The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been so monumental that we were impelled to “reprioritise” our development plans. What this means is that a large number of the 12th Plan targets will be difficult to achieve, lending a new meaning to planned development itself. Some of the important national and local development plans have been realigned successfully but many have been put on the back burner on account of resource and attention that the pandemic continues to demand. Our battle against the unrelenting virus, in all likelihood, will drag on for some time yet, but there are some significant lessons that we have learnt along the way which the government of the day would do well to not turn a blind eye to or sideline them for political expedience.
While we must appreciate what we could achieve even in these difficult and challenging times, basking in it is what we can ill afford. Community transmission of Covid-19 would have overwhelmed the country’s health system completely, leading to panic and failure to deal with the onslaught of the pandemic the likes of which can be seen elsewhere. Our experience from the pandemic has been that there are opportunities that we must seize which will stand us in a better position in the face of future events of such nature and magnitude. However, recognising the opportunities is one thing, investing in them now so that we are able to build resilience to tackle future adversities is a different thing altogether.
When international borders had to be shut in the wake of surging Covid-19 cases and threats in the region and beyond, Bhutan’s vulnerability in many areas from food and fuel to construction and employment was laid bare like never before. It was a sobering thought that even as self-sufficiency has been the central theme of our development plans since the 1960s, we have come nowhere near achieving it in the country’s almost 60 years of development journey. Recently, agriculture development got a new lease of life, triggered largely by the shortage of vegetables and other food items, but the government’s focus on urban agriculture programme — initiated to address the possibility of increasing food shortage in the country — is falling apart with entrepreneurs surrendering the projects back to the government.
The construction sector also took a severe blow. Filling the gap of shortage of skilled worker in the sector with young Bhutanese jobseekers has not worked as expected, resulting in a long line of project delays in both government and private sectors. Even as demand for skilled workers continues to rise, unemployment among youth has been growing. The many activation schemes that the government has recently made available to the increasing number of jobseekers in the country do not seem to be helping in creating employment.
What we need to realise is that in talking about self-sufficiency and building a resilient system, it is not as if all other sectors and areas of development are less important. Education, for example, saw what could perhaps be called the biggest change. In a way, Covid-19 forced us to embrace what has come to be known as remote or online learning which we ought to have incorporated into our system way long ago. Education in 21st century, driven by rapid technological development, demands that teaching-learning moves beyond the four walls of classroom. These are positive changes from where we can only build on for a more perfect and responsive system.
But the challenges remain for the government to give a big push to self-sufficiency in the broader perspective. That is to say that even when not threatened by situations like Covid-19, we should be able to feed ourselves and have enough builders to keep our projects going. Sensible and long-term planning seems to be in short supply. True development happens only when we find the courage to go beyond recognising the challenges and opportunities. The time to invest in self-sufficiency is now.