Bhutan closed its borders on 22nd March and on 24th March India announced a 21-day lockdown.
Though the Indian government had assured the supply of essential items like food, medicines and fuel the lockdown in India led to much confusion as state level authorities and police started stopping Bhutanese trucks.
The 8/11 store in Thimphu for example had around 7 of its supply trucks stuck in Jaigaon. Many stores had similar stories. Rice carrying trucks headed for Bhutan were also stopped.
The situation was looking tougher by the hour.
However, His Majesty The King personally went down to Phuentsholing to inspect the plans put in place to ensure the uninterrupted supply of essential goods with the closure of the border and the lockdown in India.
Led by His Majesty and the government working on it’s the supply lines could soon be opened up on the Indian side.
However, with COVID-19 fears people in Bhutan ever since the discovery of the first case have also resorted to stocking up on essentials food items due to the fear of a lockdown.
The shops selling essential items reported that they are seeing unusual purchase patterns despite there being no local transmissions of coronavirus. Some of the shop owners stated that this could be due to the recent lockdown in India.
“People might be worried that we may run out of stock and shops might be closed if there was a lockdown. We don’t know yet how things will be if there is a lockdown. This has never happened before, but the government has notified us to keep enough stocks to last up to at least 3 months,” they said.
Retail Manager at My Mart, Yeshi Wangchuk, said, “Currently, there isn’t a panic buying scenario, although there has been more demand for rice, oil, milk, toilet paper, hand sanitizers and other grocery items. As for the availability, as of today (Friday) we have approximately 60-70 % of our stocks.”
The shop owner of Dechen Norbuling located behind the Centenary Farmers’ Market said the shop is crowded with customers these days. She reported that two Eicher trucks full of bags of rice were completely sold out in one day. She said, “No matter how much we are restocking, the essential items are sold out everyday.”
She said she is worried of the overcrowding of customers at her shop, as physical distancing cannot be maintained. “I wonder what are the safety measures for us shopkeepers, as our space isn’t sufficient for people to maintain social distancing of 1 meter as suggested, and normally people are barging in throughout the day uncontrollably. Me and my husband have parents who are in their 70s and 80s and we also have little kids at home,” she added.
Personnel at Shoppers’ Store and Lhatshog Shop Number 7 in Motithang said that they are currently looking at restocking from Tashi Corporation, 8/11 or other local distributors. All the shops stated that regulators from BAFRA, trade office and BCCI had been conducting surveys and advising on equal distribution and sales to people in order to let people have their fair share.
However, some of the shopkeepers stated that despite of trying to keep some form of purchase quotas to couples or people from the same family, but people tend to find loopholes as family members come individually to buy the items.
Inventory manager at 8/11 said they have enough backup stocks to last beyond 3 months as per the government’s advice. She said, “The products on display at the shop is just 1/4 of our stock. We have 3 storage spaces on the first floor. Currently, items like detergent powder, sanitary pads and diapers are in increasing demand among the other popularly bought-out essentials like groceries, toiletries and hand sanitizers.”
While His Majesty has ensured the supply lines are open from India the lockdown in India has meant a lack of laborers from India to unload the goods is also a problem. So for now, shops and businesses like 8/11 they have sent their male staff to collect the items from Phuentsholing. She also said that they had bought enough containers with goods from Bangkok before the virus outbreak.
“While hotel and institutional sales have declined, we are getting a better chance to serve our other customers,” she added.
Branch Manager at Tashi Commercial Corporation, Dargo Sonam, said that they have withheld quite a lot of essential items as per government’s advice to hold up to 3 months’ worth of stock. He said, “We cannot bring in the entire 3 months’ stock at one instance as the supplier will not be able to deliver past a month’s stock. But we can get the stock monthly from our principal company in West Bengal. Currently, there is an issue of lack of laborers for loading and unloading the items.”
The government led by His Majesty has ensured that the supplies for essentials will be uninterrupted and that the Government of India has assured the same despite the lockdown in India.
MoEA Minister Lyonpo Loknath in an interview with The Bhutanese said that, “The government is thankful to the Government of India for the continuous support even during such times.”