Twenty-twenty was a year characterised by uncertainty, dreadfulness, and trepidation for humanity. People from all walks of life were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. As for me,the pandemic caused some impediments, which Bhutanese refer to as ‘Barchey’ meaning obstacles, to my study and research work. Nevertheless, I completed the first year of my PhD successfully at Uppsala University. The year was undoubtedly a strange and tough one for humankind, so I kept in touch with the farmers in my ancestral village where my parents live, Bumpailog, a precinct under Wangdue Phodrang district in Bhutan, to listen to their pandemic anecdotes and narratives.
COVID-19 is the first disease outbreak of relatively health risk that people of Bumpailog, also known as ‘Bumpailops’, have experienced. Although news of the deadly virus was well covered in the mainstream media and shared extensively on social platforms for sensitisation, initially, Bumpailops did not anticipate that the virus would cause grave threat and damage to their wellbeing. As the number of positive cases of the virus increased in Bhutan, the virus caused a severe emotional and psychological disturbance for their families. For example, elderly people attributed such calamities to the decline in humanity’s common merits and fortune. An otherwise peaceful village engrossed in daily farm chores, the pandemic brought unprecedented challenges with immediate impact on the farm lifestyle and socioeconomic health of the Bumpailops.
Since Bumpailops, like many other Bhutanese farmers, are commercial or subsistence farmers and dependent on farm products to sustain life, the pandemic affected their socioeconomic welfare. Bumpailog is geographically located on the east-west national highway of Bhutan; thus, the people therein leverage it for micro-scale business in general. Sometimes things to our advantage also have their share of disadvantage. Since the onset of the pandemic, the village residents were advised to be extra cautious and refrain from close contact with travelers while selling their farm products on the roadside. For most of last year, people could not sell their farm products when the COVID-19 situation in Bhutan did not improve, with serious implication on their annual income.
In summer, Bumpailops also go to nearby towns’ Sunday markets to sell their products at a fair price. However, the pandemic inhibited the practice, and products were sold to the local dealers at cut-price for fear of losing perishable items for nothing. To illustrate, when travel restrictions were imposed, my mother had her refrigerator stocked with dairy products, such as butter and cheese, because her dairy dealers could not collect on time. Moreover, the sporadic restrictions did not allow her to sell on a roadside kiosk. Likewise, those farmers who cultivate potatoes commercially were also severely affected by the pandemic. They could not trade their harvest to the Indian traders at a higher price at the Food Corporation of Bhutan Limited (FCBL) auction yard in Phuentsholing, a Bhutan border town and economic hub. FCBL is a state-owned agency for distributing essential food items and maintaining food reserves in Bhutan at all times. Eventually, many farmers had to sell their products to the local traders at cut-rate.
Also, patchy positive cases of COVID-19 in the border town with India, namely Phuentsholing, Gelephu, and Samdrup Jongkhar, greatly affected Bhutan’s trade and the economy. Primary consumer goods are mostly imported via these towns. The disruption in the supply chain severely impacted the far-flung shops in Bhutan. To illustrate, grocery shops in Bumpailog struggled to sustain their business, so the residents of Bumpailog relied on the FCBL in their county for rationed grocery items. The items were delivered to the doorstep by the dedicated frontliners, called ‘Desuups’ to the people’s admiration. The community never experienced doorstep delivery of grocery items in the past, and some wish it continues postpandemic.
The temporary closing of the border gates with India disrupted the supply chain of consumable goods, namely vegetable importation from India. It was a blessing in disguise to Bhutan’s olericulture farmers. Bumpailops leveraged the opportunity for commercial cultivation of organic vegetables. Although the local vegetables were relatively pricey compared to those imported, the unprecedented event left the urban dwellers with no other choice but to consume the local products. Moreover, Bhutanese are now more conscious to buy organic products. The government also instituted mechanisms to deliver farm products to the distribution centres in urban areas. Farmers across Bhutan, notably vegetable farmers, did profitable business during the pandemic. It is a testament to the wisdom of saying, “every cloud has a silver lining”.
The unusual year also disturbed the normal workflow of the people in Bumpailog. Since the pandemic demanded social distancing, people could not go to their neighbours’ place towork. When the situation was relatively safer, people could travel within the village for work. Nevertheless, gathering more than six people was restricted. During the lockdown, people were only allowed to go in and around their surroundings, including their cattle farm and farmland. The majority of the work was done only by family members that impeded timely completion, such as plantation and harvest. Since the farm’s work depends on the variable season and time, people had to adjust work to ensure they did not suffer from the adverse spillover effects of the pandemic.
At the end of the year, in central and western Bhutan, people perform one or two-day customary ritual called ‘Choku’ on an auspicious day; it is a calendar event and conducted annually. The ritual is performed by each household in the village to appease the guardian deities (Choechung Suma) and thank them for their divine care and continued support. Furthermore, people perform the ritual to accumulate more merits and divinely protect from evil or malice for another year. It is performed by monks from the nearby monastery or lay people in the village consisting of six-eight people.
Due to the social distancing protocols, Bumpailops could not perform their Choku on time. They were apprehensive because rituals are, in general, usually performed on the auspicious date mentioned by the astrologer; moreover, the annual ritual is performed before any farming or plantation season begins. Bumpailops, like most other Bhutanese, believes that not performing ancestral rituals on time brings bad luck, ill health, or poor harvest in the family. So they unanimously agreed to perform one major social-distanced community ritual called ‘Rimdro’ in the village monastery to avert the COVID-19 calamity and offer the residents of Bumpailog some psychological support.
In conclusion, after a turbulent year, twenty-twenty, with Bhutanese experiencing nationwide lockdown twice and multiple travel restrictions to mitigate and restrain COVID-19, life is gradually returning to normalcy. In particular, Bumpailops can now move freely to each other’s place to render help for farm chores and share moments in their farmland. Likewise, they are happily back to their farm with full throttle; farmlands are sprouted with potato and other vegetables for self-consumption and commercial purpose after much delay.
All the eligible Bhutanese population are administered with the first shot of a two-dose AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine. With the next shot, people are expecting to get life back tonormality and earnestly pray for a world without any pandemic hereafter.