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.
The nation rejoiced when a 29-year-old female archer, Karma, became the first Bhutanese athlete to qualify for an Olympic quota.
She booked the spot in the recurve women’s archery at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics during the Asian continental qualification tournament held at Bangkok in November last year.
However, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has postponed the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and the Paralympic games scheduled on July 24 until next year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The decision came after IOC President Thomas Bach and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan met on March 24.
Karma said that it was a good decision. “The athletes still have the opportunity to participate next year. It will not make any difference. I discontinued my practise at the archery range in Langjophakha due to the coronavirus. Now I practise at home.”
Despite qualifying for the quota, she still has to hit the minimum qualifying score (MQS) of 605 points. Her upcoming qualifying championships in Bangladesh and Thailand were also cancelled.
The joint statement from the IOC and the Tokyo 2020 organising committee stated that owing to the present circumstances, the two leaders have agreed that the Olympiad in Tokyo must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021 to safeguard the health of the athletes and those who are involved in the event.
BOC’s Secretary-General, Sonam Karma Tshering said that Bhutan supports IOC’s decision for postponing the Olympics games. “It was in the best interest of the athletes.”
He said that Karma has qualified for the quota, but she should maintain an MQS of 605 points. “She has not fulfilled the MQS as of now.”
Bhutan’s debut in the Olympic Games dates back to the Los Angeles Olympics in the United States of America in 1984.
Sonam Karma Tshering said that participating in the Olympic Games is not only about winning and losing. “It represents our country as a sovereign nation. Moreover, it is also a source of inspiration for our youth.”
He said that Paralympic Games are also progressing in the country under the Bhutan Paralympic Committee since its inception in 2017.
Pema Rigsel and Kinley Dem became the first para-athletes to represent the country in 2018 at the third Para Asian Games in Indonesia.
Bhutan has been a member of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) since 2017.
“The understanding between the IOC and IPC was that whichever host city conducts the Olympic Games, the same city will also organise Paralympic games. Due to the resource constraints, IPC always collaborates with IOC to conduct the event. It is obvious that IPC has to accept IOC’s decision,” said Sonam Karma Tshering.
Olympics have never been delayed in the last 124 years due to such pandemic. Although the IOC cancelled the Olympics in 1916, 1940, and 1944, it was due to world wars.
The postponement of Tokyo 2020 is expected to have economic implications on Japan.
The total cost of the Tokyo Olympics, according to some reports, has been put at almost £10 billion and there were projections that it would cause Japan’s GDP to shrink by 1.5 percent. Millions of hotel bookings will have to be rearranged.
It was also agreed that the games will keep the name Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.
The re-naming as Tokyo 2021 would incur additional expenditure as most of the medals, banners, logo, and other requirements were almost complete.
The first Olympic Games were held in 1896 at Athens, Greece from April 6 to 15. Bhutan became a member of the IOC in 1983.
The Bhutanese Communities in Australia donated AUD 111,567.86 to His Majesty The King’s Kidu Fund for COVID-19.
The money was contributed by various associations.
Adelaide Group donated AUD 155, Australia Bhutanese Association of Canberra (ABAC) AUD 21,022, Association of The Bhutanese in Perth Incorporated (ABPI) AUD 78,760, Brisbane Bhutanese Association Incorporated AUD 7,032, Druk Melbourne Association incorporated AUD 3,803 and Sydney Bhutanese Community AUD 795.
The female student had returned from Europe this week
In a span of 20 days, Bhutan has detected three Covid-19 positive cases. However, the situation remains the same and the threat level is still Orange for the country.
The third patient was a student who had returned home from Europe on March 22.
Health Minister Dechen Wangmo, during a press briefing yesterday, said that the female student started having mild fever and cough while at the quarantine centre around 3pm on March 25.
She was screened and health officials subsequently carried out a confirmatory test as per the set standard operating procedure. “The test result came positive. She was then removed from the quarantine centre to the isolation unit at the national referral hospital,” said the minister.
The patient, according to the health minister, is in stable condition and has not shown any more symptoms for now.
Her roommate who had travelled along with her has been shifted to a separate room.
No reason to panic
Lyonpo said that although the number of positive cases has increased to three, there were no reasons for Bhutanese to panic. She explained that although the patient was a Bhutanese, she was infected outside the country. “We still do not have any community transmission within the country.”
She said that because the patient and all those who had travelled with her on the same flight were already under quarantine, chances of spreading the disease to the public was almost negligible.
There were 21 passengers on board including the patient. The 11 crew members, now considered as the primary contacts of the patient are also on quarantine.
The 44 people identified as the secondary contacts (related to the crew members) have been asked to self-quarantine themselves at their respective homes.
Lyonpo said that as a precautionary measure, the government has made arrangements to put all those arriving in the country from abroad under a designated quarantine facility. “Nowhere in the world, there is a provision like this. They only practice home quarantine.”
There are 2,590 people under facility quarantine as of yesterday.
Calling it a ‘gold standard’, the minister said that despite the World Health Organisation (WHO) not recommending testing to people without symptoms, in Bhutan all primary contacts irrespective of symptoms are tested.
However, she said that given the shortage of testing kits internationally, it was important to use the kits effectively based on scientific evidence. “There are many who have approached us requesting tests. We cannot go on doing random tests.”
As of yesterday, the health ministry has conducted 558 sample tests of which 25 were conducted in the last 24 hours.
A total of 2,409,336 people have been screened on the ground while 11,612 were screened at the airport so far.
Lyonpo added that there were no risks to the hotel staff including the health workers and police personnel deployed at the quarantine facility where the patient stayed.
“This is because the mode of transmission of this virus is not airborne. The virus is spread through aerosol droplets,” she said. “The health workers and police placed at the hotels don’t have physical contact with the suspects.”
Meanwhile, the 57-year-old American woman at the isolation ward is well and has started treatment for Covid-19 symptoms.
The health minister said that 44 people were identified as secondary contacts and asked to remain on self-quarantine at their homes.
— Kuensel (@KuenselOnline) March 26, 2020
2:29 Health Minister on lockdown: If everything stops, essential services to patients and public services would be affected. If everyone practices physical distancing and takes care at the individual level then lockdown would be out of the question. Everyone has to shoulder responsibility.
2:23 The 33 patients in Vellore and 55 patients who are undergoing medical treatment and their attendants have been asked to adhere to strict personal hygiene. Given the difficult circumstances, their allowances have been increased and dispatched: Health Minister.
2:15 Health minister says the third Covid-19 positive patient who is a student arrived on March 22 and started having mild fever and cough yesterday. She was then removed from her the quarantine centre and isolated. A confirmatory test was done which also came positive.
She is still in stable condition and has not shown any more symptoms.
The minister says all flight attendants and crew, and those who have been in contact with her have been traced.
Unless people show symptoms, testing liberally would be expensive and result in huge pressure on the already scarce resources, the minister said.
…risk of infecting Bhutanese minimal from the tourist: health minister
Risks of infecting Bhutanese by the Hong Kong tourist who tested positive after returning to Hong Kong from Bhutan is minimal, according to health minister Dechen Wangmo.
The health ministry confirmed that the 54-year-old tourist who was in the country from March 3 to March 12, tested positive to the new coronavirus on March 22.
His guide and the driver were immediately quarantined after receiving the news of the tourists’ status on Tuesday night.
Both of them have tested negative to the virus on their first test.
Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo during a press briefing yesterday said the ministry received information on the tourist at around 10pm on March 24.
“We managed to trace the close contacts of the tourist by midnight and then placed the driver and guide under quarantine.”
While the tourist has tested positive to the virus, Lyonpo said that he could have been possibly exposed to the virus during the transit (on March 13 or 14), after he had left the country. “If he was exposed while in the country, he would have grown symptomatic a bit earlier.”
She said that almost 99 percent of the infected so far have shown symptoms for the virus within five to eight days of infection.
The minister added that the wife of the 54-year-old tourist, who accompanied him during the visit, informed that her husband started showing symptoms on March 19. Three days later he tested positive for Covid-19. The wife, however, has tested negative as of now.
“The driver and guide including the wife said that the 54-year-old was healthy and did not show any symptoms when he left the country,” Lyonpo said.
The tourist had visited the regular tourist sites in the country including the Memorial Choeten, Dochula, Gangtey, Buddha Point, Craft Bazaar, and Punakha tshechu during his stay in the country.
While there is a very low possibility of the tourist being infected while in the country, Lyonpo said that the ministry is tracing his contacts in the country as a precautionary measure.
There were 72 passengers on his flight back to Bangkok but most of them were foreigners, the minister added.
Stepping up preparedness
Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo said that Bhutan for now should focus and strengthen its preparedness measures as the number of Covid-19 cases increase across the globe and in the region.
She said that should the country’s situation worsen, there are only about 3,000 health staffs to cater to the public. About 600 Desuups have been trained in Covid-19 screening and the ministry targets to bring on board about 5,000 Desuups.
Meanwhile, 24 of the 48 doctors who were undergoing higher studies abroad have returned to the country and are currently in quarantine. The ministry has also compiled a list of retired doctors and health personnel too, should there be need for additional human resource.
Lyonpo reassured that regular health care services would be equally prioritised should the country enter the Red zone, adding that the country has enough medicine stock to last for nine months.
The ministry is also preparing 119 certified and clinical counsellors to attend to those in quarantine centres.
Sanam Lyonpo wants to make the Covid-19 a blessing in disguise
The novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has suddenly made farming a lucrative job in the country.
The closure of border gates with India has given Bhutanese farmers the opportunity to substitute a large portion of the country’s vegetable and meat requirement that are imported from India.
The country is expected to face shortage of food items that are temporarily banned if farmers do not ramp up production. The country imports food items not only because they are comparatively cheaper but also Bhutanese farmers have not been able to meet the demand nationwide.
The agriculture ministry wants to take the COVID-19 pandemic as a blessing in disguise. Agriculture Minister Yeshey Penjor has said that the pandemic had called for a test of sustainability.
Amid the ban on import of vegetables, meat and doma, the government is urging farmers to increase production through local governments and agriculture extension offices.
The minister on March 22 wrote to all 20 dzongdags to encourage farmers in their respective dzongkhags coordinate with agriculture and livestock officials to provide assistance to farmers to increase production of food items.
The minister said that there was no need for farmers worry about possible over- production or lack of market. “I urge our farmers to produce as much as possible without worrying about market,” he said.
The government, he said, would buy from if the production is at a commercial scale. But he added, “The price has to be reasonable.”
To motivate farmers, the agriculture minister said that the cottage and small industry (CSI) bank would provide loans at the minimum or zero interest rates. The ministry also promises to provide technical and procurement support would to farmers.
The import of meat and vegetables has not seen any significant decrease over the years despite the government emphasising on self-sufficiency.
According to statistics with Renewable Natural Resources (RNR), Bhutan imported 10,454 metric ton (MT) of vegetables worth Nu 152.96 million (M) during the six months from January to July, 2019. During the same period in the previous, Bhutan had imported 17,855MT of vegetables worth Nu 166.17M.
The country imported 3319MT of meat worth Nu 485M during the first six months of 2019. During the same period in the previous year, Bhutan imported 2,893MT of meat worth almost Nu 405M.
The country also imported 415.8MT of fish worth Nu 62M from January to July last year.
Some observers believe that some of the people who have been rendered jobless will return to their villages to take up farming. They are of the view that the government’s economic stimulus plan should cover the agriculture sector.
However, farmers say lack of irrigation facilities, connectivity and access to markets are a big challenge. In absence of proper storage facilities, farmers are also forced to sell their produce at the earliest irrespective of market situations.
According to the annual agriculture statistics, Bhutan produced a total of 82,877 metric ton (MT) of various vegetables in 2018 although statistics for 2019 is not released.
In the same year, the country produced a total of 3,517MT of meat and 200MT of fish. The production of chicken saw a constant increase from 944MT in 2014 to 1,687MT in 2018.
Beef, which is one of the most consumed meat items, saw a decrease from 639MT to 410MT during the same period. The production of fish remained almost stagnant from 119MT to 200MT.
The agriculture sector provides more than 65 percent of the total population employment and contributing more than 20 percent to GDP.