The Covid-19 pandemic has forced Dr Lotay Tshering and his administration to pause all its grand plans, reprioritise some of its activities, and pave a new way forward.
The Prime Minister’s State of the Nation to the Parliament is his annual report card and an opportunity to bring the public closer to his government. However, this year, the report was different.
During his 2020 State of the Nation report presented to the Parliament on December 12, Lyonchhen said that as the government was gaining momentum to push its agenda of ‘narrowing the gap’ forward, and build on the foundations laid during the first year, the Covid-19 pandemic brought everything came to an abrupt halt.
It became clear. For a health-driven political party — saving lives became a priority over livelihood, as the threat from the pandemic grew.
However, if the pandemic was a threat, it was also an opportunity. Despite challenges galore, the government delivered, at least in the area of health and keeping the people safe from the virus.
Narrating the event of the past one year, Lyonchhen said that as the pandemic pushed everyone to their limits, Bhutanese witnessed the full unveiling of a compassionate King who cloaked his nation in safety and comfort, taking all concerns and sacrifices upon himself.
“It is this leadership that persuaded us to act on the strengths and qualities that define us as Bhutanese.”
He said that the current state of the nation should not be judged entirely on its own and has to be considered in line with the global perspective, as the pandemic has affected the entire world, irrespective of the size, power, and economic might.
However, he said that compared to some of the countries where the devastation from the pandemic has been far severe, Bhutan suffered a comparatively low impact with personal guidance and support from His Majesty The King.
Lyonchhen highlighted how the nation responded to the pandemic. Lockdown, opportunities and lessons, and fiscal measures for relief, among others were presented in the report.
As a priority sector during the pandemic, health received much attention in the past one year.
Among others, the government endorsed the Accelerating Mother and Child Health Policy and equipped hospitals with X-Ray and ultrasound machines, achieving close to 90 percent coverage.
As a part of the health flagship programme, the health ministry screened about 11,000 women for pap smear in Paro, Bumthang, Mongar, and Punakha.
In the economic front, the economy grew at three percent in 2018, and improved to 5.46 percent in 2019. It was projected to grow further at 6.9 percent in 2020.
However, as containment measures for the pandemic brought large parts of the economy to a standstill, growth was revised downwards to -2.1 percent based on June estimates.
The economic fallout transmitted primarily through the tourism and allied sectors and spread over to construction, manufacturing and other sectors. Industrial production has also been severely affected due to disruptions in trade and labour shortages
In the tourism sector, the gross receipts fell by 92 percent to USD 19.84 million (M) in 2020, from USD 225.87M in 2019. The direct revenue also dropped by 90.4 percent to USD 2.63M in 2020, from USD 27.23M in 2019.
This was as a result of an overall decrease in tourist arrival by 91 percent. This year only 28,937 visitors arrived in the country as compared to 315,599 in 2019. Of this, 6,876 were minimum daily package rate (MDPR) paying tourists (a 90.5 percent drop from 72,199 in 2019); and 22,061 were non-MDPR paying tourists (a 90 percent drop from 219,195 in 2019).
The prime minister also highlighted other major activities in the education, employment, governance, agriculture, foreign relations, and environment sectors.
Moving ahead, Lyonchhen said that it was high time for Bhutanese to start adapting to the ‘new normal’ and redefine its components. “It starts from changing the way we think, of the jobs and skills we require, to the lifestyle we embrace.”
He also assured that the health ministry was working closely with its partners on the approval of emergency use authorisation (EUA) of Covid-19 vaccines, and that all efforts were underway to introduce vaccines at the earliest.
Lyonchhen also outlined major activities in the coming years in various sectors. Besides closely ensuring the Covid-19 vaccines, under the health ministry, he said that the Accelerated Mother and Child Health policy would be implemented.
Starting an MBBS course in the country, and ensuring professional development for nurses through diploma, bachelors and masters programmes would also be introduced.
Professionalising ECCDs under the education sector, and making ICT as a mandatory subject for Classes PP to XII by equipping all schools with at least one computer lab each by March next year are some of the targets set for 2021.
To boost the economy, the government will identify new areas of investment to generate at least Nu 15 billion annually. Exploring investors in green economy and technology, launching the 21st-century economic roadmap and seal leakages by way of enhancing import substitution are also some of the plans put forward.