Sunday, September 6, 2020

Nationwide lockdown and key takeaways: things we can learn as we step into the new normal

When I opened my eyes suddenly it was raining outside the window. I don’t remember how long I had fallen asleep on the couch, I must have fallen asleep reading as the book was lying face down on my chest and my neck was sore. The clock showed 5:30 in the afternoon. 

My immediate wish was to go back to my nap listening to the sound of the rainfall. Ah! Who doesn’t love sleeping to the sound of rainfall? Instead, I shrugged the idea, quickly got up, and fixed myself a cup of coffee. With coffee in hand, I sat by the balcony to watch the rainfall because that’s the farthest hangout zone for now.

I don’t exactly remember the last time I sat outside like today to watch the summer rainfall. When was that? Was that when I was a freshman in college? Because that’s the only vivid memory I have of sitting by the window on rainy summer evenings with coffee, reflecting and writing my journal or reading a book. 

That was some 15 years ago. Wow! Where did the years go in between? 

It took 15 long years for me to sit down for a self-reflection. Had the nationwide lockdown not happened on August 11 with the first community transmission detected outside the quarantine facility, I wonder how long it would take…

Although the sudden lockdown of 21 days caused great inconvenience to everyone, I’m sure everyone has had the time to reflect on the new reality and has emerged a little more skilled at everything; be it at baking, culinary skills, gardening, reading more, and exercising and bonding with family which one may have never gotten. 

Personally, it came at the right time - I could get some much-needed respite from office work, ample time for self-reflection, and endless sleeping and reading time. I could finish books from 9 months ago and got enough rest and exercise. Just like how our body needs rest to heal and rejuvenate, mother earth needs the same thing. It was a call for us to pause and heal; mentally, spiritually, and physically and come out with a renewed sense of purpose to make the world a better place.
The first week was a whirlpool of emotion and it was overwhelming for me to process the gravity of the situation when every essential good was flying off the shelf of grocery stores. It was mayhem everywhere and I’m sure patience was our middle name. However, the most natural and good thing is humans learn to adjust and adapt quickly and we tried to adjust accordingly. By the end of week 2 of lockdown, I’m sure everyone was settled in comfortably.
We are living in such a strange and unprecedented time in history. If you had told me last year how 2020 is going to be, I would have laughed it off. With so much progress in human history over the last couple of centuries, humankind has never expected such a tumultuous time in history where hugging, hand-shakes, and any contact that is less than 6 feet distance is a threat.

Doesn’t it seem like a scene out of a dystopian novel/film for that matter? In a span of six months, everything changed. Social/physical distancing, quarantine, lockdown, mitigation, shelter in place are the new buzzword that reigns our lives now. Welcome to the new normal!
The geopolitical situation of Bhutan

Waking up every morning to the increasing case of COVID-19 cases is the new normal. Community transmission was inevitable given the porous border we share with India, with one of the highest COVID-19 cases and deaths and the hotbed of the pandemic besides the US and Brazil. Not to forget the border we share with China in the north. 

It’s kudos to the exemplary leadership of His Majesty the King and the relentless efforts on the government’s part that Bhutan did not see community transmission for the first six months given our strategic location between the two Asian giants and how globalized we have become in the 21st century. I feel extremely blessed to be a Bhutanese where His Majesty’s visionary leadership has guided us thus far as he has been at the forefront like a warrior in every response of this pandemic. Thankfully, at this point, Bhutan has not had a single death.
With almost all the countries under lockdown and healthcare facilities overburdened, anxiety, fear, and panic looming over, times are scary and hard. Never in human history, people must have consumed so much news and become confused and anxious. When should the country ease down on the lockdown and open its international borders? The pandemic is not just a health issue, it’s a profound shock to our societies and economies that unravels untold human sufferings. 
Lessons learned and the key takeaways

As offices and more businesses open from tomorrow and more cars are allowed on the road in an effort to step into the new normal, we have a lot of takeaways from the 21 days of lockdown, it’s a lesson on the functioning of society and the governance. Just as the war exposes the weaknesses of a defeated nation, pandemic exposes the weaknesses of their system. One of the key takeaways was food insecurity.
Despite 70 percent of the Bhutanese population dependent on the agricultural sector, 8.1 percent of the households experience food insufficiency (National Statistics Bureau, 2017). According to the World Bank (2017), nearly one out of three Bhutanese suffer from food insecurity despite importing 34% of the country’s cereal needs. With the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, I’m sure these figures have escalated indefinitely. In the United States alone, nearly one in eight households doesn’t have enough to eat in this pandemic economy. A food insecure life means a life lived in fear of hunger, and the psychological toll that it takes. Like many hardships, this burden feels disproportionately hard on the vulnerably poor and those living on daily wages.
With no fresh vegetables and fruits in the market following the days of lockdown and prices of essential goods escalating like nobody’s business, we all have experienced the taste of Ema Datshi (Chilly and Cheese) without onions and Alu Dam (Potato gravy) without tomatoes. Unlike in the west, freezing of food is a non-existent concept in this part of the world. In fact, Bhutanese always insists on freshly prepared food, and freezing of food is most often discouraged which is good in a way as our Emergency Department at the hospital doesn’t report many cases of stomach bug and food poisoning nor we hear such reports on the news on a daily basis. Partly, this discouragement must have come from the absent culture of freezing of food in a cold storage facility in most Bhutanese homes. I was pleasantly surprised to see my friends in America freezing/storing away the extra fish we caught for consumption for winter.
While much emphasis has been given towards agricultural production in the past, it’s high time for the government to shift its attention towards the postharvest loss (PHL) system. This system comprises interconnectedness activities from the time of harvest through crop processing, marketing, and food preparation, to the final decision by the consumer to eat or discard the food. 

Interventions in PHL reduction are seen as an important component of the efforts of many agencies around the world to reduce food insecurity. There is a whole lot of research on PHL and merits a different science and technology in itself which this post wouldn’t suffice at all.
The 35th FAO regional conference held this week called for agricultural digitization. While this way forward is an investment in smart agriculture, I hope our policymakers are reminded that the majority of our rural communities are illiterate and as the targeted beneficiaries customized innovative policy interventions will be in place for improved livelihoods and sustainable agriculture practices.
Development of e-commerce platforms and postal addresses
As a developing country, e-commerce is still in its infancy in Bhutan. A typical experience is how it took 5 days for my essential goods to arrive during the lockdown despite repeated follow up. While I understand that it was an overwhelming situation for the store but generally speaking, e-commerce really needs to step up their game now. For e-commerce to venture into this pandemic situation, accurate postal addresses are a must requisite. A copious amount of time is lost in searching for the location and it’s a headache and waste of time for both the customer and the delivery guy to discuss the location of the delivery address. I’m sure we all have been there.
The development of house postal addresses is one of the criticisms we have always heard about that requires a lot of serious rethinking. It is old wine in a new bottle analogy. While it’s understandable that the country has other important priorities to look into but it doesn’t hurt to start somewhere or pick up from where we have last left. As we all know, compelling beautiful plans are already there in place, it’s time that we take ownership of the implementation and accountability that Bhutanese are way capable of. It need not be some hired consultant from outside who will initiate the plan for us.  I sincerely hope this happens during my lifetime.
This Coronavirus pandemic is a reminder that nothing is certain, it’s transitory as life itself and the most important thing is to be mindful of our actions. Six months of Coronavirus, which is almost half a year of pandemic and it still feels unsettling to write because much remains unknown and mysterious as to the world during and post CoVID-19. Is there going to be a post-COVID-19 world? So far scientists say that we will have to live with it for a long time, in fact, the virus may become another endemic virus and it may never go away although news from China confirmed that the country is back to normal with no social distancing and mask protocols in place. Just one thing is certain; the future of the world is never going to be the same.

Disclaimer: Thoughts expressed here are the author’s own and don’t represent any institution or organization.


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