The COVID-19 taskforce is based in Phuentsholing and it comprises of members from key agencies of the government and is chaired by the Home Secretary. Its highest mandate is to prevent transmission and spread of COVID-19 in Bhutan. The key focus areas of the taskforce are preparedness, economy and security.
The taskforce meets daily for coordination and to address issues relating to the 3 focus areas including providing policy recommendations for consideration by the government. They submit the reports to the government on a daily basis. They also carry out field visits and advocate on COVID-19.
According to the taskforce members, economic challenges were many in the beginning, whereby most of the large and medium scale industries are located along the southern border due to advantage of easy access to and from the market.
With the sealing of the international border and lockdown in India, taskforce members stated that the economic activities were disrupted due to closure of factories in India and abroad. The non-availability of specialized manpower and essential workforce has also affected the economy.
In addition, the raw materials and goods in transit to Bhutan are stranded in different places in India. “Market accessibility for export of the industrial goods and minerals has become difficult due to restriction on the movement of people and vehicles, and closure of business establishments of receiving parties,” the taskforce added.
Also, the construction sector in the country also suffered significantly, thereby impacting the downstream sub-sectors.
However, under the leadership and personal guidance of His Majesty The King, several measures were put in place including development and implementation of various Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to facilitate economic activities.
“We have endeavored to keep key economic activities operational through facilitation of import of raw materials for industries and hydropower projects, as well as essential commodities through FCB, wholesalers and retailers based on stringent containment protocols and SOPs,” stated the taskforce.
The taskforce has also facilitated export of a number of different industrial products. All this has been possible due to the support and assistance provided by the Government of India (GoI). Shortage of manpower was addressed through mobilization of Bhutanese who are unemployed.
The government has provided the working capital at nominal interest rates to sustain industries and the economy. The government also allowed industries to pay demand charges at actual consumption and deferred payment for demand charges and energy charges by 3 months.
Government’s first priority was to ensure uninterrupted supply of essential commodities. “We have not only managed to maintain the supply chain but also build sufficient reserves of essential commodities and fuel,” stated the taskforce.
The taskforce is faced with challenges, as the border is long, open and highly porous with many illegal routes. However, “We are mindful of the risks and challenges. We are working closely with all law enforcement agencies to secure the border and prevent transmission of COVID-19,” pointed out the taskforce.
Incidences of smuggling of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances and other cross-border criminal activities, including clandestine entry of people through illegal routes, remain a matter of grave concern. It is a serious offence and those apprehended will face severe consequences.
To curb illicit activities including illegal cross-border movement of people, RBP supported by other law enforcement agencies, DeSuups and volunteers are working hard by intensifying vigilance, surveillance and patrolling.
“At a time when the entire nation under the leadership of His Majesty The King, who is doing every possible thing to prevent the transmission and spread of COVID-19, it is the duty of every citizen to extend their full support, cooperation and act responsibly,” the taskforce added.
Meanwhile, the taskforce said that GoI extended full support and cooperation since the lockdown and ensured that supply of essential and other commodities to Bhutan is not affected.
In addition, the State Government of West Bengal and Assam also extended full support and cooperation in ensuring the supply lines from India remains intact. GoI granted Bhutan concessions despite their containment protocols.
“Our common and shared experiences during this difficult time have further strengthened the bond between our two countries,” the taskforce added.