If borders are sealed
Chimi Dema | Tsirang
The vegetable capital of the country, Tsirang dzongkhag, had been tasked with a new assignment.
As the country prepares for the worst-case scenario in the light of global Covid-19 outbreak, the dzongkhag is exploring the possibilities of supplying vegetables to nearby dzongkhags should the borders need to be sealed.
Agriculture officials in the dzongkhag are identifying major vegetable producers and vendors in the dzongkhag.
Dzongkhag agriculture officer, Dorji Gyeltshen, said the initiative was to see the quantity of vegetables that each farmer group produces in a week or a month and also to get the quantity that are supplied outside the dzongkhag.
“This would help us understand the amount of surplus that could be supplied to other parts of the country if there is a need,” he said. “We will also collect information on different varieties of vegetable farmers grow.”
Dorji Gyeltshen also said local leaders were asked to track food resources and production as well as the surplus quantity in their respective gewogs.
At the ninth Dzongkhag Tshogdu yesterday, dzongdag Pema also urged the local leaders to increase production and prepare for supplying vegetables to other districts if the borders need to be sealed but prioritising the self-sufficiency at home first.
Known for its mass production of crops and vegetables in the country, Tsirang has been supplying vegetables to Thimphu, Sarpang, and Dagana. Some vendors even sell it in Trongsa and Bumthang.
Given the past supply experiences, Dorji Gyeltshen said it might not be a problem even if they have to supply to nearby dzongkhags.
He said the dzongkhag’s annual performance agreement (APA) had targeted to produce about 3,331 metric tonnes (MT) of vegetables this season. “We have already produced about 3,538MT of vegetables comprising of 19 varieties so far.”
Majority of the harvest this year has been cabbage (579MT), followed by beans (563MT) and radish (422MT). Production increased after ban imposed on the imported of the above vegetables.
While all 12 gewogs in the dzongkhag have ventured into vegetable farming, Dorji Gyeltshen, said farmers in nine gewogs grow on a commercial scale given the accessibility to market.
The major vegetable producing gewogs are Mendrelgang, Gosarling, Patshaling and Kilkhorthang, among others. Of the 6,000 households involved in vegetable production, about 2,500 grow on large and commercial scale.
The nursery for winter vegetable farming usually starts in September and production begins from early January until June. The season for summer vegetable farming is between February and October.
Meanwhile, agriculture minister Yeshey Penjore said that to ensure a continuous supply of essential food items, the government is stocking food resources through Food Corporation of Bhutan Limited to last at least six months.
He said the government is now investing on land development to encourage and enhance local cereal, vegetable and livestock production. “But this doesn’t mean we will achieve food self-sufficiency in the next six months.”
Lyonpo Yeshey Penjore said the government is planning to roll out a stimulus plan within a few days. The details would be shared only after it is adopted.
Labour pains can never be gratifying. But after ten hours of pain, Sangdag Pem, 28, is a happy mother to welcome her baby, a daughter. News of a royal birth reaching the birthing centre of the national referral hospital made her happier.
The birth of her daughter coincided with the birth of the second Royal child yesterday.
“I can’t be happier than this; my daughter shares birthday with the Prince. It is humbling and exciting,” Sandag Pem said, cuddling and feeding her newly-born. “I feel blessed,” she added.
The new mother recalled being overtaken with emotions upon hearing the announcement from the Lingkana Palace yesterday afternoon. “I feel lucky that my daughter is born on this day.” She gave birth to her daughter weighing 2.9kgs in the early hours of the day.
Cheki Zangmo, 34, is another happy mother. She gave birth to her third child in Thimphu hospital yesterday. The overwhelmed mother said: “Never in my wildest dreams did it occur to me that the birth of my child would coincide with the Prince.” She said such rare coincidences would clear future obstacles for her son.
Like Sangdag Pem and Cheki Zangmo, most of the mothers in the maternity ward were excited to share their child’s birthday with the Royal child. “I am wordless. The day is special and my daughter will cherish her birthday” rejoiced the new mother, Tshering Wangmo. “I pray my lucky son would be able to serve The King, country and the people,” added the emotion-laden mother.
As of 9pm yesterday, the national referral hospital’s birthing centre recorded 11 births, Gelephu and Mongar regional referral hospitals recorded a total of three births.
At a time when many countries are battling the rapid escalation of Covid-19 positive cases China, from where the pandemic began, is witnessing an encouraging recovery rate.
For the first time after Covid-19 outbreak, China yesterday saw not a single local infection.
Scare is spreading. But why the disease is gaining the upper hand, especially in the countries that are now responding with high alert, is because of lack of cooperation from their citizens.
The same danger is coming to Bhutan.
We have repeatedly intercepted people who have not been honest with their travel history. One way, what this indicates is that Bhutan is vigilant and will go extra mile to keep its citizens safe. The other way, irresponsible people are bringing the threat of the disease closer to home.
At such times, the role the media is playing is important. Social media leaders are increasingly realising what could happen if they choose to not act. Twitter, for example, has put in place measures to stop messages that could potentially bring the people closer to risk.
Here is the global perspective.
Iran’s death toll from coronavirus has risen to 1,284. The country is the worst effected in the Middle East today. France has begun advising people to abstain from hugging their love ones and, Italy’s virus death toll has come closer to China’s as outbreak spreads.
The Philippines has declared a month-long lockdown and thousands are leaving the country. But as the Dutch PM put it, hygiene and sanitation are the best ways still to keep the Covid-19 at bay.
Health experts say that Covid-19 is winning because nations and people are not doing enough. Asia is big. Half of it is now able to keep the pandemic at the distance. But the efforts could fail.
Where is Bhutan and Covid-19 together?
Bhutan does not have Covid-19 case. Travellers are being quarantined. Many are making it open and, more importantly, they want to self-quarantine for the health of the citizens at large. Those who are put on quarantine are doing their best to educate the people.
But there are also those who will put the whole nation at risk.
Yesterday, eight Bhutanese were found to have been untruthful with their travel history. And then two women did the same. Put together the country has so far intercepted 12 such cases.
There is a serious challenge for the nation today.
Vigilance is the only option.
The countries that are succeeding today say that there is no better preparedness than strict and uncompromising vigilance.
How Bhutan is fighting the pandemic will depend largely on the behaviours of its citizens.
Govt pondering on stopping the movement of Bhutanese vehicles via India except for essential services only: PM.
— Kuensel (@KuenselOnline) March 20, 2020
12:04: Those in quarantine were considered as a positive patient until proved negative, so they were placed under strict quarantine: PM said.
12:04: Covid-19 update:
Those who are in quarantine must be considered positive until proven otherwise and they were checked regularly : PM
12:00: Online teaching is not mandatory. Other options will be made available by the govt. : PM said.
Govt exploring ways if they can pay advances to students studying abroad on govt scholarships to cover rising costs due to Covid-19: PM said.
— Kuensel (@KuenselOnline) March 20, 2020
11:55: Covid-19 update:
Bhutanese residing outside, who face any problems because of covid-19 should contact government
11:54: Covid-19 update:
Govt is helping those returning to Bhutan from abroad, and but if they can remain put in their places practising precautions would be most ideal: PM.
11:50: Covid-19 update:
About 85% of people who eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly and drink plenty of water would be not easily affected by the virus: PM.
Those attending to the Covid-19 positive case are at huge risk of contracting the virus but it is their professional responsibility and they are doing their best: PM
— Kuensel (@KuenselOnline) March 20, 2020
11:20: Covid-19 update:
Our main concern is to prevent the virus everything else is secondary. Parents can play a vital role in the continuation of their children’s education, this can be an opportunity for children to learn many things that are not taught in schools: PM.
The positive Covid-19 patient’s condition is stable and remains asymptomatic: PM.
11:28 Covid-19 update:
No test is 100% specific but this test or the PCR test is highly sensitive in the case of Covid-19. There is no equipment or human error in conducting this test: PM said.
Bhutan will continue to remain in the Orange category.
Covid-19 Press Conference:
The new Covid-19 positive case will continue to remain in isolation and poses no risk at all to the public in any way: PM.
— Kuensel (@KuenselOnline) March 20, 2020
11:20:Despite the new positive case in the American tourist’s partner, there is no reason for the public to panic or worry: PM said.
11:20:The driver and guide of the American tourist tested negative. They will be given the option to either stay at home or at the quarantine facility: PM said.
11:19: Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said the Covid-19 patient’s partner test result is positive.
Others were all negative.
The second Royal Child of Their Majesties The King and Queen, a prince, was born yesterday, on March 19, coinciding with the 25th day of the first month of the Male Iron Rat year.
His Royal Highness was delivered safely at the Lingkana Palace in Thimphu.
A news release from the Royal Office for Media stated that Her Majesty and the royal baby were in good health, and His Royal Highness The Gyalsey was delighted to meet his younger brother.
“Their Majesties express their gratitude to the medical team, the Zhung Dratshang and to everyone for their well-wishes and prayers,” the news release stated.
“While this remains a very happy occasion for the Royal family and the nation and people of Bhutan, Their Majesties wish to remind all Bhutanese to be mindful, responsible and supportive to each other in the wake of the Covid-19 virus.”
The release also stated that Their Majesties have everyone whose lives have been affected by this global pandemic in their thoughts and prayers.
Leaders and citizens alike poured their good wishes for the good health of Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen and the Royal Prince and expressed their happiness.
Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said that the successful birth of the second Royal Prince was the result of the collective prayers and aspirations of the Bhutanese people and reassuring indication of the continuity of the destined Wangchuck Dynasty.
“Like the arrival of a new member bringing joy to every family, the birth of the second Royal Child enlivens hopes and bliss of every Bhutanese, across the world,” he said. “On behalf of the people of Bhutan, I offer our humble prayers and gratitude.”
Opposition Leader Pema Gyamtsho (PhD) said, “I cannot think of a better time for this wonderful news on the arrival of our second Gyalsey not just for us Bhutanese, but also for the global community at large. The birth of the Royal Child gives us all reason to believe and look forward to a better and brighter future ahead.”
Parliament Speaker Wangchuk Namgyel said, “Even as we realise just how important the Yab-Sey archetypal relationship is to our collective folk memories, we are blessed with yet another precious jewel.”
“I join the nation to offer my humble Tashi Delek to our beloved His Majesty The King and Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen. We cannot buy happiness. Happiness is born to us!”
“The news of the birth of the Royal Child brings warmth, happiness and light into the lives of the Bhutanese.”
Most of the people Kuensel spoke to said that it was news of hope and lifted their spirits during this tense period following the Covid-19 pandemic.
A 77-year-old from Paro, Bidha upon hearing the news of the Royal Child’s birth said a prayer: “With the birth of the Prince, may the country be blessed with peace, harmony, and prosperity.” She said that she was extremely happy for His Royal Highness the Gyalsey Jigme Namgyel because the prince’s wish of having a sibling to play had been fulfilled.
At an annual Lochay in Haa, people joyfully shared the news and happiness, showering blessings to the newborn Prince’s good health and long life.
“I pray that with the birth of the Prince, the pandemic subsides. We are grateful that the Prince was born healthy.”
Dorji Gyeltshen, who runs a restaurant in Phuentsholing, said, “In this troubled time, when the country could lockdown, when families are tense, business is down because of the coronavirus, the birth of the Royal Child is such comforting news. It brings peace and happiness.”
Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, on behalf of his country and the people, tweeted congratulating Their Majesties and the people of Bhutan.
“Hearty congratulations to His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen, His Royal Highness The Gyalsey and the Royal Family on being blessed with the birth of the Second Royal Child. India joins the people of Bhutan in rejoicing on this happy occasion.”
Meanwhile, 14 babies were born in Mongar, Gelephu and JDWNRH hospitals yesterday.
“I am wordless. The day is special and my daughter will cherish her birthday,” a new mother, Tshering Wangmo said.
Additional reporting Rajesh Rai, Phub Dem, and Choki Wangmo
One of the most beautiful moments in human life is the miracle of birth. The cry of a newborn baby goes straight to the heart, as we see in the smile of a tired mother, relief of an anxious father, and the delight of the family, friends, and community.
The birth of the second Royal Child of His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Her Majesty Gyaltsuen Jetsun Pema, at Lingkana Palace in Thimphu on March 19, raises a cheer from young Bhutanese while older members of the Bhutanese family express their joy with a “Chabsu Chhey” (acknowledging the blessings of the Triple Gem).
Our Prince comes like a ray of sunlight when Bhutan – in fact the world – is going through a dark period, struck by a disease which is bringing societies to a halt. The Coronavirus is creating havoc across the world, introducing a new level of distress and forcing a fundamental social change in human behaviour.
He comes as a reminder that the human existence can’t avoid suffering but there is always hope around the corner.
This year, we are at the beginning of a new lunar cycle. It means new beginnings. But we do not wait for things to happen; we strive to make them happen. It is comforting, therefore, even as we begin the year with major challenges, that His Majesty The King has been traveling across the southern breadth of the country, personally inspecting our preparedness along a long and porous border which is starkly vulnerable when threatened by a pandemic.
This is a good year to welcome our Prince. People born in the mouse year are believed have the knack of turning unlucky events into good fortune. They are also sensitive to other people’s emotions but firm when necessary and generally live contented and stable lives with a large circle of close friends. So the stars tell us that our Prince will be smart and a quick thinker, giving us the optimism, energy, alertness, delicacy, flexibility, vitality, and the enterprising spirit that we need today.
The mood around the birth of our Prince is not one of ostentatious revelry but of meaningful prayer and reverence. We perform sacred ceremonies to remove obstacles and to influence the causes and conditions that create an environment that is conducive to wellbeing and happiness.
In keeping with tradition, we celebrate the birth of our Prince with prayers being conducted around the country. Kurims are also being performed at sacred Buddhist sites in India and Nepal. Bhutanese teachers from all Buddhist traditions are performing prayers. Our Hindu community is conducting pujas (prayers) at the mandirs (Hindu temples). Bhutanese well-wishers are celebrating by offering prayers at home and at local lhakhangs.
Animals, birds, and fish are being saved from slaughter (tshethar), the protective energy of the environment is being recharged (sachu bumtar and luzay lomoen), prayer flags are being hoisted, lhakhangs and choetens are being constructed or renovated, the country’s sacred thongdrels are being unfurled. His Holiness the Je Khenpo is conferring a Sangay Menlha Wang which will be televised from 2pm, for all the people of Bhutan to join. The Zhung Dratshang will also conduct Namgay Tongchoed from March 21, for 3 days.
All this is important because our Prince will play an important role in his generation – our future. We come together, in prayer and in celebration of this auspicious birth, we are consciously pledging our unity. A stronger Royal Family means closer unity and more resilient identity.
The images of our Royal Family with the people at national and public events is a familiar sight. Whether we see His Majesty carrying Gyalsey Jigme Namgyel through maize fields or playing soccer with school children or just chatting with citizens around the country it is the atmosphere of an extended family. In four short years, His Royal Highness Gyalsey Jigme Namgyel, has traveled around the country and people have been able to greet him.
Their Majesties, and therefore the Bhutanese people, are in for an even more interesting family life. Gyalsey Jigme Namgyel now has a Royal sibling to play with and share the experience of growing up together, along with all other Bhutanese “brothers and sisters” around the country.
For now, we wish Their Majesties and His Royal Highness, as Yab, Yum, and Royal Acho – and our entire Royal family good health and happy moments together. And we wish the Royal children a happy childhood, an important time of life to be fully lived, and enjoyed.
The Assam man who escaped from a quarantine centre in Kerala and was on his way to Assam was caught at the Bongaigaon railway station this morning, according to the Times of India, an English daily newspaper in India.
He was with COVID-19 symptoms when quarantined in a Kerala hotel. Bongaigaon is about 49 kilometres away from Gelephu.
The 24-year-old man, along with two other suspected coronavirus infected men, quarantined in Kerala, have fled the facility on March 16. They are from Odisha and West Bengal.
The 24-year-old was travelling by the Kanchanjungha Express, train number 13175. He was arrested from coach number ER14425. He boarded the train from Parak in Chennai and from Chennai to Howrah by Howrah Mail. From Seldah station in Kolkata, the person took the Seldah-Silchar Kanchanjungha Express and was heading to Guwahati station, according to ToI.
The man is in the Railway Hospital, New Bongaigaon guarded by RPF and GRP personnel to prevent him from escaping. According to TOI, All the passengers of the said coach was medically screened by railway doctors before the train left and all of them have been advised to go for home quarantine.
There is no information on the other two escapees.
The second Royal Child of Their Majesties The King and Queen, a Prince, was born today, March 19, 2020, corresponding with the 25th day of the 1st month of the Male Iron Rat year, in Lingkana Palace, Thimphu.
Her Majesty and the royal baby are in good health, and His Royal Highness The Gyalsey was delighted to meet his younger brother, a press release from the Royal Office for Media stated.
“Their Majesties express their gratitude to the medical team, the Zhung Dratshang and to everyone for their well-wishes and prayers.”
“While this remains a very happy occasion for the Royal family and the nation and people of Bhutan, Their Majesties wish to remind all Bhutanese to be mindful, responsible and supportive to each other in the wake of the COVID-19 virus. Their Majesties have everyone whose lives have been affected by this global pandemic in their thoughts and prayers,” stated the press release.
Country is COVID-19 free as of today
Bhutan is COVID-19 free, but the government is preparing for the worst after a single positive case was reported in West Bengal, the Indian state that borders Bhutan.
Lyonchhen Dr Lotay Tshering, at a press conference yesterday, said that lone positive case in the West Bengal is an imported case similar to the one Bhutan had.
“Measures to treat the patient and contact tracing is underway in Kolkata and should there be any more positive cases, we would be informed. Then accordingly we will have to strategise.”
As the disease is reported in places closer to the country, Lyonchhen said that stricter measures would be put in place.
In its effort to ensure continuous food supply in case of a complete lockdown, the government is stocking fuel and essential food items to last for at least 12 days or until the movement of vehicles across the border is restored.
However, he said that the public should not worry since the Indian government has assured continuous supply of essential food items, fuel and medicines even in the worst-case scenario.
With schools across the country closed indefinitely, Lyonchhen said that learning contents would be uploaded online and students could download them to continue their study.
He said that the government is in talks with the two telecom service providers to slash internet charges even as government explores solutions to teach students using IT when schools remain closed.
IT specialists are also engaged at the Thimphu Techpark to explore methods to help in online learning and in building a contact-tracing app.
On the Bhutanese living abroad, Lyonchhen said that while there are no plans to charter a flight to bring them back, all necessary measures and support are being provided for those who are returning home.
He said that Bhutanese returning home should get in touch with Missions and Embassies in their country of residence and also plan their travel carefully since most of the country have imposed travel restrictions.
The government has also extended the travel restrictions indefinitely. The two-week restriction imposed on tourists earlier ends today.
To discourage gathering and close contact among people, the government also suspended business operations of all drayangs, nightclubs, discotheques and other joints that draw large crowd.
The primary concern for now, the Prime Minister said was to prevent the entry of the disease in the country. For this, he said strict restriction on travels including incoming tourists were imposed.
“The second major concern is to monitor and contain the spread of the disease should there be any more positive cases inside the country,” he said. “This is why we have asked to close all schools and institutions including entertainment centres as a preventative measure.”
Lyonchhen said that although keeping schools open was important, the current situation demanded a temporary closure. Closing the schools and institutions was not due to the detection of any new positive cases, he added. “There is no reason for us to hide information. Believe and trust the government on information it disseminates on COVID-19. This is the time to come together.”
The main reason for taking all these measures according to Lyonchhen was due to the deteriorating scenario in the region and across the world.
The Prime Minister explained that this is not a lockdown situation for Bhutan but a strategic maneuver in case of a worst-case scenario.
Government to inject liquidity into banks
The government is planning to roll out an economic stimulus plan within a few days for the most affected sectors to help them cope with the unprecedented economic impact of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering at the press briefing yesterday said that the government was working with the Royal Monetary Authority (RMA) on monetary policies, including possible suspension of loan instalments for affected enterprises and individuals.
The need to keep employees that have lost jobs economically engaged is being looked into, according to the Prime Minister. The government estimates that there are about 50,000 people engaged in the tourism and allied sectors.
The Prime Minister said that the economic impact on hotels and the number of employees that have been rendered jobless were being assessed. While some employers are reportedly willing to retain their employees, others have laid off their employees.
The government, Dr Lotay Tshering said, would roll out the economic stimulus plan based on the number of affected enterprises and people and how.
“We will announce the economic stimulus plan within this week or by Monday,” he said.
As one of the monetary measures, the government plans to inject liquidity into financial institutions to enable investors to avail loans and maintain continuity of economic activities.
“It’s a normal practice for the government to inject liquidity into financial institutions so that the money available for investors. We have already held discussions with the RMA,” Dr Lotay Tshering said in an earlier press briefing on March 14.
According to the Prime Minister, banks lack enough liquidity.
He said that economic stimulus plan would be rolled out in phases, the first of which will be targeted at the most affected sector. The first to take a hit were the tourism and allied sectors and thousands of their employees.
Some of the channels through which the economy is expected to be hit are declines in domestic consumption, disruptions in supply of goods and services and expenses in health services.
However, he said that the government would be cautious not to exhaust monetary resources while rolling out the economic stimulus plan.
“If we are not careful, there are chances that all the money would be exhausted by the time we contain the virus,” Dr Lotay Tshering said. He added that both long-term and short-term economic interests would be considered.
He also expressed concerns about possible Equated Monthly Instalments (EMI) defaults.
A Thimphu-based tourism entrepreneur said that EMIs should be suspended until the situation improves. “For a few months, financial institutions and the government should consider EMIs for private enterprises, including hotels, tour operators,” he said.
However, the health of the financial institutions has also become a concern as the economy will face the ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr Lotay Tshering said that the government would to take care of the people in such situations despite the economic concerns. He also hinted at looking into tax policies as one of the possible economic contingency plan.
The Prime Minister said that the government had a huge concern on the economy as almost everyone and enterprises will be impacted. The magnitude of the economic impact will depend on how the uncertain situation will evolve in the coming days.
In its efforts to protect the livelihoods of tour guides, the Guide Association of Bhutan (GAB) last week requested the government to come up with plans to keep guides economically engaged.
GAB president Garab Dorji said that the government had assured that keeping tour guides, and those in hotels and tour companies engaged in different activities like up-scaling training and similar activities was possible.
There are more than 4,300 tour guides in the country, according to the GAB.
There will be no tourists left in the country from March 23. The ban on tourists was supposed to last for two weeks, but the government has announced that it would be extended.
With the price of petrol dropping by Nu 4.01 and diesel by Nu 5.24, fuel price in the capital has dropped to the lowest in recent months.
The price of petrol at Bhutan Oil Distributor (BOD) in Lungtenzampa is Nu 58.63 a litre since March 16, a reduction from Nu 62.64. Similarly, price of diesel is now Nu 53.52 a litre, a drop from Nu 58.76. The price of fuel is the same in BOD, Motithang.
At Druk Petroleum Corporation Limited at Chubachu, the price of petrol is Nu 58.74 per litre at present, a decrease from Nu 62.74. The price for diesel dropped from Nu 58.75 to Nu 53.50 a litre.
At Damchen Petroleum Distributors in Changzamtog, petrol is now Nu 58.74 per litre from Nu 62.74. The price for diesel is Nu 53.50 a litre, a decrease from Nu 58.75.
Petrol price also reduced to Nu 58.64 per litre from Nu 62.49 at the newly opened State Trading Corporation of Bhutan Limited (STCBL) oil station in Ramtokto. Similarly, price of diesel is now Nu 53.40 a litre, drop from Nu 58.50.
Officials at distributor said that unlike the past years, this year recorded sharp slash in fuel price. “The fuel price drop came into effect from March 16 and the LPG price from two weeks ago.”
According to Indian media reports, the drop in price is due to the decline in global fuel prices. Bhutan imports petroleum products from India and price fluctuation could be attributed to the Indian economy.
When the Indian government raises tax rates on crude oil or the refineries in India, fuel price increases in Bhutan.
Meanwhile, the price of subsidised liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) has increased. However, the price of non-subsidised LPG has dropped.
At Motithang BOD, the price of subsidised LPG cost Nu 589, an increase from Nu 579. The non-subsidised LPG cost Nu 882 at present, a decrease from Nu 936.
However, at Druk Petroleum Corporation Limited at Chubachu, subsidised LPG cost Nu 589, an increase from Nu 583. But the price of non-subsidised LPG is same as that of Mothithang.
The price of kerosene remained same as Nu 41.66 per litre at Motithang, Lungtenzampa, and Damchen Petroleum Distributors at Changzamtog.
Bhutan is doing well in the face of COVID-19 threat. There are fears, there is even panic. This is natural.
What is not natural is the dark pictures that the people have begun painting about the disease and nation’s preparedness.
Schools are now being asked to remain closed because gathering of a large number of people could be risky. The lone COVID-19 positive case in the country has flown out. The people—28 of them who had interactions with him, in varying degrees—have all tested negative.
What this means is Bhutan has no COVID-19 positive case as yet. Efforts are being made to keep it this way.
But let us look beyond. The world is shutting down. The important question that we must ask is whether the countries in the region and beyond are bolstering their efforts like Bhutan has and continues to, minute by minute.
Bhutan’s priorities are changing and, will continue to change, because we are reacting to the threat that is coming closer to home. Because we do not have a single COVID-19 case in the country today, precaution and prevention are still our best weapons.
Media, particularly social media, are failing the nation. Inane and questions born from ignorance are only helping spread the fear. There are those who will only consider the country’s economic stats when what the entire country really needs today, this hour, is a clear focus to keep the pandemic away.
Arrangements are being made. If the Bhutanese living across the border need home, the government has a plan for safe and secure homes for all. The digitalisation of education has not taken off but efforts are being made to not interrupt the education of thousands of children in the country.
Bhutan’s response, the way we are standing up to the challenge, is not because we are in dire straits. The country is preparing for the worst-case scenario because regions and nations are failing to keep the epidemic at bay.
What we must know is that South Asia is better prepared than the rest of the world.
The scourge waiting to come to Bhutan and the region is, therefore, a small problem. Hoarding and stocking can be devastating.
Looking beyond is important, yes, but having the courage to look in is by far more important. Now comes the real challenge—to keep it this way.
What we must know is that the government can do only so much. A large number of Bhutanese are returning home from abroad. The number of those under quarantine will only increase in the days to come. What this means is that Bhutan has put stringent measures in place to stop the disease from entering the country.
However, so much depends on the people and their individual actions. Every one of us will be affected somehow or the other but, fortunately, we have so far been able to work together to keep our nation and people safe.
There is no space for selfish acts and questions. That’s how we should carry on. We can do that, each individually, by just washing our hands, maintaining sanitation and hygiene, and not flustering unnecessarily.
Some are ready to go home and work on farms
About 20 tour guides are busy at work at the Guide Association of Bhutan’s (GAB) office in Thimphu—ruffling through papers, taking down details, and continuously having telephonic conversations.
In the past 3-4 days, these guides had been volunteering at GAB’s office to collect details of more than 4,000 tour guides in the country. With the tourism sector badly hit with the COVID-19 outbreak and the earlier two-week restriction on tourists, most of the guides are rendered jobless.
The office is collecting information of the guides to deploy them in different sectors based on their skills and expertise even for a minimal fee to sustain before the government lifts the restriction, which now is extended “until further notice.”
GAB records show that out of 2,900 active guides, 1,866 are freelancers whose main source of income is from tourists. GAB’S executive director Sonam Tashi said: “Freelance guides are the most affected with their source of income gone dry within these few weeks.”
Yesterday, with the government’s announcing an extension of the two-week tourist restriction, the situation is only expected to worsen. While some guides have decided to go to their villages and start farming, others are exploring opportunities to engage themselves.
A freelance guide, Jinpa Phuntsho, the single bread-earner in the family had been participating in voluntary services in the past two weeks. “When guides sit together, we come up with ideas to involve ourselves during this tiring time,” he said, adding that in his 20 years, it is the first time he witnessed such impact.
“I am ready to take up any kind of job in a government or private sector but if the situation worsens, I will go back home and work in my farm,” Jinpa Phuntsho said. But he is also looking forward to domestic tourism. If tour operators could develop tour packages, he said, it would help guides sustain. “It would promote and engage us and generate revenue for the government.”
Another freelancer, Yeshi Gyeltshen, had 18 groups cancelled within two weeks. He said the earnings from these cancelled groups could have sustained him for the whole year. However, he participates in GAB’s activities.
GAB is preparing for the worst. The association’s priority is on the active freelancers. Sonam Tashi said that the office was proposing trainings for guide and conduct interaction meeting among guides to develop new ideas.
The guides are ready to take up works in construction site for a minimal fee, while others are interested to take up roadside tourism activities such as cleaning washrooms on the highways. Most of the guides are skilled and had experience in the vocational and health sectors, teaching, driving, business and farming among others.
Yesterday, more than 300 guides cleaned the thromde area and about 40 guides donated blood at the national hospital.
On March 17, the Tourism Council of Bhutan met with key stakeholders to prepare and implement projects and create new job opportunities to engage the unemployed.
An employment taskforce was formed and is expected to finalise the list of projects within two days.
Tshering Namgyal | Lhuentse
As the name suggests, a dairy farmers’ group called Lhamo Norgyuen (the goddess of wealth) in Minjey gewog in Lhuentse is thriving today.
The group, which was initially formed in 2013 by 26 farmers, failed and most members resigned. Some members even left the villages.
However, 16 members from three chiwogs of Bragong, Jalang and Minjey, revived the group and each member earns about Nu 7,000 to 25,000 a month from selling milk. Each member of the group rears three to 10 Jersey cows.
According to the group members, they have been actively processing and selling the dairy products like butter and cheese since last year and the group sold over 1,100 kg of butter and 16,000 balls of cheese. A kilogramme of butter is sold at Nu 300 while cheese is sold at Nu 40.
Last year, a member, Jampel Dema, who is also the accountant, ran the processing unit. She marketed the products herself. Other members were paid Nu 35 a litre of milk. A record with the unit the shows processed cheese and butter fetched them around Nu 1 million last year.
However, since the beginning of this month, they have agreed to let a group of members, Jampel Dema as the leader and other members taking turns to help, run the unit. The group pays Jampel Dema a monthly salary of Nu 8,000 in a month.
Members said it was much convenient to market their products and it had improved their livelihood.
A member from Jalang chiwog, Yeshi Tshomo, who earned about Nu 9,000 a month from selling 10-litre milk a day, said the group benefitted her market her dairy products easily.
Jampel Dema said except for some surplus butter sold in Thimphu in summer last year, cheese, milk and yoghurt were easily absorbed in the local market,” she said.
However, beginning this month, the group also commenced making yoghurt after they exhibited their first product during the national day celebration last year at Autsho.
The group managed to sell more than 2,300 cups of yoghurt were sold in the market until now. Each cup of yoghurt is sold at Nu 18 to 26 depending on the distance and the transportation cost involved. The customers are mainly schools and livestock products selling counter at Lhuentse town.
Group members said they would now focus more on yoghurt and supply to the schools in the dzongkhag and beyond.
Minjey gewog extension officer, Tashi Tshering, said dzongkhag and CARLEP project also supported the members with 30 percent subsidy on cattle, and material and technical support for dairy shed, silo pit and biogas, besides four to five times dairy-related training in a year.
CARLEP project supported the processing unit with equipment like butter churner, cream separator, milk pasteuriser, curd making machine and deep freezer.
Neten Dorji | Trashigang
Taxi driver Khawjey of Trashiyangtse has a new responsibility. Every time he stops for a passenger, he notes down all the details of the passenger, sometimes at the uneasiness of the valued customer.
Khawjey takes down the name, phone number, citizenship identity card number, residential address and so on in his passenger logbook. This had been the routine when plying between Trashiyangtse and Trashigang in his Bolero taxi since officials from dzongkhag asked him to maintained a logbook.
The details will come handy in tracing people if ever there is a case of new coronavirus suspected.
Khawjey is as cooperative as his passengers. Khawjey said that it is a good idea to trace people, incase a passenger is infected by COVID-19. “It would be much easier to trace all the people who had been together with the infected person,” he said.
Another taxi driver, Sonam Tashi, said that as a responsible citizen, it was their duty to help the government when the country is going through a bad time. “We ought to do more than this, but there is nothing we can do.”
Sonam Tashi had noted down details of more than 10 passengers who travelled between Trashiyangtse and Trashigang. “Sometimes, passenger questioned us, but after explaining to them the reasons, they also cooperate,” he said.
Taxi drivers are also becoming cautious. Thinley Dargey’s taxi is equipped with hand sanitisers and he ensures his passengers use it before entering or leaving his taxi. “It would be much better, if passenger vehicles like bolero and buses could also maintain passenger logbook and sanitisers. Most of the passengers travel in boleros and buses,” he said.
A passenger, Dorji Phuntsho, said that he felt safer when drivers asked him for his details. “It is a good initiative taken by taxi drivers,” he said. He added that he personally feel proud when all people come together and united to fight the threat of COVID-19. “It is the most appreciated and commendable job initiated by taxi driver,” he said.
Meanwhile, taxi drivers are seeing not many passengers as people are avoiding unnecessary travels. A regular commuter along the route and based in Trashiyangtse, Neten Tshering, said movement of people has drastically reduced in the locality, adding that it was a good sign that people are aware about COVID-19. “We don’t get many passengers between Trashiyangtse and Trashigang, but today it was worse,” he said.
Traffic police of Trashigang and Trashiyangtse are monitoring if taxis are maintaining passenger logbook or not.
Almost all the taxi drivers of Trashigang and Trashiyangtse have maintained passenger logbooks. Taxi driver sin Trashiyangtse have started recording details from March 8, while taxi drivers in Trashigang started it on March 13.
A few drivers, who cannot write, said they seek the help of passengers to write down their details.
“Passengers understand and cooperate with us, which is a good sign of coming together to battle COVID-19,” a driver in Trashigang said.
Yangchen C Rinzin
Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering yesterday said that everyone returning from abroad must adhere to strict quarantine standards for two weeks to protect loved ones and communities from contracting the virus.
“Except for those who think they are invincible and that COVID-19 cannot infect them, it is otherwise compulsory for all to quarantine,” he said at a press conference.
He said health ministry’s notifications should be enforced without exceptions of the individual traveller’s status. This he said in response to a question from the media that some travellers who arrived from Bangkok in Drukair were allowed to self-quarantine at home while others were placed at the quarantine centres in Paro.
“We request people to inform us if you know anyone who has returned and is not quarantining, especially those returning from COVID-19 affected countries,” Lyonchhen said.
Lyonchhen said that since many Bhutanese are returning every day, there is a designated officer with the Prime Minister’s Office looking for additional quarantine centres. While some of the hotels came forward to offer as quarantine centres on volunteer, few of the hotels are kept on subsidised rates.
“Those who wanted to offer earlier voluntarily or for free are now hinting towards an offer with charges,” Lyonchhen said. “There are fewer quarantine centres in Phuentsholing, which may not suffice so, we’re looking into taking over some of the schools as quarantine centres.”
Lyonchhen said that although quarantining people incur huge expense it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that there are enough facilities for those coming in. “The health and safety of our people are our primary concern, the cost is secondary. We will ensure there is an adequate budget,” Lyonchhen said.
Following the government’s announcement mandatory quarantine for all travellers, including Bhutanese, 182 Bhutanese are placed in quarantine centres as of yesterday.
Exceptions are made for minors below 18 years who would be sent for home quarantine after an undertaking from parents or a legit guardian.
Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji said that around 100 Bhutanese are returning home from abroad every day, adding to those already in quarantine centres.
“In addition to those in quarantine centres, we’re also monitoring those in home quarantine. They cannot mingle with others for the safety of themselves and those around them,” Lyonpo said.
“We’re keeping a record of how many Bhutanese will be coming to Bhutan every day and all of them will be quarantined.”
On the complaint that a few passengers were granted home quarantine after screening at the airport yesterday, he said that there were people who requested home quarantine.
“A health official team will inspect and ensure that they meet the set quarantine criteria before approving them to stay home quarantine.”
Lyonpo said so far about six passengers had requested home quarantine and the health ministry ensures that quarantining is followed strictly.
“If they wish they can offer the same quarantine to the government after completing two weeks. There is no category or differences for elites and other people to be quarantined,” the minister said.
According to the quarantine criteria, crew members of airlines are exempted from quarantine although they should present for the screening. “The crew members have to quarantine themselves except when they have to attend to their flight duties.”
Individuals like day workers, parents travelling with minors, truckers ferrying boulders and goods, and drivers of passenger bus travelling from Kolkata and Siliguri are exempted from quarantining as per the health ministry’s quarantine criteria.
However, they are subjected to screening and they should observe self or home quarantine as far as possible, as per the criteria. The criteria would change depending on the situation of COVID-19.
Lyonpo also informed that there is no travel restriction for Bhutanese travelling via India, however, they would be subjected to screening if they are travelling from COVID-19 affected countries.
“They would be quarantined if they show any kind of COVID-19 symptoms at the Indian government’s health facilities for free,” Lyonpo said. “The Bhutanese travelling on transit through Delhi to Paro coming from the Middle East will not be quarantined unless they’ve symptoms.”
Three Bhutanese who were returning from Middle East countries are currently quarantined in Delhi.
Lyonpo said that the Indian government has allowed the entry of Bhutanese to India by air or land and urged Bhutanese to contact the nearest Bhutanese Embassy/Mission/Consulate or call the designated foreign ministry officials on their numbers given on the ministry’s website.
However, to travel on transit from India, it is advised to have a layover that is not more than 12 hours else, they would be quarantined. While travelling via Thailand, the layover should not be more than eight hours and passengers are required to download an AOT Airports application on their mobile phones.
“The passenger should fill up individual bio-data and present to the immigration, as this would help to contact the person in case a person in that flight tests positive,” Lyonpo said. “This is why we advise people to take direct flight as much as possible.”
If a person fails to comply or cooperate with the quarantining, he or she shall be liable for the offence of Criminal Nuisance as per Section 410 of the Penal Code (Amendment) Act 2011 and for the offence of obstruction of public service as per the Section 424 of the Penal Code 2004.
Meanwhile, the first batch of 23 quarantined people who had contact with the first COVID-19 patient on March 2 was released on March 17. Another nine Bhutanese were released yesterday. They were released after repeatedly testing negative for COVID-19.
As of March 18
Bhutanese are encouraged to refrain from travel to all countries that have reported cases of COVID-19 infection. In case of unavoidable travels, study travel restrictions of the port of disembarkation (including transit) and take other basic preventive measures.
The foreign ministry has advised Bhutanese travellers to:
Avoid travelling from or transiting through the UK, the EU, the UAE, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait until the restrictions are lifted.
Only transit through Delhi or other Indian airports and not to exit the airports. Have at least 12 hours of layover. Exiting the airport may subject travellers to strict quarantine for 14 days.
Visa on arrival in Thailand for Bhutanese has been suspended until further notice.
Bhutanese travelling to Thailand have to obtain a prior visa and may also be asked to produce a health certificate to say you are free of COVID-19.
Bhutanese travellers transiting via Bangkok are not allowed to move out of the airport. They have to have a layover of 12 hours.
Foreign nationals who have lived or travelled to China, Iran, Italy, the Republic of Korea within the last 14 days need a valid visa to travel to Bangladesh and will be asked to observe self-quarantine for 14 days.
Visa on arrival for all foreigners including Bhutanese have been suspended.
The amount payable works out to Nu 109.12M
Yangchen C Rinzin
The government will, on behalf of the youth who went to Japan on the Learn and Earn Programme (LEP), pay the interest for the loans they availed from Bhutan Development Bank Limited (BDBL) and Royal Insurance Corporation of Bhutan Limited (RICBL).
Handing over the E-fund letter for LEP to the two banks yesterday, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said that His Majesty The King had granted Kidu and waived off the interest on the loan for 743 youth.
Lyonchhen said that the government would instead pay the interest payable to both the banks and the interest on the loans would be waived off with immediate effect.
His Majesty has also granted special Kidu of waiver of both the interest and the principal amount for three of the 743 youth under the LEP. While two youth passed away, Sonam Tamang, is still on life support in a hospital in Japan.
The loan accounts of these three youth will be also considered as closed as of March 15.
Lyonchhen said that the interest would be waived off for all the 740 youth immediately and youth would have to repay only the principal outstanding.
Presenting the financial implication that was worked out with the Royal Monetary Authority, Finance Secretary Nim Dorji said that government would have to pay interest of Nu 109.12 Million (M) to both the banks.
The secretary added that the amount also includes the loan interest and principal amount waived off for three youth.
Secretary Nim Dorji said that 743 youth had availed more than 511M loan under the LEP loan scheme from two banks to study and earn in Japan.
A total of 677 youth availed a loan amount of Nu 700,000 each from BDBL for a term period ranging from five to nine years. A total of 66 youth availed a loan of Nu 600,000 from RICBL for a period of five years.
Both the banks lent the loans at an interest of eight percent.
Secretary said that some youth have been repaying the loan and for this, the interest amount paid will be now adjusted with the principal amount. The youth will have to repay the remaining outstanding principal amount.
Each youth had to pay interest ranging from Nu 151,000 to Nu 284,000 based on the loan term.
However, of the 743 youth, a total of 88 youth have closed their accounts meaning they have paid the entire loan amount with both the banks. This youth will receive back the interest amount they have paid.
Prime Minister said that the government is preparing to bring in Sonam Tamang from Japan by March and the expenditure amounting to USD 14,000 would be born by the government. “Both the banks should work on how to repay the principal amount and implement without any issue as soon as possible.”
The LEP was initiated in 2016 where 743 youth left for Japan through an agent called Bhutan Employment Overseas. However, the programme was faced with challenged after the youth alleged the agency of corruption practices. The case was also reported to Anti-Corruption Commission.
The youth were struggling to repay the loan. The government to solve the issue initiated the loan deferment last year, however, the loan could not be waived off, as requested.
Police also arrested the two owners after youth filed a complaint against agency. Police forwarded the case to Office of Attorney General (OAG) and the case is now with the Thimphu dzongkhag court where the proprietors of BEO are charged for 2,887 counts of forgery.
Meanwhile, parents of the youth thanked His Majesty The King for the kidu. “We are grateful to HIs Majesty’s magnanimous and most gracious kidu granted to our children and their parents,” said a parent.
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
On the first day of mandatory quarantining, the response team in Phuentsholing quarantined 26 Bhutanese, mostly students returning from Sikkim. They will be quarantined for two weeks.
This move is in line with the government’s announcement on March 16 to quarantine all Bhutanese entering the country.
Initially, people hesitated but the officials at the entry point at the main entry gate were able to explain and convince them.
Phuentsholing drungpa Karma Rinchen said they are well-prepared in terms of quarantine facilities.
“We have 22 beds in PHPA guesthouse. There are also eight CDCL guest houses,” he said.
Karma Rinchen said there are also about 104 rooms in the Everest Hotel. Of three Everest buildings, one with 48 rooms has been taken over yesterday.
The drungpa also said additional hotels such as Hotel Legphel and Hotel Sinchula were arranged as standby quarantine facility. CST hostel located at Yonten Kuenjong Academy premise in Toribari has also been already vacated and prepared as a quarantine facility.
Considering the porous cross-border proximity with Jaigaon, the task of identifying Bhutanese entering Phuentsholing is the biggest challenge. The government also said that many Bhutanese who were coming from different places from India were hiding their travel history and sneaked into Phuentsholing discreetly risking people’s lives.
“We know that once people reach Jaigaon, it will be difficult to differentiate,” Karma Rinchen said. Drungpa Karma Rinchen said a mechanism to control such action has been proposed and discussed in a meeting yesterday.
Local people entering and exiting Phuentsholing and Jaigaon respectively would be provided a pass. People will be asked to present this pass while entering into Phuentsholing.
“People may try to cheat us but we will brief them properly about it,” Karma Rinchen said, adding that if one doesn’t produce the pass, they will be quarantined.
The passes will also have the details of the particular holder to crosscheck and confirm. The drungpa said they will review this today morning and implement as soon as possible. “This is the only method; there are no other alternatives,” he said.
Meanwhile, people’s movement in the bordering town has decreased.
In February, response teams at different entry points screened (for fever) more than 40,000 people on a daily basis. Today, the number has decreased to 28,000 to 31,000.
On March 15 and March 16, a total of 28,579 and 31,775 people were screened respectively.
Starting from February 6 to March 16, a total of more than 1.6 million (M) people have been screened. As of March 10, 1.19M people were screened. The counts are done manually.
As of March 16, a total of 3,205 people had declared their travel history in Health Declaration Forms, while 118 people were tested for fever.
Phuentsholing has become a quitter town with most business closed and the hotel industry being hit the hardest. Traffic in the busy border town has also decreased.