormous strains on the public health systems around the world, and millions of people in the world’s most advanced economies are in some form of quarantine.
We know the human toll will be high, and that massive efforts to turn the tide carry a heavy economic cost.
To reduce the risk of an even greater toll – shortage of food for millions, even in affluent countries – the world must take immediate actions to minimize disruptions to food supply chains.
A globally coordinated and coherent response is needed to prevent this public health crisis from triggering a food crisis in which people cannot find or afford food.
For now, Covid-19 has not entailed any strain on food security, despite anecdotal reports of crowded supermarket sieges.
While there’s no need for panic – there is enough supply of food in the world to feed everyone – we must face the challenge: an enormous risk that food may not be made available where it is needed.
The Covid-19 outbreak, with all the accompanying closures and lockdowns, has created logistical bottlenecks that ricochet across the long value chains of the modern global economy.
Restrictions of movement, as well as basic aversion behaviour by workers, may impede farmers from farming and food processors (who handle most agricultural products) from processing. Shortage of fertilizers, veterinary medicines and other input could also affect agricultural production.
Closures of restaurants and less frequent grocery shopping diminish demand for fresh produce and fisheries products, affecting producers and suppliers, especially smallholder farmers, with long-term consequences for the world’s increasingly urbanized population, be they in Manhattan or Manila.
Uncertainty about food availability can induce policymakers to implement trade restrictive measures in order to safeguard national food security.
Given the experience of the 2007-2008 global food price crisis, we know that such measures can only exacerbate the situation.
Export restrictions put in place by exporting countries to increase food availability domestically could lead to serious disruptions in the world food market, resulting in price spikes and increased price volatility.
In 2007-2008, these immediate measures proved extremely damaging, especially for low income food deficit countries and to the efforts of humanitarian organizations to procure supplies for the needy and vulnerable.
We should all learn from our recent past and not make the same mistakes twice.
Policy makers must take care to avoid accidentally tightening food-supply conditions.
While every country faces its own challenges, collaboration – between governments and the full gamut of sectors and stakeholders – is paramount. We are experiencing a global problem that requires a global response.
We must ensure that food markets are functioning properly and that information on prices, production, consumption and stocks of food is available to all in real time. This approach will reduce uncertainty and allow producers, consumers, traders and processors to make informed decisions and to contain unwarranted panic behaviour in global food markets.
The health impacts of the unfolding Covid-19 pandemic on some of the poorest countries are still unknown. Yet, we can say with certainty that any ensuing food crisis as a result of poor policy making will be a humanitarian disaster that we can avert.
We already have 113 million people experiencing acute hunger; in sub-Saharan Africa, a quarter of the population is undernourished. Any disruptions to food supply chains will intensify both human suffering and the challenge of reducing hunger around the world.
We must do everything possible to not let that happen. Prevention costs less. Global markets are critical for smoothening supply and demand shocks across countries and regions, and we need to work together to ensure that disruptions of food supply chains are minimized as much as possible.
Covid-19 forcefully reminds us that solidarity is not charity, but common sense.
Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
Students in remote Bhutan try to not miss out
Neten Dorji & Tshering Namgyal
On a high ridge above the village, 16 students are in a class. The students have walked for about a kilometre to the ridge. It will be their classroom until they return to school.
Without television or mobile network, the students of Yobinang, Shongphu gewog, decided to not miss the online class or the e-learning programme. It has been their routine since March 27.
Eldest in the group, Tashi Choden, is the informal captain and guide the others. When it rains, they stay home to complete the homework.
Parents had been cooperative. They let the children use the mobile phones. Some have borrowed their relative’s.
“Without access to Internet services and television, it is an extra burden,” said Tashi Choden. The students bring lunch and return only when the day’s task is completed.
Carrying an old carpet, Mendrel Zangmo was on her way home. She missed two classes after teachers started e-learning lesson. “Without access to the internet, I could not submit homework and assignment on time,” she said. “Sometimes, it takes time to download and upload homework and assignments.”
Another student, Sonam Choden said she could only understand half of the lesson uploaded by teachers. “It is better in the classroom where I can clear my doubts with teachers and friends,” said Sonam.
When the internet speed is poor, students return home with extra burden of completing the day’s lesson the next day.
When they run out of data, they travel to Rangjung, 10 kilometres away. The lucky ones can call their relatives to recharge electronically.
Worried that their children could be left out, parents are supportive of the new learning idea.
A mother, Pema Choden, said that they support and monitor their children. “We cannot guide them in their daily lessons, but we let them study,” she said.
In Mongar, Karma Yangden and her brother Karma Phuntsho are luckier. A new 32 inch flat television set sits in their sitting room. Their parents bought the new set to ensure they have access to the televised lessons.
Sangay Dema, the mother said lightning damaged her old screen. She didn’t bother to replace it until she realised that her children would have to depend on it when schools remained closed. The small saving from the sale of farm produce was spent on the Nu 19,000 screen.
Sangay Dema had also had bought new phones to her two children. At the moment, the farmer’s priority is to not let her children miss the lessons. “It is expensive,” she said. “Sometimes they together finish about Nu 300 worth of internet vouchers,” she said.
Sangay had sent her youngest son studying in Class V to stay with her sister in Wangling village and help her with the cost.
“I am concerned with their studies and spend whatever we have for their education. But I don’t know how long we can afford,” said the mother. “Free internet connection for students would benefit us.”
She said that due to overburdening, she had to send her youngest son studying in class V to her sister’s place at Wangling village.
Parents are finding that television sets or mobile phones are not solving the problem. They said students in lower classes couldn’t keep up with the lessons. “Without someone to guide them it is like watching any other programme,” said a mother, Damchoe. “There is no point if we sit with them and watch. We don’t know what is being said.”
Some students complained of lack of proper internet network hampering their lesson plans.
Thursday, April 2 — He’s done his morning prayers and breakfast too. It is 9am. In about 30 minutes from now he is going to be out briefly for physical exercise. This is a regimen Namgay Dorji, 41, has designed for himself to kill time.
This is Namgay Dorji’s 17th day in Kichu Resort in Paro, one of the many Covid-19 quarantine centres in the country. He continues to educate people on the importance of quarantine by live streaming events from the centre.
“The day I landed in Paro, I got really worried,” says Namgay Dorji. “I did not know what quarantine was. I thought I might get locked up in a dark room with no access to the outside world.”
That was after he picked up the Kuensel issue of the day onboard the Drukair. He had gone to Kathmandu in Nepal. His wife, from Hong Kong, was supposed to fly in to Paro but Bhutan had by then announced a ban on tourists and foreigners. Law Yee Mui had to fly back to Hong Kong.
Namgay has become more health-conscious since then. He does 30 push-ups in a day, some stretching and serious fast walking. A golf aficionado, he feels he is now fast becoming a Himalayan yogi.
“To keep myself sane, I talk to my wife every day. She is doing fine. And I talk to my mother,” says Namgay. But he is determined to educate the people in his own simple ways.
Chimi Wangmo, Namgay’s 85-year-old mother, worries about her son. Namgay calls her every day to assuage her pain. What quarantine is, she doesn’t know. She thinks her son’s done something really bad and is locked up in a cell.
“The moment I landed in Paro I called her. That was 17th of March. I told her I would be home after 14 days. She is good with numbers. Now that quarantine period has been extended, she is more worried,” says Namgay. “She is now really beginning to believe that I have come in conflict with law.”
Mui is worried too. She feels that she put her husband through all these complications unnecessarily.
“Our King and the government have done so much already to keep our people safe. So I decided to educate people on the importance of quarantine from my room every day. That’s the least I can do. It struck me suddenly that there could be many people like me who did not understand what quarantine was,” says Namgay. “When we are going through such difficult times, I thought I could contribute in my small ways to educate the people.”
It is a lot better now. In the beginning, Namgay was even accused of bringing Covid-19 into the country. “That did not bother me. I knew fear would make us more vulnerable. Positive messages and stories are critically important.”
Rich and powerful are messing things up, says Namgay. And this is the real danger facing the country today. Bhutan now has the fifth Covid-19 positive cases. The recent one could have been the most dangerous. Information about it is scarce still. Why?
“I have not missed one live streaming since my first day in the centre. I can handle it all right but young people might need some counselling services. Passing time in the quarantine centres can be very difficult,” says Namgay. “I have always been a religious person. Prayers keep me sane.”
When Namgay first began live streaming, he was met with criticisms galore. Some called him the bringer of Covid-19. Others called him thankless and rude.
“The fact is we still need some serious Covid-19 education. That’s why my main focus is on creating awareness,” says Namgay. “The danger is when people disregard health advisories.”
Covid-19 positive cases are growing in the world. The latest is this: 966,702 cases worldwide and 49,290 deaths. The total recovered cases stand at 203,535.
“I have not contracted the disease and am confident that I will walk out clean. But I am a citizen who is deeply worried. How do the rich and powerful people get out, though? This is the biggest risk facing the country today,” says Namgay. “Irresponsibility at this time should be counted as treason.”
When Namgay had to convince his mother that he won’t be home until after 21 days in Paro, she became more suspicious. He must now prove that he’s done nothing wrong and that he is not detained by the police.
He does this every day, only she forgets.
Heading to wash his clothes, says Namgay: “I have now become a serious laundryman. Whoever puts the people of this country in danger must be punished, severely.”
Repair works of most houses yet to begin
Nim Dorji | Trongsa
Although Trongsa dzongkhag administration in collaboration with Mangdechhu project has completed the estimation of rectification and maintenance of cracks developed in Kuengarabten, the most affected houses are yet to begin repair.
Local residents complained of cracks on their homes and roads last year and blamed the project’s blasting and tunnel which passes close to the village. The project with officials from the geology and mines department conducted an investigation which reported that the cracks were not because of the project. The project authority agreed to help affected households with compensation.
On January 8, it was decided that cracks on the road and houses in Kuengarabten in Trongsa would be repaired before February 15 during a consultation meeting between the members of households and the authorities.
Without any progress, the gewog administration notified the dzongkhag administration to depute an engineer to carry out an assessment and to work out a cost estimation.
Dzongkhag administration and MHPA carried out the damage estimation of the nunnery and private residential houses.
It was learnt that repair works at the Kuengarabten nunnery began on January 29 and MHPA deputed officials to monitor the works. Repair works would cost about Nu 1.5M for the nunnery.
A house near the road, which has suffered major cracks, would be demolished and reconstruction would cost about Nu 1.9M.
However, some affected people are not aware when the repair works would start and are worried, as monsoon is nearing.
A resident said that officials come to inspect every five to 10 days but they are not informed on when the repair works would begin. “We heard estimation of two affected houses are complete and one has started the work, but when we ask about ours, officials say that the cracks are small and the soil should be stabilised.”
MHPA would be funding more than 4 million (M) to repair and rectify the affected houses.
MHPA’s joint managing director, Chencho Tshering, said most of the major works are works are completed and the fund is also ready. “Everything will be completed in two to three weeks.”
He said funds would be released once the works start.
It was learnt that cracks on the ground would be filled using compaction to avoid water seepage. A team was also deployed to check soil movements and sensors are being used in some houses near the road to check vibration.
Amid growing apprehension about Covid-19, Bhutanese of all walks of life have come forward to make their contributions – some in cash and others in kind.
Within days of the first Covid-19 positive case on March 5, contributions started pouring despite the government saying it was not calling for any budget support.
Samtse Dzongkhag Tshogdu became the first dzongkhag tshogdu to contribute Nu 151,000 to His Majesty’s Kidu Fund for Covid-19 yesterday.
Bhutan Cricket contributed USD 10,000 to the fund in response to support and fight against Covid 19 yesterday.
Retired Armed Force Officer Association of Bhutan contributed Nu 600,000 to the fund.
Different religious groups made their contributions. Padmacholing Religious Association contributed Nu 1 million to the office of the Prime Minister on April 1.
The 2020 Bhutan Super League champions, High Quality United FC donated Nu 150,000 to the Covid-19 fund the same day.
The 8-Eleven Supermarket donated Nu 600,000 to the Prime Minister’s office. The Bank of Bhutan Gedu branch donated Nu 543,427 to the office of vice chancellor on March 25. The amount was deducted from the staff’s salary and donation.
Traders of Gelephu also contributed to the Covid-19 response account on April 1. Dugar grocery contributed Nu 111,111.1, Gewar Chand cloth shop and grocery shop donated Nu 90,000 each. Moreover, Deki grocery shop contributed Nu 50,051, Gakey Tshongkhang Nu 50,000, and Ladon Tshongkhang gave Nu 50,000.
Drongseb Yargay Detsen from Doonglagang gewog under Tsirang contributed 1,000kg of various vegetables to the government yesterday.
“As we remain grateful to everyone helping to combat Covid-19, this contribution is a small gesture in appreciation and support to the government,” a member of the 16-farmer group said.
The World Food Programme has donated two mobile storage units in support of the government’s Covid-19 preparedness and response. The facility will be used to help authorities preposition food to meet the needs of half the population for three months.
The storage units, with a capacity of 500MT each and worth a total of USD 45,000 were part of a technical assistance package provided to the government as the country faces an imminent emergency due to the pandemic.
The Khenrig Namsum community-based scouts in Tingtibi, Zhemgang contributed Nu 15,000 to the government for Covid-19 relief on April 1.
Rajesh Rai | Samtse
Samtse dzongkhag monitoring of people’s movements along the border stretches in the battle against Covid-19 is becoming a herculean task given countless informal and illegal points of entries.
There are 44 points of entries, including the main checkpoints, which are manned but there are many other informal border areas from where movement of people could go unnoticed.
Samtse residents say that in many of the informal points, it is even difficult to identify which side is Bhutan and India, making it difficult to control the movement of people.
However, desuups, police, gewog officials, civil servants, and local volunteers are monitoring the areas day and night.
At Norbugang, cow herders from across the border sneak into Bhutan to graze their cattle and many come to smuggle alcohol.
A desuup, Dorji Wangchuk, who is a teacher, said people try to sneak in with their cattle.
“We ask them to return after giving awareness and sensitivity about Covid-19,” he said, adding that such cases have decreased now.
Although there are rumours about alcohol being smuggled from Bhutan, no one has been caught red-handed.
Norbugang gup Kuenga said local volunteers that include gewog administration officials, civil servants, and villagers patrol the borders from 5pm to 9pm before being taken over by desuups.
Desuups patrol the areas from 8am to 9pm. They also monitor in the night.
Gup Kuenga Wangdi said that people are taking the battle against the virus responsibly.
“Local people are also providing food and snacks for the volunteers.”
Tashichholing gup Samir Giri said the biggest challenge is the porous border. He said there are two reasons people from across the border come into Bhutan—to earn and to buy alcohol.
“With the lockdown, the neighbours are in distress and they know the routes to enter into our country,” he said. “As earning isn’t an option anymore, people come to buy the alcohol.”
Local residents say people from across the border even come to Bhutan to mill their rice, as it was cheaper. Some are even coming to collect edible snails, fishes and to hunt.
“As of now we are being vigilant but there are challenges,” the gup said.
Yoeseltse gup Ganga Prasad Limbu said there about eight illegal routes in his gewog itself.
“There are countless routes to enter, he said. “In some areas, families from our side and their side share courtyards so close that children cross over to play.”
He said entry points from where people frequently move are monitored but other stretches are being missed.
“But we are doing everything to control movement.”
Ganga Prasad Limbu said the gewog is planning to place local people as volunteers to increase vigilance.
Local supplies unable to meet demand
The ongoing lockdown in India has led to a shortage of doma (areca nut) and paney (betel leaves) in the market.
Pan shops in Thimphu have run out of imported doma and paney. The unavailability of the goods will lead to a decline in their income, shopkeepers say.
However, local suppliers are trying to fill up the gap by procuring them from within the country. While the paney is available in most dzongkhags, doma is found only in some dzongkhags that share the border with India.
A wholesaler at the Centenary Farmers’ Market in Thimphu, Sherub Tenzin, said he was receiving his supplies from Sarpang. He said that the country has enough doma and paney if harvested.
The wholesaler, who comes from Sarpang, said that paney were found in abundant in most gewogs of his dzongkhag. The betel leaves are found in the forests of Trongsa, Punakha, Tsirang and Dagana, among other dzongkhags.
“We can be self-sufficient in both doma and paney. We export doma grown in our country and import them at a higher price,” he said.
A bundle of paney cost between Nu 35 to Nu 100 depending on the size and quality.
Another vendor at the market said that she was receiving her supply from Gedu. She said that each bunch of her betel leaves cost Nu 5 in Gedu but that she had to sell it at Nu 35 due to transportation costs.
However, it has been difficult for suppliers to meet the demand with local betel leaves.
A pan shop owner in Thimphu said that she had not sold doma for few days due to lack of betel leaves. She said that she had asked for betel leaves from Samtse.
Moreover, locally available betel leaves do not have shelf life. Imported ones come in proper packages, which can be stored for days.
The lack of imported leaves in the market has also given the opportunity to earn some income. Sources in dzongkhags said that many farmers have been combing the jungles for betel leaves.
A vendor from Samtse said that he was supplying both doma and paney leaves to Thimphu. He said that the business was picking up rapidly.
The government has not officially banned their import from the neighbouring Indian states.
There is call to come together in our fight against the threat of the new coronavirus. The support has been widespread with Bhutanese involving in it in one way or another.
It will exactly be a month this Saturday since we first detected the first case of Covid-19 in the country. The reaction, preparedness and the continued effort to save Bhutanese have enabled us to manage the threat.
Like anywhere in the world, the direct impact is on the economy as lockdown and shutting borders slow down economy. The government is in the final stages of readying an economic stimulus plan. There are surveys being conducted and plans made to help those affected by the impact on the economy.
Apart from those in the private sector, especially the service and trading sector, the salaried group is cushioned. The expectation was that the government would be overwhelmed by requests of subsidies, exemptions and handouts.
Surprisingly, the movement is to support the government. From vegetables to house rent waivers, personal protection equipment and cash in the millions, the support has been varied and widespread. This week alone, big and small business houses in the country contributed millions to the Covid-19 Response Fund and to His Majesty’s Kidu Fund for Covid-19.
Individuals, groups, organisation and even religious institutions have come together to support the country’s effort to keep its people safe. The hotel industry that was hit first and hardest is offering their property to be used as quarantine facilities. Farmers are collecting rice and cereals to supply to the hotels to feed those in quarantine.
His Majesty The King, leading on the frontline, has set the priority. His Majesty had said that the health and safety of the people of Bhutan is of the greatest priority, and as such, every measure necessary to safeguard the people is put in place.
The vision is clear and the Bhutanese have understood it. The message is clearer- that the people want to be a part in our fight against Covid-19. We cannot conduct concerts or other fund raising events because gathering is discouraged. Therefore, it is left to individuals or groups or organisations. And everybody is coming forward.
One common occurrence during times like this is the risk of over zealous supporters competing with each other in their contributions. We should not make people reluctant volunteers. There are some complaining of forced contributions and cuts from salaries. This should be discouraged. Contributions, whether rice or cash, should come from the heart, not imposed.
At the individual level, the biggest contribution is listening to authorities that are trying to prevent an outbreak in the country. Observing social distancing, avoiding gathering in groups or as simple as washing hands with soap and clean water is seen as no lesser than million ngultrum contribution.
We have four confirmed Covid-19 cases, but not one is from community infection, which is a bigger threat. The biggest contribution from each Bhutanese would be preventing a mass community infection. The risk is real. Cases in the neighbouring Indian states are on the rise everyday. The WHO has warned of mass community infection in our region.
Preventing this in Bhutan would be the greatest contribution at all levels.
Centres in Thimphu alone produce 250 bags of waste daily
On average, Greener Way collects 250 bags of waste from the quarantine centres across Thimphu every day.
The amount of waste generated is expected to only increase. As of yesterday, there were 121 quarantine centres in the country according to the health ministry.
For instance, if there are 50 centres in Thimphu, the daily waste generated from these centres is 12,500 bags.
Within three days, a quarantine centre produced 23 bags of food waste and 43 bags of dry waste. The designated official who oversees the proper collection of waste at the centre, Bhawani Shankar said that the majority of dry waste was generated from food packaging and packaged snacks. The wastes are disposed of once in three days after disinfecting them.
He said that there are designated areas marked in red from where Greener Way collects it. It is then completely burnt for five hours in Hejo.
However, few people complained about the pollution from open-pit burning.
Project Manager at the health ministry, Sonam Tenzin, said that according to World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, only the waste from positive cases should be incinerated or burnt but the country is taking extra precaution to contain the spread of Covid-19 outbreak. “We are one step ahead in managing the waste.”
“Burning is the safest method as Bhutan does not have other alternatives such as incinerators,” he added.
Chief of waste management division in the National Environment Commission (NEC), Thinley Dorji, said that the trend of waste generated is increasing with the Covid-19 pandemic. As per international best practices, infectious waste is autoclaved and incinerated.
Thinley Dorji said that the country doesn’t yet have an incinerator and burning is the safest method to curb the infection. “People may complain about pollution from burning but it is better than spreading the virus by improper disposal of such hazardous waste.”
Prime Minister’s Office instructed NEC to procure an incinerator to manage infectious waste and the commission is working on it, he said, adding the installation of an incinerator was in the National Waste Management Flagship Programme but had to be fast-forwarded on the urgent need basis.
Greener Way CEO Karma Yonten said that the collectors were cautious while handling the waste. The four waste collectors work from 9am until 11pm. He said that as the thromde and the health ministry faced a shortage of human resource, the company volunteered to collect and manage the waste.
“We are handling the waste according to the general guidelines but it is risky for our workers although we wear protective gears,” he said.
The waste handlers are vulnerable because if they come in contact with infected wastes, it could increase the risk of spreading the virus, Karma Yonten said.
WHO recommends people handling health care waste to wear appropriate gear, including boots, aprons, long-sleeved gowns, thick gloves, masks, and goggles or face shields.
Phub Dem | Paro
Paro’s vegetable shed which remains crowded even during weekdays is an eyesore to both residents and visitors alike.
The place is dusty and some vendors sell their goods under tarpaulin sheets.
A vendor, Lhamo Drukpa said that without a proper marketplace, the vegetables dry up easily and become unfit for sale incurring loss. She said that the place was filled with dust and it was difficult to maintain proper hygiene.
“Especially during monsoon, the marketplace is a puddle pool. It is a struggle.”
Another vendor Lhakpa said that he had to spend hours in the morning to clean his area. He said that fresh vegetables become dusty quickly.
The issue was also discussed in Paro dzongkhag tshogdu (DT) recently.
Paro dzongdag Tenzin Thinley during DT said that the marketplace was untidy and not attractive, given that the town is a tourist hub.
The dzongkhag allocated Nu 7.5milion for this year to build a new vegetable market place.
He said that although dzongkhag discussed building a three-storey farmers’ market, the budget exceeded the 12th Plan’s allocation and the existing area did not have enough space.
The dzongkhag administration is planning to build a two-storey farmers’ market.
“The dzongkhag administration is working on the budget required for the construction. We are ready to award the work to contractors after budgeting.”
The existing vegetable market will be temporarily shifted to dzongkhag archery ground at Tshongdue.
In the meantime, vendors occupying sheltered plots have to pay Nu 1,500 per plot monthly and those in open space pay Nu 700 monthly for weekend sales.
Lhakpa said that during weekdays, the vendors have to pay Nu 10 per plot for the sweepers.
Kelzang Wangchuk | Samdrupjongkhar
The price of some of the essential commodities like rice and potato, among others have increased in Samdrupjongkhar town that has seen fewer customers each day in the past few weeks.
A kilogramme (kg) of Bhutanese potato normally costs between Nu 25 to Nu 30 and a kg of dry Indian red chili costs Nu 160 to Nu 180.
Today, a kg of potato costs Nu 50 and one has to spend as high as Nu 300 for a kg of imported dry chili. A bag of rice (22kg) which used to cost about Nu 570, today it is Nu 600 to Nu 650.
Residents said authorities should check and monitor the prices of commodities. Some said shopkeepers have now increased the price of the rice despite the government’s announcement not to do so.
Hotel Phuntshok Yangkhor’s owner, Karma Tshering said he used to buy about four bags of rice and vegetables every month for his hotel. “But shopkeepers and vendors now charge double the price for some commodities,” he said.
He said the prices which were displayed today were the new prices. “These are not the ones the shopkeepers and vendors used to charge because they have increased the prices and submitted them to the trade office after they heard the government’s announcement,” he said.
“It is important for the concerned monitoring agencies including the trade office among others to study the impacts on both the vendors and customers before they accept and approve the prices,” Karma Tshering said.
Another resident, Dema said she paid Nu 50 for a kg of potato and Nu 1,000 for Bhutanese dry red chili last week.
“The shopkeeper charged me Nu 700 for a bag of 25kg rice which used to pay Nu 570 before. It is a burden and additional pressure during such crucial times for middle-income families like mine.”
Customers said there are also differences in price of vegetables. While some vendors maintain at the same price others increased. For instance, peas and beans cost Nu 80 and Nu 120 per kg but a few vendors charge Nu 100 per kg of peas and Nu 140 for beans.
Vegetable vendors said there should not be a price difference because they buy vegetables from the same suppliers but few vendors still charge more. “We were also questioned by the concerned officials. It would hamper our business someday,” a vegetable vendor said.
A vegetable vendor, Zangmo said there are differences in prices because every vendor has different suppliers with different prices. She said that the price from the suppliers has also increased as they now have to pay Nu 700 to Nu 750 a kg of Bhutanese red chili and Nu 40 per kg potato.
Wholesalers said the price for the rice has increased because the transporters charge double transportation charges given the risk and illegal tax collection along the Indian highways, adding that the prices are also increased from the suppliers.
“We are paying Nu 3,000 per truckload to the Bhutanese labours for unloading,” the proprietor of Selden Grocery shop said.
Regional trade officials said although the office did not receive any complaints from the customers, they are strictly monitoring and compiling the prices from the shopkeepers and vendors as there are few price escalations.
Officials said they have sensitised the shopkeepers and vendors to maintain documents like invoice among others. “We will strictly monitor and impose fines if we find them charging unreasonable prices,” a trade official said.
Fuel prices have dipped to almost a decade low owing to Covid-19 pandemic.
The petrol price in Thimphu has decreased to Nu 49.91 a litre. A litre of diesel now costs Nu 46.73.
The drop in the prices comes two weeks after the last revision. Officials with the Department of Trade said that the price decrease was due to a decrease in fuel demand in India and across the world due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the early months of 2011, the petrol price in Thimphu was about Nu 52 per litre, according to records with Kuensel.
A few weeks ago, the price of petrol per litre was Nu 58.63, while diesel cost Nu 53.52 a litre.
According to international media reports, prices in the international market on Monday had fallen at their lowest level since 2002.
According to the Department of Trade, the government had stocked 1,000KL (kilolitres) of Petrol and Diesel each as of March 18, 2020.
The stock, according to the department, is maintained to ensure uninterrupted supply of PoL (petrol, oil and lubricants) products.
However, the price of a subsidised liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinder has increased to Nu 589, up by Nu 19.
The price of a non-subsidised LPG cylinder, however, has dropped to Nu 817 from Nu 882.
The Department of Trade also states that it is in the process of stocking 40,000 LPG cylinders at Thingchupangka, Thimphu.
The second Covid-19 patient, Sandi Fischer shares her experience
Like most tourists, Sandi Fischer and her partner, Bert Hewitt planned a trip to Bhutan to explore the country’s unique culture and tradition.
On the list of places to visit, the Americans had Thimphu, Paro and Punakha. “Bert and I really enjoy hiking so part of our decision was related to that, as well as hearing wonderful things about the people and culture of Bhutan.”
However, their plan began to fall apart as they arrived in the country on March 2. Bert Hewitt,76, started feeling ill soon after their plane landed at the Paro international airport.
“While I was able to do some sightseeing, he did not get to do so,” she said. “I often felt divided when I was out because I wanted to be certain that Bert was okay.”
On the third day after arriving in the country, Bert Hewitt, on his third visit to the national referral hospital tested positive for Covid-19.
He became the first Covid-19 positive patient in the country.
Two weeks later, as Sandi was about to exit from the quarantine facility, she also tested positive.
“I was surprised but also not really surprised when I tested positive since I had spent so much time in close proximity to Bert,” she said.
A psychologist by profession, the 57-year-old said that she managed to cope with the situation with support she received from her friends and families back home, as well as the kindness and compassion of the Bhutanese people including their guide and driver, and the hospital staff.
Sandi’s sister who is a nurse also provided her support away from home reassuring her that things would improve. “She reminded me that Bert’s situation was different from mine and luckily I never developed a temperature or a cough,” she said.
“My brother and mother were worried but kept in touch. I think it helped me and my son since we were able to speak on the phone on a regular basis.”
However, her decade-long experience in studying human emotion and behaviour did little to help her when her partner was air evacuated from the country on March 13.
“I was terribly afraid because he was so sick and I knew that he had a very long way to get home,” she said. “I hoped that his body would hold out and luckily it did. I think Bert’s spirit – he is stubborn and competitive – helped him to survive. He is also youthful for his age and in good physical shape.”
She said that the health care the couple received in Bhutan has been ‘exemplary’. “There was probably more personal attention from the doctors and nurses than we would have received in the US. Bert credits the doctors and nurses in Bhutan with saving his life.”
It was learnt that Bert Hewitt after being flown to the US, is recovering well. He has tested negative twice and would soon be moved to a rehabilitation facility to continue his recovery before heading home.
Last week, Sandi tested negative. It was the second time she tested negative. She is currently in a quarantine centre under observation. Health Minister Dechen Wangmo have said that she would qualify as recovered if she does not show symptoms within the seven-day observation period.
Sharing her experience, Sandi said while quarantine was challenging, it was important to keep busy. “Take time to do things that you enjoy every day – listen to music, watch a fun TV show, communicate with family and friends, read, pray, and maybe even try something new, exercise,” she said. “And it’s okay to cry.”
With the increasing number of positive cases in the country, Sandi said dealing with them would depend on how serious the patient is. “If they are asymptotic or only mildly ill, I would treat them as one usually do.”
However, she explained that since her partner’s condition was serious, the couple had to discuss difficult topics such as whether he wanted a breathing tube or whether he wanted to be resuscitated if his heart stopped. “We would also talk on what he meant to me over the years. I did not want him to die without talking to him about everything.”
Sandi cautioned the Bhutanese to take the virus seriously. “ Listen to the health minister and others related to restrictions that are in place (or will be). Isolate and wash your hands often. If you don’t feel well see a doctor.”
Back home, working as a psychologist with children and adults with developmental disabilities is stressful, she said. “I found the people here to be so compassionate. I hope their model will inspire me when I am home. I would like to thank the people of Bhutan for their prayers and well wishes.”
Meanwhile, sharing her appreciation for the guide and driver for their constant support, she said, “I would love to go to Taktsang if I have time and the physical stamina to do so.”
Adults too seek counselling services
Yangchen C Rinzin
The counsellor listens attentively. His voice is calming as he, in a slow and clear, tells the person on the phone to relax. After 35 minutes at 10:30 pm, he hangs up the phone.
On the other end of the line was a student from Mongar who couldn’t sleep. The reason is the Covid-19 scare. This is the third session between the student and the counsellor in one day.
The counsellor is one of the 147 certified school guidance counsellors across country working round the clock to provide counselling to students. The career education and counselling division created Sherig Counselling service in a social media Facebook to reach students and as a response plan to Covid-19 pandemic. Another five counsellors from the career education and counselling division also attend to the students from Thimphu.
Division’s chief, Reena Thapa, said since the attention has been more on the curriculum right now, the Facebook page was created to reach out and provide psychosocial support. She said since there is no toll free number, the page has all the contact numbers of counsellors. Students can call or drop a message anytime they require counselling while at home.
The service mainly aims at students who are afraid, traumatised, disturbed or confused by the current Covid-19 situation. “It’s very important that child’s psychosocial like symptoms of fear or mental issues are taken care of,” said Reena Thapa.
Although the page was created for students, it has now grabbed the attention of adults too. Counsellors attended to 35 clients as of yesterday.
A counsellor said that most clients share their fear of Covid-19 developed due to excessive exposure to image or videos of Covid-19. “Many are exposed to Covid-19 news and videos both on mainstream and different social media platforms,” he said. “Some even complain of seeing an enlarged version of the virus with claws chasing them or climbing over the wall and seeing them on everything they touch.”
Others seek help on basic parenting like how to take care of the children who are at home since schools are closed. A few students shared their stress on online education while many clients were overwhelmed by the flow of information on the pandemic.
Most call counsellors at night or odd hours when they feel free or secure to talk about the problem and seek counselling. Counsellors offer to call back students, as one session takes more than 30 minutes to counsel.
“Since it’s our personal number we worry that they might miss the counselling, as we’ve to attend personal calls too,” Reena Thapa said. “Sometimes we have to conduct more than five sessions for each client.”
Counsellors shared that it is a common psychological reaction to such a crisis, which is why people should only focus and follow medical precautions and advice from the health ministry.
A few from the facility quarantine shared their fear from Covid-19 because they have travelled from the affected countries. They also sought counselling on stress management while in the facility.
Reena Thapa said that although they still receive calls, most callers just want counsellors to listen to their problems to relieve their stress and that there were no major issues so far.
“If there is any sign of severe anxiety or beyond our capacity, we’ll refer to the experts,” she added.
Education ministry’s emergency operations centre has also decided to give voucher of Nu 500 to each counsellor.
Meanwhile, the health ministry has set up hotlines for those in quarantine as counselling intervention and for those who may have mental distress due to current pandemic.
Fifteen home delivery services registered with the Department of Cottage and Small Industries (DCSI) as of yesterday.
These business entities are expected to deliver essential and non-essential items during emergencies.
Happy Delivery Service (HDS) began delivering fast food, home-cooked food, drinks and fruits to the quarantine centres in Thimphu and Paro yesterday.
The founder of HDS, Jigme Singye, said that those who are being quarantined would like to have varieties of food choices during the 21-day quarantine period.
Orders would be delivered twice a day. The food would be procured from small businesses and hard-hit sectors of the economy so that they can help them sustain. “In the future, we plan to engage laid-off workers in the business who are skilled.”
The service charge could depend on the location.
The manager of NOB Bhutan, Tandin Tshewang, said that the company was not able to deliver vegetables to the quarantine centres but there are plans to make it happen soon. The company delivers locally grown potatoes in vegetable markets in Thimphu and nearby dzongkhags.
Namgay Dorji, a businessman who is being quarantined in one of the centres in Paro, said that the centre provided nutritious food.
“I did not ask anything from home since I was quarantined. The government is doing its best,” he said. “Food delivery is a good initiative,” he added.
He said that there were, however, people in the quarantine centres who are not happy with the meals.
Quarantined in a centre in Paro, Karma Wangchuk, said: “The initiative of delivery service in quarantine centres is good but the centre where I stay has good food. The services are excellent.”
Beginning today, the government is carrying out a rapid assessment to understand the socio-economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, particularly on the vulnerable groups.
The assessment is to ensure that its ongoing and planned response measures will be better targeted based on data and analysis.
The survey will be conducted by the National Statistics Bureau (NSB) in close collaboration with the Gross National Happiness Commission, labour ministry, and Tourism Council of Bhutan.
The month-long assessment will focus on people working in tourism and allied sectors in Thimphu, Paro, Punakha, Bumthang and Phuentsholing Thromde. The findings will help the government design and implement targeted interventions to benefit the most affected and vulnerable individuals.
The data collection will continue until April 16.
The surveyors will collect the data using real-time data collection tools through interviews with the respondents over the telephone and via email in keeping with physical distancing guidelines of the government.
UNDP Bhutan is supporting the assessment as a technical lead in close collaboration with UNICEF and other UN agencies in the country.
Resident Representative of UNDP Bhutan, Azusa Kubota said, “As the Royal government rolls out its economic-stimulus package and recovery plan from the Covid-19 crisis, data from such assessment will help ensure that the needs of the most vulnerable will be met in a timely and fair manner. That is why we are responding to the critical demands of the government now.”
Covid-19 has become a health crisis, signs of how it affects the social and economic lives of everyone are appearing.
Bhutan closed its doors to tourists immediately after the country detected its first Covid-19 case on March 5 in an effort to combat the spread of the disease. Covid-19 has left more than 700,000 people ill and caused over 30,000 deaths in 202 countries and territories as of yesterday morning, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The temporary restriction on the entry of tourists has hit the tourism and hospitality sector hard. Initial data shared in the media indicates that the livelihoods of about 50,000 Bhutanese depending on the sector, including hoteliers, travel agents and tour guides, remain severely affected.
The survey results will help the government devise measures to tackle the impacts in such sectors effectively.
for agriculture and livestock projects
In their effort to enhance food security by providing access to finance, the newly established National Cottage and Small Industry (CSI) Development Bank approved 36 projects worth over Nu25.8 million (M) yesterday.
The approved projects are all agriculture and livestock-related that includes vegetable production, collection, and distribution of vegetables and fruits, procuring agriculture equipment, aquaculture farming, and dairy production.
Under the small and cottage industry financing—project funding more than Nu 500,000—the bank received 24 applicants as of yesterday. The project was worth Nu 295.075 million (M).
However, only eight projects worth Nu 20.319M was approved based on priority lending.
Although the bank received 156 loan applications under non-formal loan sector with a ceiling of Nu 500,000, the bank approved only 28 projects worth Nu 5.5 M.
The projects were approved in Paro yesterday.
Chief Executive Officer of National CSI Development Bank, Pema Wangdi, said that bank had planned to sanction loan worth Nu 100M, however, the bank was able to approve only 36 projects worth Nu 25.812M.
He said to alleviate Non-Performing Loan (NPL), the bank would sanction loan in phases depending on the project proposal. He added that the clients would get the remaining loan only when they complete the targeted task.
Otherwise, he said that there were cases of clients applying loan for poultry but ended up buying bolero.
On the possibility of reducing the interest rate, Pema Wangdi said there was informal discussion to reduce the interest rate to two percent for priority sector lending particularly in areas to agriculture farming and livestock production for a period of six months.
However, he said that the bank did not get any directives from the government to decrease the interest rate.
The bank is currently disbursing five percent interest rate per annum for non-formal rural financing and seasonal export financing at eight percent per annum.
The interest rate for small and cottage industry financing is seven percent per annum.
Kelzang Wangchuk | Samdrupjongkhar
About 121 tenants renting space for business and residence in the SD PLAZA in Thimphu need not have to pay their rent for the months of March and April.
Proprietor, Sonam Dukpa, popularly known as Goop Sonam Dukpa, a Samdrup Jongkhar based business man, waived off the rents through a letter on March 31 stating that the rent has been waived off because of the impact on business from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Sonam Dukpa also contributed Nu 1million (M) to His Majesty’s kidu fund for Covid-19 and Nu 0.5M to the Covid-19 Respond Fund managed by the finance ministry.
Sonam Dukpa said that everyone should be inspired by His Majesty The King’s selfless service for peace, safety and security of the people and country and come together as one community to help each other in a meaningful way during such crucial times.
He said he decided to waive off the rents for tenants living in his buildings in Thimphu because he doesn’t want tenants to worry about paying rents when they are going through difficult times.
“It is my responsibility to look into the problems of my tenants, as I don’t want them to have the additional pressure of paying rent during these precarious times,” he said. “It is also important to put community ahead of our own needs during such periods.”
Rent for two months could amount to about Nu 2.6M.
“Since we are united by our humanity and it is now apparent that we are not individuals but a community whose health and well-beings are inter-connected, I made a small contribution to our community’s well-being in my own capacity,” the letter to the tenants stated.
Sonam Dukpa said he would review and look into matters and inform tenants if any further measures are needed should the situation worsens.
Meanwhile, the owner of Tara Corner building in Paro and Tara Plaza in Thimphu, Norbu Tshering, availed a 50 percent discount to the entertainment businesses in his property and 30 percent to the shopkeepers.
In a letter to his tenants, shared by a tenant, Norbu Tshering said he would look into their condition if the situation doesn’t improve because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
These are difficult times. Countries around the world are being ravaged by the scourge that is Covid-19. The speed with which the disease is spreading is staggering. It is also deeply worrying. While some countries are taking effective and encouraging measures, many are failing.
Bhutan has so far had only four Covid-19 positive cases—all imported. More than 3,500 individuals are being quarantined at homes and in the country’s many facility quarantine centres. Early border lockdown and increased movement restriction was a sensible move. We could have done worse.
The threat remains, however. Treatment and vaccines are as yet out of humanity’s reach. So, much will depend on the success of the neighbouring countries and the world at large if we are to keep our people safe from the disease. That’s why the government has been giving top priority to quarantine.
It has to be acknowledged that our success has been due largely to extraordinary compliance from the general public. We have not had to resort to brutal measures to disperse crowds and limit the movement of people. Because quarantine regulations have been found to be effective in preventing the disease from spreading, the government last week decided to increase quarantine period from 14 to 21 days.
Because there is still a need to educate our people on the importance of quarantine, individuals who have themselves completed quarantine are coming forward to tell their stories. This is heartwarming and deeply reassuring. In these dark and testing times, we also would like to hear some bright and positive stories.
When the entire country is gripped by fear of uncertainty, so to speak, conflicting views are to be expected but there is nothing wrong or insensitive about media bringing such stories of hope and opportunity to the people. The real message or the lesson people coming out of quarantine are bringing is that quarantine does not mean one has contracted the disease. In fact, quarantine has helped many countries reduce deaths due to the disease increased recovery rate.
As Kuensel went to press, the total number of Covid-19 positive cases worldwide was 885,221. The disease had claimed 44212 lives. What is encouraging is that the number of recovered cases has hit 185,208 and it is increasing.