MonitorsPublished on Apr 20, 2020
South Asia Weekly Report | Volume XIII; 16

Bhutan: Pandemic and economic resilience

Mihir Bhonsale

Even as the Covid-19 pandemic has hit the world as none other before it, the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has done well in keeping the number of infections at five. Two of them have recovered since. With no new case of virus-transmission reported as yet, the government has set its eyes on recovering from the possible economic onslaught of the virus.

The World Bank has brought down Bhutan’s GDP growth-rate projections to 2.2-2.9 percent from the pre-Covid projection of 6.5. The small South Asian nation that values Gross National Happiness (GNH) as an indicator of measuring social and economic well-being of its citizens, has announced a slew of measures totalling Nu 30 billion

Resilience fund

King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wanchuck, in his address to the nation on 11 April, announced the creation of a National Resilience Fund (NRF) to provide relief and economic stability. The government has rolled out economic measures aimed at giving relief to the ‘hardest hit’, in the words of the Prime Minister, Dr Lotay Tshering.

An important initiative under the NRF is Druk Gyalpo Relief Kidu. The Kidu is aimed at supporting the citizens who have lost their livelihood owing to the adverse impact of the pandemic on businesses. The ambit of the Kidu, that usually carries a cash grant, has been expanded to include accommodation of students’ undergoing treatment in foreign country and conveyance costs of students stuck in foreign land wishing to return back, but can’t afford; for addressing the pandemic.

Other major initiatives undertaken under the NRF include the interest payment relief, fast-track implementation of the 12th Five-Year Plan, and other fiscal and monetary interventions. Repayment has been deferred for all loans that were not in the non-performing loans list as of 29 February, by three months and waiver on interest payment for loans from April to June 2020.

In a bid to revitalise the rural economy, generate employment opportunities and focus on sectors like tourism, agriculture and infrastructure, investments have been frontloaded for implementation of 12th Plan activities. The government has reprioritized Plan programmes and activities to create a fiscal space amounting to Nu 3.7 billion to address immediate challenges.

Affected sectors

The World Bank has flagged that agriculture, construction and export sectors are likely to be badly hit owing to labour shortages and lower external demand and this trend is likely to continue till 2021. Hydropower, tourism and agriculture remain the largest contributors to the nation’s GDP. The World Bank indicated that domestic production of electricity might also decline. Delays in completion of hydropower projects will adversely affect Bhutan’s economy.

The disruption in the regular food imports caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has once again exposed the country’s vulnerability in food security requiring about Nu 944 million or an equivalent of 31 percent of the 12th Plan budget allotted for the sector.

Tourism is the worst hit sector in Bhutan. The livelihood of 50,000 citizens depends on this or allied sectors. With the UN World Tourism Organisation predicting a plunge up to 30 percent in international arrivals and loss of $300-$450 billion, tourism sector would definitely feel the heat.

The continuing lock-down in ‘close friend and neighbour’ India is a major cause of worry for Bhutan. For now the supply of essential goods through the international border continues. However, reliance on India for several imported goods could become vulnerable if the crisis becomes prolonged. Imports from India amount to 82 percent of Bhutan’s total imports. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to the country would be affected. More than 50 percent of FDI comes from India.

Support from India

The nation looks up to the Indian friend to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic. As a demonstration of the ‘special ties’ that the two countries enjoy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called counterpart Tshering on 16 April, expressing concern and extending support for Bhutan as countries deal with Covid-19 situation.

Dr. Tshering expressed gratitude to Prime Minister Modi for the unconditional support India offered to Bhutan at all times, and more so now, when India too was dealing with crisis presented by the pandemic. On his Bhutanese counterpart’s request, Prime Minister Modi also agreed to the reprioritization of activities and projects supported by India under the 12th Plan. India has committed an assistance of Nu. 4500 crores and additional Nu.400 crore for transitional trade support facility.

Besides, medical donations, India has ensured the supply of goods and essentials despite the lock-down in the neighbouring country and has assured Thimphu that it would continue to stand close in fighting the pandemic.

Afghanistan: COVID exposes weaknesses in health infrastructure

Shubhangi Pandey

As the world struggles to deal with the devastating impact of COVID-19, Afghanistan is stuck in the clutches of not one but multiple crises that are interdependent, and continuously exacerbating each other. Despite the Afghan government releasing 300 Taliban fighters and the Taliban following up with the release of 20 Afghan security personnel, the intra-Afghan talks and as a result, the peace process, have hit a snag.

The Taliban had demanded the release of 15 of their senior commanders in the first phase of prisoner swap, while the government stood steadfastly against it, releasing only low-risk inmates, in a piecemeal manner. As expected, the Taliban have threatened to resume full scale attacks if terms of the agreement with the US – a significant condition being the release of 5000 militants – are not met.

Politically too, the situation is fragile as the two rival camps that emerged as a result of the disputed presidential election, that of Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, have refused to reconcile differences to form an inclusive, united government. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent visit aimed at facilitating a compromise between the two parties also failed, and led to the U.S. initiating massive aid cuts to Afghanistan.

Inadequate preparedness

In the midst of growing political instability, emerging complexities in the peace process, and significant aid cuts, the coronavirus outbreak is intensifying the struggle on all fronts in Afghanistan. As on 15 April 2020, with 56 new cases reported in the last 24 hours, the total tally of those infected stood at 840, as per the Afghan Ministry of Public Health (MoPH).

There have been 30 deaths due to COVID-19 in the entire country, and the number is likely to shoot up over the next few weeks. A key laboratory at the Afghan-Japan Hospital in Kabul, one of the few that are equipped to test samples for COVID-19, have stopped taking in new testing requests due to a massive backlog of tests to be conducted. The laboratory has the limited capacity of testing 300 samples in 24 hours, but thousands of samples are submitted every day.

While some analysts are raising doubts about the government underreporting the cases and concealing the ground reality, what remains undisputed is the gross inadequacy of the Afghan healthcare system to deal with a crisis as extensive as the coronavirus. The nation’s Global Health Security (GHS) Index is 32.2, which suggests that the country’s healthcare system is one of the most ill-prepared infrastructures, to deal with the threat of potential crises such as COVID-19. In other words, the lack of contingency planning for health crises, limited abilities for early detection and testing, and the inability of the healthcare sector to operationalize preparedness owing to lack of funding, could prove disastrous for the country, especially in the case of the current pandemic.

On 15 April, the Ministry of Finance (MoF) announced that the government needed around $ 400 million to be able to adequately respond to the deadly challenge posed by the coronavirus. Given the recent US decision to cut $1 billion in aid, and the largely foreign aid-dependent nature of the Afghan economy, it is not surprising that the establishment has turned to requesting additional aid from international donors, and is transferring funds from existing budgetary units into the country fund for COVID-19.

Around $140 million has been appropriated collectively from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank funds at the disposal of the government. Afghanistan also featured in the list of 25 vulnerable countries that will be recipients of the immediate debt service relief, provided by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) under the Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust (CCRT), aimed at addressing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Migrant influx

Despite persistent risks and insecurity, the borders of Afghanistan have witnessed a steady influx of Afghan migrants returning from Iran and Pakistan. While the number of migrants that crossed over into Afghanistan from Iran stood at 60,000 in March, over 1,500 Afghans continue to return home every day. Additionally, thousands of Afghan citizens crossed over from Pakistan into Afghanistan when the border was temporarily reopened the week before.

Given that Afghan migrants in both Iran and Pakistan usually work as daily wagers, the impact of COVID-19 for them is likely to be beyond health. The work of contractual labourers has suddenly ceased to exist in the presence of various region-wise lockdowns, rendering the workforce income-less, fighting for their survival everyday.

While Afghan migrants in Iran and Pakistan are struggling to meet daily living costs of food and accommodation, let alone pay medical expenses, the condition of workers in Afghanistan is as bad. With the closure of more than 36,000 shops and factories in the province of Herat since lockdown was announced almost a month ago, thousands of workers have lost their jobs. Construction work and infrastructure development work has also stopped in the province, aggravating poverty levels and threatening the very survival of a large section of the population.

On 13 April 2020, the Health Minister Ferozuddin Feroz addressed the parliament and said that carelessness and a lack of adherence to recommended health practices, will exacerbate the impact of the pandemic, leaving each citizen more vulnerable than before, to contracting the virus. While the onus of limiting the spread of the virus indeed lies with the people at large, it is incumbent upon the government to effectively utilise the support being extended by international organizations/donors, to enhance the capacity of healthcare personnel and the larger health infrastructure of the country, in order to fight the pandemic.

Country Reports


Ceasefire call rejected

On 15 April 2020, President Ashraf Ghani released a video message to implore the Taliban to comply with the United Nations’ earlier call for a comprehensive ceasefire, which would enable the country to fight the COVID-19 outbreak more effectively. The Taliban rejected the ceasefire plea, and went on to accuse Ghani of blocking progress on peace by refusing to release Taliban inmates as per the US-Taliban peace agreement. The rejection followed the Taliban launching an overnight attack on an Afghan Army post in the Charkh district of Logar province, killing 9 soldiers.

4G internet on trial basis

On 14 April 2020, a government-owned telecommunications firm named Salaam, working under the auspices of the Afghan Telecom Company, initiated the provision of 4G internet services on experimental basis, in the northern sector of the city of Kabul. The company also stated that along with the provision of 4G services on trial basis, they would invest around $20 million to enhance the general delivery of internet throughout the country. Although the Salaam enterprise has cut down the cost of availing its internet services, many residents in Kabul continue to complain of low-quality internet.


Bangabandhu killer executed

Abdul Majed, a former army officer and one of the killers of the country’s first President and father of the nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was executed on 12 April. Majed was arrested earlier in this month on his return from India, where he was hiding for around 23 years. In 1998, a Dhaka Court sentence death penalty to Majid and 11 of his accomplish for the conspiracy and killing of Bangabandhu with almost entire of his family member in 1975. Majed fled from the country before the sentence was pronounced. Earlier 5 of Majed’s companions were executed in 2010. Majed’s execution coinciding in the birth centenary year of Bangabandhu is regarded as a befitting tribute to the country’s icon.

Rohingya refugees rescued

Around 400 Rohingyas were rescued by the coast guard from a fishing trawler that drifted in the sea.  Nearly 32 onboard died and rest of the people, primarily, women and children were suffering from starvation since the trawler was on the sea for 58 days. The board was destined for Malaysia but was denied entry due to outbreak of Covid19 pandemic. The coastguard intercepted the board after it enter the Bangladesh’s territorial waters. Rohingyas, an ethnic community residing in Myanmar’s Rakhine province, are the most persecuted communities in the world and have been vulnerable to human trafficking where they are lured by the traffickers take perilous journey by the sea in search of a better life in Southeast Asia. In 2015 hundreds of them died in one of such voyages.

Garment workers protest

Demanding wages workers of readymade garment (RMG) factories undertook country-wide demonstration this week.  The disbursement of the wages of the (RMG) is facing jolts due to the reduction in order in the factors due to slowing of the global economy due to outbreak of the Covid19 pandemic. RMG country’s biggest employer of industrial manpower is facing around $6billion due to the pandemic.


Modi calls PM

Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi called Prime Minister, Dr Lotay Tshering on 16 April, extending concern and support for Bhutan as countries deal with Covid-19 situation. Dr. Tshering thanked Prime Minister Modi for the unconditional support India offered to Bhutan at all times, and more so now, when the country itself was dealing with numerous issues. Prime Minister Modi also agreed to the reprioritization of activities and projects supported by the Government of India. Dr.Tshering said such adjustments will make it convenient for the government to align with the Covid-19 situation.

India lock-down hits cement export

Lockdown in India and border sealing has affected Dungsam Cement Corporation Limited’s (DCCL) export and sale, claims the company that shows zero export sale and revenue production and sales since March 21. From January 1 till March 21 sale the sale was 75,000 metric tonnes where the company earned a revenue of about Nu 323 million. Although there is market for domestic product, sales have reduced by half because the products are supplied through internal routes which has increased the transportation cost and price. DCCL has the capacity to produce 3,000MT of clinker and 4,130MT of cement per day.

Covid relief fund

One of the major initiatives covered under the Nu. 30 billion National Resilience Fund is the Druk Gyalpo’s Relief Kidu, set to benefit citizens who have been laid off or a placed on reduced salaries. Other major initiatives include the interest payment relief, fast track implementation of the 12th five-year Plan, and other fiscal and monetary interventions.


Lockdown extended

Prime Minister Modi declared on 14 April that the nationwide lockdown that started from 24 March would be extended for another 19 days till 3 May in an attempt to stall the growing spread of coronavirus infections in the country. The PM also hinted that subject to the status of the surge in the cases in the next one week, some specific sub regions and districts can be given some relaxations if the cases in such areas appear to be in control after 20 April.

Rahul on Covid-19

Opposition Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in his first online news conference told the government that the lockdown strategy alone will be inadequate for fighting the spread of Covid-19 and the government must take up aggressive testing. Mr Gandhi also suggested relief measures to support the poor and requested the government to take measure for dealing with the economic hardships due to the pandemic.


Nation-wide curfew?

With the authorities identifying the 15th covid-positive case in the densely-populated capital of Male, there is at present talk of a nation-wide lock-down, beginning with an island-to-island travel-ban. Meanwhile, the Government has sought fiscal assistance from the IMF even as OPEC has cleared a $ 20-m credit for Maldives.


ASEAN Summit on COVID-19

On 16 April, State Counsellor and Chairperson of the National-Level Central Committee on Prevention, Control and Treatment of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), Aung San Suu Kyi, participated in the video conferences of the Special ASEAN Summit and the Special ASEAN Plus Three (APT) Summit on COVID-19. In the said summit, the Leaders shared their national efforts as well as experiences and best practices in the prevention, control and treatment of COVID-19. The Leaders also exchanged views on promoting public awareness and people’s participation in preventing and controlling COVID-19, strengthening exchange of real-time information on the situation on the ground and response measures taken by each country, providing appropriate assistance and support to the nationals of ASEAN Member States affected by the pandemic in each country.

Migrant workers return from China

From 16 April onwards, more than 15,000 Myanmar migrant workers will return from China and pass through the Kachin State border. This return will further stretch the already limited resources of the government in dealing with the pandemic. According to U Nay Win, Kachin State social welfare minister, there are plans to monitor people suspected of suffering from COVID-19 infection at the border gates, but there are no specifications regarding the number of quarantine facilities have been prepared or how many test kits have been allocated to the region.


SC orders repatriation

The Supreme Court has been extremely pro-active in rescuing the Nepali nationals stuck abroad amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, an interim order has been issued by the apex court ‘ordering’ the government to prioritize the safety of such people immediately, especially the migrant workers, since they would not be able to come back at the moment. Concerns about discrimination against them were also elaborately discussed.

Cylinder trouble

Amidst the lockdown, liquefied petroleum (LP) gas bullets are not being able to unload gas to the respective plants as they themselves are not receiving the empty cylinders from consumers. According to sources, around one million cylinders have been circulated in the market. Also, these bullets come in from India, thereby threatening trade in the long run.  Similar losses have also been witnessed in the dairy industry as well, where products worth Rs 5 billion have been wasted. These circumstances might have long term implications to the Nepali economy.


Debt relief from G-20

As economic hardships from Covid-19 become more severe, G-20 countries have decided to include Pakistan in their debt relief plan. The G-20 decision was made after the World Bank and International Monetary Fund advised the group to extend relief for poorest countries to tackle coronavirus. Under the plan, the debt services falling due from May-December 2020 will be packaged as a new loan. Prime Minister Imran Khan has appreciated the gesture as the country is under heavy external debt amounting $107 billion. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, citing Imran Khan’s campaign for debt-relief to poor countries, described the G-20 announcement Pakistan’s diplomatic achievement.

$ 1.,3-b loan from IMF

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has approved a loan of $1.3 billion for Pakistan. The loan will enable Pakistan to meet urgent balance of payments needs stemming from outbreak of Covid-19. It will also help Pakistan increase public health spending and strengthen social safety net programmes through immediate relief to poor sections of society.

Mullahs protest lock-down

Radical clerics and mullahs have expressed their displeasure at the government’s decision to extend the lockdown to control the rapid rise in number of coronavirus cases in Pakistan. According to reports, 53 senior radical clerics from Rawalpindi and Islamabad have warned the authorities against restrictions of congregations in mosques. They said that lockdown is not applicable to mosques and congregation prayers.

Sri Lanka

Row over polls

Even as reports have indicated the easing of covid curfew from Monday, 20 April, a political controversy is emerging over the conduct of parliamentary polls, originally fixed for 25 April, but countermanded by the Elections Commission (EC), in the face of the pandemic crisis. While Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has said that the EC should fix a date as it was unable to conduct the elections on the date fixed by President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the ruling SLPP has said that they were ready for the polls but the Opposition was afraid of certain defeat. Various Opposition parties, including the UNP, SJB, JVP, TNA and SLMC have since written to the EC to delay the polls further, owing to the social distancing and other aspects of the Covid crisis that could hamper door-to-door campaigning. The main issue is about the desirability of the President notifying the cancellation of Parliament dissolution, ordered on 2 March, and let the House function until the original due date, 1 September, with elections held closer to the deadline.



Opinion Pieces

Julian Rizk, “Afghanistan Sinks Deeper into Political Turmoil”, The Organisation for World Peace, 16 April 2020

Emran Feroz and Mohammad Zaman, “The Coronavirus Pandemic Hasn’t Stopped the War in Afghanistan”, Vox, 16 April 2020

Kathy Gannon, “Taliban Say US Bombing Insurgents at Home Contrary to Deal”, The Diplomat, 16 April 2020


Afghanistan Times, “It’s Time to Fight COVID-19, Not Ourselves”, 15 April 2020


Opinion Pieces

Sabina Faiz Rashid, “The dilemma between hunger and a pandemic”, The Daily Star, 17 April 2020

ShahedulAnam Khan, “Covid-19 and its aftermath: A national council is imperative”, The Daily Star, 12 April 2020


Opinion Pieces

Azusa Kubota, “Building back better towards a new normal”, Kuensel, 15 April 2020


Kuensel, “Reaching the needy”, 17 April 2020


Opinion Pieces

Amartya Sen, Raghuram Rajan and Abhijit Banerjee, “‘Huge numbers may be pushed into dire poverty or starvation…we need to secure them’”, The Indian Express, 17 June 2020

Chidambaram and Praveen Chakravarty, “A blueprint to revive the economy”, The Hindu, 17 April 2020

T M Thomas Issac, “What nation can learn from Kerala: Lockdown is not enough. Preparedness, decentralisation, are key”, The Indian Express, 17 April 2020

Manvendra Singh, “Memories of hunger, fear of dying without care, lie behind migrants’ long trudge home”, The Indian Express, 17 April 2020

Yamini Aiyer, “The State needs to step up, urgently”, Hindustan Times, 17 June 2020


hindustantimes, “PM Modi’s speech: A mixed bag”, 14 April 2020

The Hindu, “Across the gulf: On stranded Indian workers”, 17 April 2020

The Indian Express, “Sobering Portent”, 17 April 2020


Opinion Pieces

Wei Yan Aung, “When Myanmar Rallied the UN Against the Chinese Nationalist Army Invasion”, The Irrawaddy, 17 April 2020

Nan Lwin, “Myanmar Reports 10 New COVID-19 Cases; Total Rises to 38”, The Irrawaddy, 12 April 2020

 Aung Zaw, “In Myanmar, It’s Time to Stop the Senseless War and Fight COVID-19”, The Irrawaddy, 12 April 2020


The Irrawaddy, “Myanmar Pastors Face Prosecution for Defying Ban on Religious Gatherings Amid COVID-19”, 14 April 2020


Opinion Pieces

Bharat Gotame, “Community is the key”, Republica, 17 April 2020

Arjun Poudel, “While dealing with Covid-19, government should not lose sight of other infectious diseases, say doctors”, The Kathmandu Post, 17 April 2020

Milan Katuwal, “Pandemics and risk management”, The Himalayan Times, 16 April 2020

Ram Prasad Dhital, Bibek Raj Kandel, “How lockdown is impacting power sector”, Republica, 15 April 2020


The Kathmandu Post, “Bring them home now”, 16 April 2020

The Kathmandu Post, “Test, test, test”, 15 April 2020


Opinion Pieces

Asha’ar Rehamn, “Partial column”, Dawn, 17 April 2020

Dr Mansoor Ahmar, “As the pandemic crisis deepens”, The Express Tribune, 17 April 2020

Aqdas Afzal, “Pandemic economics”, Dawn, 16 April 2020

Zeeshan Ahmad, “Spoilers may cast shadow on Pakistan’s FATF commitment”, The Express Tribune, 15 April 2020

Talat Masood, “Pakistan is no stranger to mega-crises but this is different”, The Express Tribune, 15 April 2020

Inam Ul Haque, “Changes in global leadership — post-pandemic”, The Express Tribune, 16 April 2020


Dawn, Debt relief, 17 April 2020

Dawn, Congregational prayers, 17 April 2020

The Express Tribune, Ease in lockdown, 15 April 2020

Sri Lanka

Opinion Pieces

M S M Ayub, “Opposition locked down”, Daily Mirror Online, 17 April 2020

Ameen Izzadeen, “Covid-19 pandemic: Democracy’s health at stake”, Daily Mirror Online, 17 April 2020

Ravi Nagahawatte, “Challenging times continue after Easter”, Daily Mirror Online, 17 April 2020

Jehan Perera, “Need for politics to remain within the frame of Constitution”, The Island, 16 April 2020

Kumar Shanmugam, “Careful and balanced restart of economy needed”, The Island, 16 April 2020

N Sathiya Moorthy, “Ending dead-lock or encouraging defections?”, Colombo Gazette, 15 April 2020

N Sathiya Moorthy, “Katchchativu: TN wanting to have the cake and eat it too?”,, 11 April 2020


Daily Mirror Online, “After Covid 19, a just and fair society”, 18 April 2020

The Island, “Our culture of impunity”, 18 April 2020


Afghanistan: Shubhangi Pandey

Bangladesh: Joyeeta Bhattacharjee

Bhutan: Mihir Bhonsale

India: Ambar Kumar Ghosh

Maldives & Sri Lanka: N Sathiya Moorthy

Myanmar: Sreeparna Banerjee

Nepal: Sohini Nayak

Pakistan: Ayjaz Wani

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