Triggered by the novel coronavirus outbreak in the beginning of this year, there was a panic buying of rice and other essential items, as well as health products; The Office of Consumer Protection will need to continue to enforce the Consumer Protection Act of Bhutan 2012 rigorously. Particularly, monitoring the supply and prices of essential commodities, disseminating accurate information to the public in a timely manner, as well as sanctioning rogue traders. It needs also to call on importers and retailers to stabilize their supply and price.
The Kuensel newspaper reported recently that the price of some of the essential commodities like rice and potato, among others have increased in most Dzongkhags even as most markets have seen fewer customers each day in the past few weeks.
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic the United Nations is calling for a focus on the protection and empowerment of individuals in the marketplace based on consumer rights, and for co-ordinated strategies across nations and intergovernmental bodies to build fair, safe, resilient and sustainable economies through consumer protection. The areas that need immediate attention, which are directly relevant to the circumstances of Bhutan include, inter-alia:
Vulnerable Consumers in Bhutan
They face the biggest risks in terms of the immediate impact on health and mortality, and the economic downturn that will follow. Covid – 19 pandemic will disproportionately affect people living with non – communicable diseases, in areas with poor air quality, in informal jobs, with no internet connectivity, with inadequate housing or with limited savings.
The right to health is a priority for consumer protection:
This is one of the UN Consumer rights. Health services, education, awareness and implementation of preventive measures should be resourced as a matter of urgency to ensure access for all. Products that help consumers protect themselves from Covid – 19 should be affordable and readily available. Markets for essential products such as disinfectants, masks and gels should be closely monitored to ensure their availability, and if necessary temporary price caps introduced to protect the health of consumers during the pandemic.
Food and essential commodities
Consumers can face shortages and exponential price rises for food and other essential commodities which may cause major detriment as supply chains are facing disruption because of panic buying and a fall in production capacity. Consumers, especially the most vulnerable, must continue to be able to access safe and healthy food. Local markets and livelihoods must be protected and shifts to sustainable practices that align with Gross National Happiness development philosophy should be encouraged.
Excessive pricing and profiteering
The enforcing agencies must enforce legislation, sanction those who charge excessive prices or cause artificial shortages; promote transparency in pricing; introduce limits on pricing of essential goods; act against secondary seller and traders that take advantage of the current situation.
Prioritise stopping the spread of misinformation
Removing content, accounts and groups that spread misinformation and verify and promote trusted content, warn consumers against Covid-19 related scams, and advise consumers how to protect themselves.
Offer financial security
Protection from financial losses from unforeseen changes to circumstances with appropriate refunds or alternatives offered; respect legally guaranteed refunds; and make dispute resolution services work more effectively.
Access to trusted online services and information
Access to trusted services and information becomes more important than ever when the usual access routes to essential goods and services are suddenly disrupted. Internet access for more people could be secured through subsidised devices and data, and increasing data allowances.
The current Covid-19 pandemic will pass. Under His Majesty’s enlightened leadership and the government’s prudent management, our country will emerge stronger and united society if we build on the strong foundations of our culture and values – Values of solidarity, interdependence, mutual assistance and respect for our nature based on the teaching of Lord Buddha.
Contributed by Dophu Tshering
Former Chief Trade Officer
Dept. of Trade, MoEA
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are authors own.