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Building Back a Battered Bhutan

In their evolving quest to respond to the trials and tribulations of the Covid-19 pandemic, UNDP in Bhutan has been one of our major push factors

By Phurpa Wangmo

When the coronavirus pandemic took the world by storm, Bhutan took swift and decisive measures to seal its borders, quarantine Bhutanese returning from abroad, and prevent community transmission.

For over six months, Bhutan managed to keep the virus at bay. However, on August 11 last year, following the detection of select positive cases at a dry port on the southern border, Bhutan went into lockdown. Contact tracing and testing has led to detection of more cases.

Finally after three consecutive lockdowns, the country is now easing restrictions and slowly opening up in select Dzongkhags while parts of southern Bhutan still remain under the grips of the pandemic.

Bhutan put in place strict preventive measures well before the local cases emerged. The country closed its doors to tourism immediately after the first case (an American tourist) was reported on 5th March.

The southern borders were closed, schools shut and work from home instituted. It’s been a little over a month since Bhutan resumed work from office and relaxed some restrictions when the lockdown was announced.

While Bhutan has managed to avert a public health crisis until now, the country has not been able to escape the pandemic’s crippling economic impacts. Tourism and allied sectors have taken a massive hit.

The indefinite closure of southern borders has led to a slowdown in the manufacturing and trade activities and affected imports. The construction sector, heavily reliant on foreign workers, is faced with shortage of workforce.

A report by UNDP Bhutan titled: Beyond Recovery: Towards 2030 states that the Government’s Rapid Socio-Economic Impact Assessment of COVID-19 on Tourism Sector carried out in April with support from UNDP and other UN agencies showed around two-thirds of the households surveyed rely on tourism for livelihood and three in four households saw their income fall by 50 to 100 percent.

“Many households lack savings to get through the crisis. Unavoidable preventive and containment measures have also hurt livelihoods of people working in other businesses, including informal sectors,” it stated.

Further it stated that His Majesty’s Relief Kidu support for the affected and vulnerable individuals and loan interest waiver coupled with other Government interventions have helped ease their economic difficulties.

“However, with COVID-19 showing no signs of abating and the country now under lockdown, the economic downturn is likely to persist, if not worsen,” the report further cautions.

In response, the next phase of UNDP’s COVID-19 crisis response – UNDP’s Offer 2.0 – is designed to help decision-makers look beyond recovery, towards 2030, making choices and managing complexity and uncertainty in four main areas: Governance, Social Protection, Green Economy, and Digital Disruption and Innovation.

It encompasses UNDP’s role in technically leading the UN’s COVID-19 socio-economic response. 

Among a host of initiatives undertaken by UNDP one vital aspect is on governance and strengthening health systems including through digital transformation.

For this, UNDP plans to introduce mobile cardiotocography to accelerate the health outcomes of all mothers and children, in partnership with Ministry of Health (MoH).

This initiative aims to provide remote services to pregnant women and hence minimize exposure to infections including COVID-19. The 46 project sites cater to over 50% of pregnant women in the country.

Further, it will also aid in supplementing MoH’s efforts to equip frontline health workers and waste handlers providing collection services from quarantine facilities with essential safety gears.

Supporting procurement and establishment of incinerators to manage hazardous waste, capacity building of medical waste handlers and exploring partnerships with the private sector to ensure safer and more efficient medical waste management are also some other initiatives that will be undertaken by UNDP in Bhutan.

One of the chief aims of UNDP Bhutan in covid-19 recovery remains social protection and uprooting inequalities in the country.

For this, the UNDP has supported Rapid Socio-Economic Impact Assessment of COVID-19 on Bhutan’s Tourism Sector for timely and targeted interventions for an estimated 50,000 people working in the tourism and affiliated sectors.

Further, UNDP through the Loden-UNDP COVID-19 Response Fund, ten young entrepreneurs execute green business ideas to help communities navigate the COVID-19 crisis, directly creating employment opportunities for 57 individuals, including single mothers, youths and those whose jobs were impacted by COVID-19, and overall contributing to building back better efforts and climate action.

Empowering survivors of Gender-Based Violence (GBV)and women working in the entertainment sector, LGBTQ, Youth with Substance Abuse Disorders (including recovering), People Living with HIV and other marginalized groups through capacity building and skills development in collaboration with local CSOs also remain their core interest.

Advancing inclusive risk communications and advocacy targeted at elderly and hard-to-reach populations, Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) and survivors of GBV, in collaboration with MoH and local CSOs will also be covered.

Under the Green economy – rebalancing nature, climate, economy – UNDP will support diversification of energy mix to enhance energy security with the implementation of 180 KW Solar Power pilot project.

The project will demonstrate the potential of solar as a viable alternate energy source to hydro power and create green jobs.

Towards this, the organization is working with the Ministry of Agriculture to promote commercial farming in Paro District. Tourism workers affected by COVID-19, 17 farmers groups and cooperatives and 445 individual farmers are being engaged in large scale vegetable production on 3,439 acres of land.

It stated the intervention not only provides immediate jobs to the affected but also enhances Bhutan’s food production and self-sufficiency.

Further, UNDP is protecting the livelihoods of 170 people and their families by engaging them in the enhancement of existing tourism facilities and upskilling and reskilling programs as part of their support to the Government’s Economic Contingency Plan on Tourism Resilience.

They are also contributing towards Tourism of Council of Bhutan’s (TCB) efforts to promote Brand Bhutan amid COVID-19. It stated that the partnership provides immediate livelihood support to the affected and boost the resilience of the sector to such future shocks.

Strengthening the government’s macro-economic framework for policy impact analyses while also providing support to improve the Cottage and Small Industries (CSIs) through a value chain analysis of essential products and identifying appropriate business solutions also remains key.

Finally, UNDP provided ICT equipment to support MoH in the roll out of COVID-19 emergency IT solutions enabling real-time data collection to effectively monitor and respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

They are also partnering with the Judiciary of Bhutan to initiate e-litigation to ensure access to justice and uninterrupted essential social service during the pandemic, and also working with the Parliament of Bhutan in developing a Comprehensive Plan on Parliament Functionality during emergencies.

Finally UNDP is supporting the establishment of Bhutan Innovation Hub and in identifying a strategic direction for the country’s innovation eco-system and contribute towards building a future-ready Bhutan. 

At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, UNDP in March presented a three- to six-month response offer cost at $500m covering three thematic areas across the globe in the areas of Health Systems Support, Inclusive and Integrated Crisis Management and Response, and finally Social and Economic Impact Needs Assessment and Response.

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