With around 80 percent of Bhutanese expected to be fully vaccinated soon, there is increasing pressure on the government from large sectors like Construction and Tourism to open up or lighten restrictions.
However, the Prime Minister Dasho (Dr) Lotay Tshering in an interview to The Bhutanese said that whatever is done on the economic front will be done within the COVID-19 norms.
Lyonchhen said that when people call for opening up economically it is not something colorful or new as the government has already opened up the internal economy and so economic activities are going on and local business outlets are making good profits.
He said the opening up is with reference to the requests to lighten the quarantine restrictions for tourists by the TCB based on the mood around the world and also the example of Thailand opening up to fully vaccinated tourists from select countries.
The TCB had recently put up a proposal to the Prime Minister to reduce the 14-day quarantine to 7 days by December and 3 days in January and then later consider doing away with it even.
However, on this aspect the Prime Minister said that the nation will take a wait a watch approach. He said the TCB proposal was put up to him to be put in the National COVID-19 Taskforce, but he does not feel the time is even right to put such a proposal in the taskforce and so it is still with him.
There is some speculation on the possibility of more relaxations after June 2022 which is when the loan deferment and loan Interest Payment Support also comes to an end.
Lyonchhen said that come June 2022 the actions will be taken depending on the situation at the time, but even if there are any measures it will not be a sharp or abrupt end to restrictions to be replaced by something else. He said that it will be a smooth and gradual process.
The PM said that to prepare for that time the government is already in discussion with the Financial Institutions and so there will be some provisions put in place when that crucial month comes up.
Lyonchhen said that depending on the COVID situation at the time they will either have to let the people work, let businesses run and generate revenue or they have to feed the public. He said it could even be a combination of the two.
The PM said that around two months ago no one talked about reducing the 21-day quarantine period and in fact it was highly regarded, but now it is 14 days.
He pointed out that more and more countries are opening up, and if they are able to handle it well through acquired or inbuilt immunity then that will give more confidence.
Lyonchhen said that in terms of interventions against COVID-19, Bhutan has taken actions way ahead of other countries and has been 10 times stricter, and so in terms of any opening it will be bound to be behind others with a conservative approach.
“Due to the economy no one has had to miss a meal or come out on the street,” said the PM.
The PM said the approach so far has been to win the COVID war and keep a close eye on the economy.
He said the biggest advantage for Bhutan is that Bhutan has a mostly informal and small economy with no role in the global supply chain.
He also said while Bhutan does use GDP it also a GNH country and it is not all about money, but also happiness of the people and overall management. He said if a happiness survey is done and it shows that people are happy like before COVID then that is a big achievement.
He said while there is a middle class it is small and growing. “Our per capita income using GDP may be USD 3,000 but not even 20 percent of Bhutanese will be earning at that level so when the GDP shrinks the rest do not feel it as they never earned that high income.”
He said until now the government supported 100 percent of the population, but now 90 to 95 percent are supported and rest who had higher income must be feeling the brunt, but he said Bhutan is not in trouble as long as the income of the majority are not hit.
The PM said as much as they are gearing for a revival they will not compromise on health because they do not want to make any moves by which they will be losing on both the COVID-19 and the economic front.
On the GDP growth rate going from -6% to -10% he said the drop happened due to only Nu 7 bn and he stressed that the economic fundamentals are still intact and the majority of Bhutanese are not bearing the economic brunt.
Lyonchhen said that if growth is the only aim and if the government lifts all the restrictions then growth would come back quickly again along with a large number of infections.
He said that such a growth would also end up being a jobless growth due the structure of the Bhutanese economy.
Lyonchhen said the move now must be for economic transformation and so he has asked the Labour Minister and the Minister for Economic Affairs to spend more time together and create three to four new industries which can employ youth and which has not been done before.
He cited the Dessung skilling program and the kinds of skills it is bringing in.