Younten Tshedup

An economic contingency plan is being devised although no major economic disruptions have been reported following the first COVID-19 case in the country.

Officials from the Royal Monetary Authority (RMA) said that Bhutan might, if at all, feel the economic distress towards the end of the month.

On the command of His Majesty The King, an emergency meeting between RMA and the finance ministry was held on March 8. 

“A contingency plan is being devised and possible measures would be put in place,” said Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji, during a press briefing yesterday.

Following the detection of the first positive COVID-19 case on March 5, a two-week travel restriction has been imposed in the country.

Lyonpo said that given most of the tourists who came to Bhutan stayed in the country for about seven days, the country would have zero tourists possibly by March 15. “Therefore, tourism industry would be the first sector that would be severely hit, including hotels and restaurants.”

Although no concrete decisions have been finialised yet, the minister said that some sort of financial and monetary incentives were being considered for those affected in these sectors.

“However, since we are currently in the orange zone, it would be too early to decide anything for now, but we’ve already started working for the worst case scenario,” he said. “We are hopeful that in the next two weeks things should be returning to business as usual with more precaution. We are however, very much aware of how this would impact our economy.” 

Govt. explores measures

The government has already formed a multi-sectoral task force to develop economic response plan to protect the economy from taking major hit due to the consequences of COVID-19. 

The finance and economic affairs ministries, RMA, financial institutions, Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the National Statistics Bureau are studying the possible impact the disease on the domestic economy.

With uncertainty concerning the restriction of labour, the construction industry could consider replacing them with local workforce to make up for the shortage, a press release from the Prime Minister’s Office, states.

The government is also considering whether the 12th Plan activities could be changed or reprioritised to tackle the challenges in hand.

The Prime Minister yesterday, met with the Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC) and the Royal Civil Service Commission (RCSC) and have asked the two agencies to have plans in place should the country enter into red zone, which calls for complete lockdown.

“While everything is under control for now, our plans and programmes are designed for untroubled times,” Lyonchhen said. “But, we should also be looking at reprioritising our activities and budget should the situation worsen.”

The two agencies have been asked to ensure that meetings and travels are carried out strictly to propel critical activities, while routine ones could wait.

Agriculture ministry is working towards ensuring adequate food reserve and to develop procedures to prevent hoarding. And economic affairs ministry is expected to enforce price control mechanism effectively.

Lyonpo Dr Tandi Dorji said that although the country  was  currently in the orange zone, the government was working on the preparations and plans for the red zone. “If incase we have to move to the red zone, all activities are in full swing.”

The orange zone is a situation where there are one to two positive cases whose immediate (primary) contacts are all identified. A red zone would be declared when there are multiple positive cases across the country. The whole country would be put under quarantine and lockdown.

Lyonpo said that the government was receiving support from many private individuals and groups, including international partners for COVID-19 preparedness and response.

He said that the Bangladeshi government donated 12,000 hand sanitisers to the health ministry. The Bhutanese embassy in Bangladesh is working closely with the private companies there to procure  surgical face masks and hand sanitisers, he added.

Given the shortage of these items in most of the private pharmacies, lyonpo said that an alternative source was identified in Bangladesh to deliver the consignments. “We hope this would help us restock the face masks and hand sanitisers supply in the pharmacies and if possible make them available at a subsidised rate.”

Despite having a standing rule in Bangladesh that prohibits export of surgical face masks, the government requested Bangladeshi government to allow the supply. 

The government would be procuring around 150,000 face masks and hand sanitisers from Bangladesh.

Although the use of face masks is not recommended for healthy persons without any flu-like symptoms, lyonpo said that the government was making them available because of the heightened demand.

Bhutanese embassies in Delhi and Bangkok are also working on procuring the necessary stocks.

Meanwhile, the health condition of the 76-year-old COVID-19 patient at the national referral hospital is improving.