The call is on an overhaul – from teaching to teachers to curriculum
Yangchen C Rinzin
Following His Majesty The King’s National Day address, on December 17, calling on systemic reforms in the education system, the education ministry has been working on to create an education reform team.
Sherig lyonpo (education minister) Jai Bir Rai said that plans to unfold activities, and strategic documents are ready to start looking at reforming education. But he said it is a collective responsibility. The ministry is taking in all feedback and suggestions through different platforms.
Feedback is what is not lacking. Kuensel talked to a range of people- teachers, former ministers, experts and school proprietors to see what went wrong in the sector that needed a Royal Kasho calling for reforms.
The fault lines
Many said that there was too much bureaucracy in the education system, which clogs up, impedes and discourages innovation, experimentation and a sense of professionalism among teachers.
“Education was looked at, defined by and decided by a small group of participants,” a teacher said. “The process of doing things or bringing change didn’t involve the main players—teachers.”
Some education experts said the teaching approach is too text-book-based, constraining teachers’ imagination and personal interests and enthusiasm. “Some textbooks are too thick that teachers struggle to finish the syllabus and have no time for other than teaching only the content,” a teacher said. “We either lack ideas, or we’re too scared to adopt the new system because the bureaucracy doesn’t welcome new ideas,” another teacher from Punakha commented.
A retired educationist said it is a verified fact that teachers teach similarly to how they were taught. “This is a big problem when you want to change the system teachers are understandably nervous about teaching subjects they are not accustomed to.”
Teachers were often confused with introducing the Individual Work Plan (IWP) and its implementation process, he said. Teachers lost their focus and concentrated more on just “passing” students because it guaranteed teachers good marks for IWP.
The general secretary of private schools’ association (PSA), Tshering Dorji, said that teacher attrition rate is still a concern but these problems were ignored by filling the gaps by graduates without training on contract systems. “Teacher preparation is not at all adequate.”
He added that teachers spoon-fed students and spent less on providing students sense of direction, skills that they needed for future, leadership, creativity, critical thinking, and social skills.
Many said that in the current system, the teaching approach is too geared to “passing the exams” and rarely inculcates knowledge of “how to learn” and value of learning for its own sake.
The real purpose of education could have shifted because of too much emphasis on marks and school grading from students’ marks, said others. In the 1970s, said one, there were just hundreds of children in schools and the curriculum was modelled on the Indian curriculum, which itself was modelled on the British curriculum of the 1940s. Today, we have almost 180,000 students; yet, the school curriculum and system have changed a little.
“The system, syllabuses, curriculum and methodology, are still biased to the academic. Most students/parents’ main aim is to pass schools and go to college,” an experienced education commentator said. “It has become deeply ingrained in society that if your child doesn’t get college, you have failed as parents.”
He added that the current school system and curriculum are perfectly designed to create unemployment as a result of these attitudes.
A former educationist and a private school proprietor said it is a primary failure where the system of assessment is too complicated and dishonest. “Parents and the system itself do not get accurate feedback.”
Tshering Dorji said the focus over the years has been to chase for academic performance, which is a small portion of education’s purpose. “This is often thrown against mindless academic assessment systems.
Many shared that one critical driving factor of education quality is in leadership (mainly principals), but principals are hardly given space to make their own decision because the system does not allow or is too rigid.
An educationist said that principals should be permitted to make their schools independent, identifiable, different, and innovative decisions involving all staff of a particular school.
A teacher in Thimphu said no matter the curriculum, teachers or other components, if there is a right educational leader, he/she can fix the education quality. “They can either make or break the school system. So, strategising the selection process of school leaders needs to be fixed.”
An educationist said that instead of teachers being posted to schools, often against their will, teachers should be able to ‘apply’ to a school for an advertised vacancy, be interviewed and appointed by the principal and the senior management team. “This will encourage them to see the school as theirs,” he said. “Maybe, it’s time a significant salary incentive is provided to attract teachers to apply for a post in less desirable schools.”
Separate education from politics
Many in the education field feel that the education system is being put at the disposal of tests and trials by political parties coming into government. They said it was time to either take politics out of education or take education out of politics.
Some said that this was probably why the education system did not have an education policy for the last 50 years. “Because having a policy would mean the government cannot fulfil their pledges where it was often played through the education system,” a teacher said.
General secretary of PSA, Tshering Dorji said that there is often a short policy life span where the government’s objective is to see the result in five years. “Many educational initiatives have been very experimental in nature.”
An education expert said education is not a suitable area for politics in a small country like Bhutan because it can take a decade or more for the effect of a change in education policy. “The political thinking will not extend beyond the next election. If education is in the political arena it can result in frequent changes in policy and resultant instability.”
Another added it was clear from the last three governments how each education minister has implemented policy changes, which have not been fully continued by a new government.
“If education becomes part of political party wrangling, this often results in policies which have more of an eye to electoral or political advantage than to educational improvement.”
Former education minister Thakur Singh Powdyel said; “The neatly crystallised, well-accepted national vision for education adopted by the education ministry was altered beyond recognition when the government changed. Democracy, for all its excitement, is fraught with many challenges.”
The former minister added this is why the Royal concern of His Majesty has shared the need to provide children with the best education possible through effective measures and concerted action.
What can be done?
Many said there should not be any further doubt that it is time to admit there is a problem and seriously undertake the reforms. “But the threat is the system might adopt quick fixes without a proper assessment. Perhaps we suffer from too many good ideas, but the problem is we fail in implementation,” said one.
Many were of the view that there is the need to relook into the teacher recruitment process while expressing the need of a robust and practical based teacher development programme in colleges of education, and less of theory class and more of apprenticeship.
“However, teachers themselves should be a long-life learner, as many practising teachers seemed too complacent and scared of learning new knowledge,” a teacher in Thimphu said. ‘Teachers should be explorers themselves.”
Some suggested getting at the roots – the need to revise the B.Ed course in education colleges.
Former education minister Norbu Wangchuk said that classrooms, schools, and education systems are designed for the “ordinary child, the common child.”
“There is no space for extraordinary students. This is why we’ve one size fits all curriculum,” he said.
The former minister said it’s an opportunity to create a special school that focuses on academic fields including liberal arts, performing arts, and sports.
There is, some said, also the need for an independent and apolitical National Education Council to shoulder the responsibilities for every educational policy aspect and its implementation. “Who knows doing away the education ministry with a politician as a leader might give the reform that we’re looking for.”
However, many said that the reform in the education system would now depend on the education reform team and policymakers’ commitment to take bold steps.
With no positive case detected during the three-day mass screening programme, the national Covid-19 taskforce (NC19TF) decided to lift the lockdown restrictions starting today in dzongkhags other than Thimphu and Paro.
This means that 25 days after the second nationwide lockdown was enforced, life in the 18 dzongkhags would return to normal (within the Covid-19 norms) as it was before the lockdown.
According to a press release from the Prime Minister’s Office, the confidence to unlock the 18 dzongkhags comes from the epidemiological evidence so far. Almost 18,000 tests were conducted in these dzongkhags to rule out the presence of the infection.
The first phase of the unlocking in these dzongkhags was implemented on January 6, which allowed movement within the dzongkhags. At least 300 tests were conducted then. However, to further unlock the dzongkhags the random sampling size was doubled this time.
This according to the press release was in addition to other screenings carried out in the dzongkhags, that add up to more than 52,000 tests since the nationwide lockdown on December 23. Since then, over 135,000 Covid-19 tests have been conducted in the country altogether.
For areas that were indicated as yellow zones, intensive contact tracings, isolation of the cases from the community, and additional sweeps testing were carried out.
“With all results showing negative, it serves as epidemiological evidence to conclude that the 18 districts are free of Covid-19,” stated the press release. “However, alongside the easing of more restrictions, the health ministry has been instructed to heighten the surveillance throughout the country to pick slightest of early outbreaks.”
Details on the relaxation have been shared with the regional taskforces and district authorities with reminders for implementation within Covid-19 norms, stated the press release. “The respective taskforces will decide and announce the implementation dates.”
Schools, colleges and institutes will reopen with strict monitoring of the health of students and staff. Inter-dzongkhag movements will also be allowed. Travellers, however, must register with the check post management system (CPMS) prior to the travel.
Except for those entities which pose high risks, the shops, offices and private businesses in those districts can also open. Construction works can also resume.
Thimphu and Paro
Mass screening in Thimphu and Paro was introduced to check for the presence of the infection in the communities.
Over 12,000 samples were collected in Paro as of yesterday. No one tested positive from the samples collected. In Thimphu, over 10,000 samples were collected in the last two day. The Thimphu screening involves testing of one individual from each household.
“Since the outbreak is contained, and the number of cases manageable, the outcome of the screening will furnish the evidence to pursue smart unlocking in Thimphu and Paro,” stated the press release.
Based on the findings, the NC19TF has decided to lift the current lockdown restrictions in Kawang, Chang, Mewang, Genekha, Dagala, Soe, Naro, and Lingzhi gewogs in Thimphu.
However, in Paro the NC19TF has decided to lift the lockdown restriction in Chungjey-Zamsar, Soe-Yaksa and Mitshig-Shana chiwogs in Tsento gewog. All restrictions would be lifted in all chiwogs except Mendrel-Esuna in Dagor gewog. Restrictions shall be lifted in all chiwogs of Naja gewog.
The NC19TF advised dzongkhag/thromde taskforce of Thimphu and Paro to ensure risk mitigation measures like establishing police checkpoints so there won’t be mixing of people from red/yellow/green zones, and should provide escort services for people transiting through the red/yellow zones.
Nim Dorji | Trongsa
After undergoing mass Covid-19 test for three times and testing negative, residents of Kela villagers are hoping for a relaxation of health protocols in place.
The village was declared a yellow zone after a woman, who came from Paro, tested positive of the virus in December last year. Since then, mass testing was conducted three times in the village.
The last mass testing was conducted on January 12, where 179 people were tested. The results were negative.
Kela tshogpa, Rinchen Dawa, said the village is still considered yellow zone although all the three mass test results came negative. “People are still restricted to go anywhere.”
He said the primary contacts of the positive case also reached home yesterday. “We are waiting to hear that we could walk around without carrying movement card and go shopping.” That would happen if the village is changed to a green zone.
The four villages of Taktse, Eusa, Tashidingkha and Bubja, which are under strict surveillance, was relaxed like other places. Few villagers came in contact with the men who tested positive for Covid-19 last December and the village was put under strict surveillance.
Meanwhile, the dzongkhag Covid-19 taskforce met with vegetable vendors yesterday to ensure safety and preventative measures.
Incident commander, dzongrab Karma Dhendup, briefed vendors about the safety measures. He said that if vendors are found not following the protocols, the business would be closed for a month.
He urged vendors to check and inform customers to follow the protocols.
The vendors should also display price tag of their products either on a board or on chart paper with updated price daily.
With the nation locked down for nearly a month, albeit some relaxation in 18 dzongkhags, the frustrations are growing and venting out. Everybody is waiting to return to normal.
The economy is battered, livelihood disrupted and normal activities (life) affected. The question on every mind is when will we return to office, send our children to school or playgrounds, open our shops and go on with lives as it was. Some are even calling the restrictions too strict or draconian while some feel the government has failed in its effort to save the country from the pandemic even with stern restrictions and largely law-abiding citizens.
The frustrations are valid. Everybody is allowed to be angry. We have missed a lot in the last three weeks. We missed celebrating Nyilo and Chunipa Losar. We missed to close our annual accounts, the planned winter break, the last bill to calculate our income or loss and many more. But we should not forget the larger interest. If we can, by staying home to lessen the burden on our health system, redesign our lives around the increasing spread of the disease, the inconveniences and sacrifices are worth it.
Those doubting the wisdom of lockdown measures accuse the government of valuing public health more than the economy. It is wrong. We say if there is health, there will be wealth. What if our economic activities are grounded because we fell ill to the virus? What if workers are scared to come out or in hospitals without a lockdown? Because we prevented a disaster, we are forgetting to take the disease seriously. If we had seen loved ones die in isolation wards and the government takes over their funeral rites, we would take the disease seriously.
Economic activities are important. No doubt. But if we can save people from the pandemic, they will return to work to keep the economy running. Most capitalist countries where economic growth is the number one priority are locking down, some for months and some for the third time. The logic is same. Economy can wait, public health is important.
In Bhutan, we take pride in being unique. Indeed, we had been. We might have experienced a second nationwide lockdown, but we fared well in containing the disease. We recorded only one death from the virus in more than a year. That too cannot be blamed entirely on Covid-19. As a nation driven by Buddhist values, the priority is to save lives. The rest can wait.
If there are genuine frustrations, it should be from the section of our society who cannot make their ends meet. The daily wage earners and those who lost the source of livelihood overnight, whether in Thimphu or in the dzongkhags, should be protected. If we reflect well, we have not ended a month in lockdown. There is the cushion of monthly salary for many staying home. It is different for some. They should be identified and protected.
What the government could do if the lockdown has to be continued is identifying this vulnerable group and coming up with interventions. Perhaps a new hotline and better-organised team behind could help protect the most vulnerable. They could file for unemployment or inability to feed their family. For this group, it is the worry of going to bed empty stomach. For many, the complaint is about boredom of staying home day and night!
The frustrations are not about the government’s failure to contain the disease; it is largely about being cooped up for nearly a month. However, it would be wrong to bask in our success thus far. There are loopholes emerging. The priority is to plug those holes and secure the health of the nation and thereby the wealth (economy).
The news of possible evictions and an increase in house rents particularly with no sign of easing lockdown is a grave concern. The slogan of stay home, stay safe would be defeated unless the government issues immediate suspension of any form of eviction including the issuance of eviction notices, threats of imposing late payment penalties, or increasing rents. The government themselves went as far as suspending even some of the parliamentary laws like Tobacco and Pay Revision in the name of the pandemic. His Majesty’s waiver of loan interest did not seem to have any positive impacts on tenants.
Many countries already issued a “temporary ban including criminal penalties on residential evictions” to combat the pandemic’s economic effects and anticipating that many tenants” will not be able to pay their rent due to a loss of income. Our government thus far has remained reluctant to take any actions against landlords either for political reasons or otherwise. The recent news in Kuensel is the testimony of hardships faced by tenants and the government’s inactions.
If this continues, tenants may have to resort to invoking Section 87 of the Contract Act of Bhutan, 2013 which allows frustration of contract. The frustration principle “excuses performance of obligations when an unexpected supervening event occurs” such as the current pandemic. Frustration can be exercised through Force Majeure, impossibility, and impracticability.
Under force majeure, the parties in the contract are neither liable nor responsible nor deemed to have defaulted or breached the agreement “when and to the extent such failure or delay is caused by or results from acts beyond the impacted party’s control, including, acts of God, flood, fire, earthquake, war, terrorist threats or government order, law, or actions, pandemic, etc.
Similarly, where it becomes impossible to pay the rents due to such as state-imposed lockdown or restrictions where businesses cannot open or people are prohibited from working, failure to pay rents can be excused at least till such tenants can resume to generate income.
Impracticability excuses performance where a party can demonstrate that a supervening event has caused performance to be so difficult and expensive that it becomes impracticable. In our case, as long as tenants can demonstrate that due to this pandemic, it becomes impracticable for them to generate income to pay rents, they are excused from paying rent. Therefore, under these three situations, landlords cannot force tenants to pay rent, impose late payment penalties, increase the rent, or evict the tenants. The tenancy agreement stays in abeyance under such circumstances.
If landlords evict tenants by force or enter without permission of the tenants pressurizing tenants, the tenant may report the matter to the police, possibly charge their landlords for harassment, assault, trespass, and other relevant provisions under the Penal Code of Bhutan.
The government must understand that fighting against this pandemic does not mean mere lockdowns or threats of incarcerations or testing or imposition of numerous restrictions depriving people’s livelihood. Since the fundamental right to livelihood has been deprived by the state, the state has the responsibility to protect these groups of people. With no indication of easing lockdown any time soon, before some sections of the society are forced out of their homes, the least the government can do is to immediately issue orders suspending any form of evictions until the current situation normalizes.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.
… the little in the market are sold at hiked prices
Like every winter, there is a shortage of chilli in the market. The little available are sold at a high price.
A Thimphu resident recently bought a kilogram (kg) of small green chilli at Nu 500. She suspects that it is not locally produced. “The hiked price could be because shopkeepers are taking advantage of the situation.”
Chilli import was banned since 2016 but vendors have always managed to smuggle it like any other prohibited goods.
“I bought a kg of jitse ema for Nu 540 and it looks like it is brought from Jaigaon,” a Babesa resident said. A businessman confided that it was smuggled with other imported vegetables.
The same kg of small chilli in Jaigaon cost Nu 60 to 120.
Netizens have taken on social media to request the government to arrange an import measure to address the shortage.
“The government should allow chilli import so that low-income people have an option. The current price is unaffordable,” one wrote. “Low-income people are the hardest hit.”
Some, however, blamed private vendors for the price hike.
One said that farmers were not benefitted but vendors and transporters took a major chunk of the money. “They have a little contribution in production but have higher bargaining power.”
A farmer said that they only get 20 percent from the sale compared to prices charged by vendors in the market.
A vendor said that the price of chillies differs because it was supplied by wholesalers. “When a wholesaler distributes to agents or vendor and then to identified shop, the price may reach Nu 500 or 600.”
Haa and Paro
According to the agriculture officer of Paro, Tandin, there was no green chilli in the dzongkhag during this lockdown.
He said that the chillies from southern dzongkhag hardly reach Paro, as the excess chillies go to Thimphu. “There are no chillies in Paro.”
While the dzongkhag officials tried to facilitate chillies from southern dzongkhags, he said, that the excess production was enough to meet the demand of Thimphu only.
He said that the dzongkhag administration had asked the Department of Agriculture and Marketing Cooperatives, but they did not receive any response. “The agriculture office and vegetable vendors receive numerous calls from people demanding chillies.”
Some sources said that the supply of vegetables is Thimphu-centric and other dzongkhags were often neglected.
Others believed that the government should temporarily lift the ban on import of chillies as local production is limited and expensive.
Even though there are alternatives such as dried chillies, consumers said that it was expensive.“A kg of red dried chilli costs Nu 1,500.”
Meanwhile, Haa will receive some kgs of chillies along with other vegetables on Sunday from Sarpang.
Agriculture officer of Haa, Karchung, said that there was no green chilli in the dzongkhag.
He said that the dzongkhag agriculture office facilitated and linked the vendors with the southern dzongkhags.
With the farm gate price of chillies set at Nu 400, he said, it would be difficult to negotiate the price. “Locals have been using dried chillies so far.”
Vegetable vendors in Gelephu ran short of chillies a month back despite the increase in the number of farmers growing chillies at a commercial level in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic in Sarpang.
Sarpang planned to supply surplus chillies to other dzongkhags around this time of the year but farmers could produce about 30 kilos of chillies per day today.
More than 250 acres of land were used to grow winter chillies this year, an increase from 147 acres of land that produced chillies last year. The dzongkhag agriculture sector had also invested the highest budget for winter chilli production from the economic contingency plan budget.
Over Nu 600,000 was invested in chilli production. Sarpang received the highest ECP budget of more than Nu 20 million last year.
The dzongkhag agriculture officer, Deki Lhamo, said the long monsoon season followed by repeated pests and diseases outbreak damaged the winter vegetable production.
“There were many farmers who focused on growing chilli at a commercial level. The monsoon prolonged till October and damaged the production. We planned to have a surplus by this time,” she said.
According to the official, Sarpang planned to produce chilli phase-wise and the first batch of winter chillies were expected in December and January. However, the farmers who planted chillies early were damaged by heavy rainfall in September and October last year.
A farmer from Samtenling, Kamana Gurung, said she had to plant chillies more than three times this season.
“The weather was not favourable for the winter vegetable production, seedlings planted in September and October had to be replanted in the later months. The wildlife and pest attack hampered the production,” she said.
Officials from the agriculture research and development centre in Gelephu said the winter temperature was not favourable for the growth of vegetables. As the temperature gets warmer, the production is expected to increase.
Meanwhile, agriculture ministry is exploring measures and assessing situations to lift the ban on chilli import to address the shortage.
Additional reporting by Phub Dem, Rajesh Rai and Nima
A non-governmental organisation, RENEW, and the National Commission for Women and Children (NCWC) recorded 36 cases of gender-based violence (GBV) against men during the second lockdown.
The cases with RENEW included physical, emotional and economical violence. There were also four cases, which were not gender-based violence but men who sought help.
RENEW recorded 16 GBV cases against men.
An official with the organisation said that men bear the violence fearing they might be stigmatised.
She said that RENEW was for victims of violence, which could be both men and women. “Women are more vulnerable to violence so we focus to empower them but men are also given the same services provided if they are victims of violence.”
A volunteer for RENEW’s community-based support system (CBSS) said that they identified a male victim after a woman registered a case against her husband. “During the counselling, we found out the husband was the victim.”
She said that some women thought RENEW was only for women and took advantage of it. “The husband didn’t know he could seek support from us.”
An official explained that there was no gender specification in Domestic Violence Prevention Act of Bhutan 2013 and it focused on victims. “We encourage men to come forward.”
Another CBSS focal said that men did not come forward to seek support because of stereotyping and ego. “There must be many unreported cases.”
He explained in most cases, alcohol was the main cause of domestic violence. “Most men were victims of economical and emotional violence.”
One of the CBSS focal person said that a man, who was out of business during the lockdown, was emotionally abused by his wife when he could not support the family financially. “He and his daughter from previous marriage sought emergency shelter and the dzongkhag arranged intra-movement for him.”
In another case, an intoxicated wife physically abused her husband. The husband sought help from the toll-free number of the dzongkhag and the man was sent to his village through inter-dzongkhag movement facility.
RENEW officials said that they provided counselling to most victims. Some were separated from the abuser as they wished.
Meanwhile, NCWC recorded 22 cases of GBV against men.
An official with NCWC said that the data might have been duplicated, as a single victim might have called both the agencies.
(RENEW did not reveal the places where GBV occurred to protect victims’ identity)
Kelzang Wangchuk | Samdrupjongkhar
About 18 people were quarantined for routine travel and four individuals for emergency travel as of yesterday after the Samdrupjongkhar dzongkhag Covid-19 task force reinstated the seven-day quarantine service on January 9.
The task force had temporarily suspended the quarantine service on December 22 last year with the surveillance and contact tracing for those who travelled to Samdrupjongkhar from Thimphu and Paro after December 17.
Samdrupjongkhar Covid-19 task force reinstated the quarantine service for routine travels to other eastern dzongkhags after mass screening and random tests showed no presence of the virus.
The task force officials said that the quarantine service was suspended temporarily to create required accommodation should the dzongkhag report a positive case from the mass screening and contact tracing.
Officials said the facility was suspended because every individual was locked in their homes without moving out and hence it was also as good as quarantine.
More than 10 people staying in Samdrupjongkhar and who were in quarantine discontinued because of the nationwide lockdown. The task force facilitated a bus service for about 40 stranded people who completed quarantine in Samdrupjongkhar.
People have to undergo the three-day quarantine for emergency travel and release on the fourth day upon testing negative.
Those who travel to other dzongkhags have to undergo the seven-day quarantine as Samdrupjongkhar is a high-risk area because of the daily import and export of essential items and expatriate workers from India which pose a huge risk of Covid-19.
The dzongkhag also shares a porous international border with Assam and Arunachal Pradesh states in India.
Bhutanese striker Chencho Gyeltshen (CG7) scored twice for RoundGlass Punjab FC against Gokulam Kerala FC on January 14.
However, Gokulam Kerala FC won the match 4-3.
CG7 scored a brace for the team in 17th and 25th minute to lead the first half 3-1.
In the post-match conference, RoundGlass head coach, Curtis Fleming said that his team conceived three goals in the second half and it was a disappointment “We could have won the match, but we struggled defensively. This is professional football, and it happens in every league in the world.”
Chencho Gyeltshen updated in his official Facebook page: “Yes it hurts, and I know many of you might have felt the same. Nevertheless, we shall keep working hard, fill our gap and come back stronger.”
On the same day, Chencho Dorji’s Sudeva defeated Indian Arrows 3-0.
In the opening match on January 9, Sudeva lost to Mohammedan Sporting Club 0-1.
“With the first game exposure, we learnt other’s tactics and did intensive training. I am glad that Sudeva players performed well in the next match. We will keep the same trend,” said Chencho Dorji.
RoundGlass defeated Aizawl FC 1-0 on January 9.
On January 19, Sudeva will face Real Kashmir FC, and RoundGlass will play Churchill Brothers FC.
Sudeva Delhi FC and RoundGlass Punjab FC snatched three points each from the last two matches in the ongoing Hero I-league at Kolkata, India.
The Dorji Lopon appointed three new kudrungs at Punakha Dzong on January 14 coinciding the traditional day of offering.
The newly appointed kudrungs are Tshogchhen Kudrung, Shar Kudrung, and Paro Kudrung.
From Kabisa, Punakha, Sangay Khandu, 33, is the new Tshogchhen Kudrung.
He began his monastic education at 12. Prior to the appointment, he was serving as a Dung Lopon with the Central Monastic Body.
Thirty-six-year-old Kencho Dorji is the new Shar Kudrung. From Jala, Wangdue, Kencho Dorji was the Budrel Lhungzin in the Zhung Dratshang.
Passang Rinchen, 41, from Darla in Chukha, was appointed Paro Kudrung. He joined Zhung Dratshang at the age of 12. Prior to his present post, he was serving in chham section in the Zhung Dratshang.
Kudrung are appointed annually on the Traditional Day of Offerings.
The wellbeing centres looking after injured animals are struggling with shortage of staff, food items and medical supplies amid the lockdown.
Animal caring associations such as Jangsa Animal Saving Trust (JAST), Bhutan Animal Rescue and Care (BARC) and Maya Foundation-Barnyard Bhutan Animal Rescue and Sanctuary are desperately waiting for the government to end the lockdown to provide proper services.
Jangsa Animal Saving Trust’s (JAST) programme manager, Sonam Norzin said that the association had stored rice and other food items before lockdown. However, he said the food stock may not be sufficient if the lockdown continues.
“JAST is also receiving leftover food from de-suups which significantly supplements the animal feed,” said Sonam Norzin.
He said that animals undergoing active treatment and care at the shelter were short of medical supplies but procuring the needed supplies becomes a challenge. “We are trying to manage and put in our effort to ensure that the animals are not deprived of their most basic needs.”
National Veterinary Hospital has been helping animal associations with necessary medical intervention.
Half of the JAST staff are stuck at their respective residents due to the lockdown. Animals are taking care of by a few at the shelters.
“The patients are brought to our clinic by de-suups. There are not many cases of animals run over by cars during the lockdown,” said Sonam Norzin.
Currently, JAST has 81 animals at the shelter including 70 dogs, eight pigs and three disabled bulls. Of the 70 dogs, 40 are sick, and others are old and disabled.
BARC’s Board Secretary, Hendrik Visser said the centre had to look after 400 animals and human resource was a major challenge. “Especially the first four days of the lockdown were challenging as we did not have any of our staff. At present we still have only 30 percent of our staff.”
“As some of our key staff are unable to come, we can sadly no longer do surgeries, physiotherapy and other treatments,” said Hendrik Visser.
BARC received phone calls from people with treatment requests for their sick or injured pets and stray dogs around their homes.
“We cannot provide services on time. We can also no longer provide treatment for our out-patients with regular medical needs such as cancer treatment with chemotherapy. We do give advice over WhatsApp and phone, but that is not always enough, which is tragic,” said Hendrik Visser.
BARC also has an animal feed shortage, especially the fruits and vegetables for the 40 rescued monkeys. The centre has an emergency stock to feed animals for several weeks but lacks perishable food items for some animals.
Before the lockdown, BARC staff used to take leftover vegetables from the Centenary Farmers Market and vegetable shops daily which has stopped now.
“During the lockdown, sick and injured dogs go unnoticed. We are also unable to pick-up sick and injured dogs when we are notified.”
The executive director of Maya Foundation-Barnyard Bhutan Animal Rescue and Sanctuary, Jamie Vaughan, said that the foundation had to buy clothes, sleeping bags, mattresses, cooking items for the remaining 11 staff.
“Many had only the clothes on their backs when lockdown started as they couldn’t go home,” Jamie Vaughan said.
The centre in Paro is short of staff as 11 staff have to look after approximately 500 animals such as horses, mules, cats, dogs, goats, pigs and cattle.
Jamie Vaughan said that people of Lamgong gewog had been supporting so far. “We continue to receive new patients daily, but there are challenges such as lack of space and resources.”
The foundation is in need of more blankets, old clothes, firewood, and sawdust. “We had just bought a big consignment of rice from FCBL before lockdown. For the livestock, Karma Feed is available, and we have dry grass, and paddy straw stocked,” said Jamie Vaughan.
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
The education ministry’s (MoE) decision to transfer class VII and VIII students and teachers (teaching VII to XII) out of Phuentsholing have left both parents and teachers unhappy and worried.
While there is no certainty of other dzongkhags being safer from Covid-19, parents and teachers raise many concerns.
Although not officially announced, the ministry is preparing to transfer 921 students and 100 teachers to other dzongkhags from the five Phuentsholing schools.
A father of a 12-year-old girl, Sangay Khandu said considering the present situation across the country, none of the dzongkhags is safe for children.
He said the education ministry should consider the children’s security as they were most 12 to 13 years old, who can’t manage on their own.
“My daughter isn’t willing to go to a boarding school,” Sangay Khandu said, adding that she was badly disturbed by the news.
“I think relocating children will do them more harm than Covid-19. They may even develop psychological problems later.”
Parents also shared that children can’t wear and wash school uniforms. Since class IX to XII students were already relocated, students of class VII and VIII can be easily accommodated in Phuentsholing, they say.
Tashi Om, a mother of a 12-year-old boy said her son doesn’t even know how to wear a uniform or wash it.
“Sending him to a faraway place is a big concern,” she said. “He has never stayed away from us.”
Parents also pointed out that the ministry should at least give them the liberty to choose schools in nearby dzongkhags such as Chukha, Thimphu or Paro. It would be difficult for parents to visit them in case of emergencies, a parent said.
Some said the thromde education office in Phuentsholing has asked them to choose dzongkhags, excluding Thimphu and Paro, for their children. Schools will be decided by the ministry.
Parents also need the option to keep their children as day scholars.
Some said the ministry’s decision is a harassment to parents and students.
“Why can’t MoE allow parents to admit their children in the nearby dzongkhags. They have to find other better alternatives in order to enhance quality education.”
Bhakti Maya’s son, who has asthma, will study in class VIII and the news left her worried.
“Why not have some stringent protocols and keep the children here,” she said.
A civil servant, who has sent his class XI daughter to Punakha, said he had sleepless nights when the Covid-19 was reported in the dzongkhag.
“She has been away from us for some time now,” he said, adding that going to even meet her would be difficult considering the movement restrictions from Phuentsholing.
He said the rationale of relocation was to prevent Covid-19 but the virus can reach anywhere and that makes parents anxious.
“It’s time the government trusted and had confidence in people. Parents must also be given the responsibility and accountability to prevent the coronavirus,” he said.
He said that if properly consulted, parents would cooperate, and Phuentsholing could still have schools in containment mode.
“At present students are sent to other dzongkhags and kept in confinement, while their teachers move freely.”
Parents said since students of class PP to six are still in Phuentsholing the Covid-19 risks still remain as their parents shuttle between workplace and home.
Many parents point that class PP to six students are the ones more vulnerable. “If they can be managed here, class VII and VIII students will not be a problem,” a parent said.
Meanwhile, private schools will be allowed to operate in self-containment mode, which some say was contradicting the ministry’s objective. Some parents are even seeking admission in the private schools in Thimphu.
The ministry’s decision will move about 100 teachers teaching class VII to XII, many of whom said it would create challenges and problems both in work and families.
Teachers say transfers will increase separation of families, which could even lead to divorces.
“There will also be a drastic increase in expenditure, if spouses are working in different stations leading to financial problems within the family,” a senior teacher said.
“The success of a child’s education depends on the family, if the key members are separated, it may impact on the child’s education and growth.”
Teachers said that many of them had worked in remote schools and were finally in a town with modern amenities.
They say they would have less chances in getting the places of their choice since many teachers choose Thimphu and Paro, which are already congested.
They said that they were under stress and that the ministry should reconsider the decision to transfer them.
“But we have nowhere to go to. Nobody ever asked us how we felt. People are only quick to point fingers at us.”
Some are single parents, others have their sick parents.
“And even the children will be relocated to different schools. For some, father, mother and the child will be in three different places,” one teacher who is currently serving with students in Punakha said.
While there is no formal notification from the ministry, teachers have been asked to fill transfer forms. The education minister and human resources department officials visited schools in Punakha.
Thromde education officer in Phuentsholing Thromde, Norbu Gyeltshen said that as per the ministry’s instruction, he has submitted the list of the students and teachers.
“However, we have not received any clear order in writing,” he said.
Thrompon Uttar Kumar Rai said many parents have been approaching the thromde office after the news of the students’ transfer.
Local economy worry
Businesses in Phuentsholing worry about losing customers. Their businesses were hit when class IX-XII students and teachers were relocated to Punakha and Wangdue last year. The local economy will suffer, they say.
“No place is safe from the Covid-19 as we have seen in the case of Thimphu and Paro,” a businessman, Namgay said.
“Relocating students of class IX to XII with their teachers was to take them to safer places. But are they really safe now? Government must learn from their mistakes.”
He said taking away students and teachers will be a big threat to the already dying businesses in Phuentsholing. Daily sales have already decreased and many could not meet their rents and staff salary, he added.
“Many families have gone too. Government could take us too. Really confused with the decision,” he said.
Some landlords said they would be losing tenants and their rental income.
“If government’s intention is to destroy Phuentsholing business hub as lots of businesses are illegal here, then, I can’t say anything. Otherwise they are destroying our economy more than Covid-19,” said another shopkeeper.
A micro printing and photo shop owner said the business is down.
“Students coming to print photos and make copies have already decreased with class IX-XII students relocated,” he said. “Small scale businesses are suffering the most. The rent has not decreased.”
On top of that, there are lockdowns, and while the cost of living is the same, the source of income has drastically decreased, he said.
Business community representative, Lobsang Tshering said the business in Phuentsholing is already in bad shape and shifting students and teachers may adversely impact the local economy.
“With limited timing permitted for business operations and 50 percent seating capacity in restaurants and bars, the businesses are worst-hit,” he said.
Lobsang Tshering said without movement of people from other dzongkhags, the businesses were having tough time to meet the daily operational costs, mainly house rent and staff salaries.
“At the same time we should understand the consequences of the Covid-19 in the country,” he said.
“Therefore, I feel everything has to move with proper balance. All business entities are hoping for good days to come very soon.”
From 30 to 50 patients a day before the lockdown, flu clinics in Thimphu are today seeing about 300 to 400 patients a day.
There were days when 1,000 to 1,500 patients visited the flu clinic in a day.
In the last 27 days, flu clinics in the country tested 35,000 people. Flu clinics in Thimphu tested 9,610 people.
The flu clinics were established to discourage people with flu-like symptoms from visiting hospitals to prevent possible transmission of Covid-19.
Health ministry’s chief programme officer, Rixin Jamtsho, said the increase in the number of people visiting the flu clinic indicates that people are well aware of Covid-19 prevention and precautions.
There are 59 flu clinics in the country, including five mobile flu clinics operated in a van in Thimphu. Three mobile flu clinics cover the north, south and central part of Thimphu city. Two mobile flu clinics cover the outskirts of Thimphu like Hontsho, Yoesipang, Trashigang Goenpa, Kabesa, Changtagang, Begana and Dodena.
Rixin Jamtsho said the mobile flu clinics would ensure accessibility and coverage for those residing at the outskirts of Thimphu and for those elders without cars to access the service. “The clinics would stop people from entering other zones as well.”
There are about 250 health staff delivering the flu clinic services in the country. Three to four health officials manage each flu clinic.
He said getting space to station the mobile flu clinics was a challenge. “The land and building owners were reluctant to provide the space fearing Covid-19 transmission.”
Rixin Jamtsho said that despite the awareness and advocacies discouraging healthy people to visit the flu clinic some were visiting still. “There is a risk of transmitting Covid-19 to healthy individuals.”
Health ministry’s Facebook page stated that the establishment of flu clinics and mobile flu clinics throughout the second national lockdown has resulted in a significant increase in the number of people availing flu clinic services.
Meanwhile, considering the risk of infection due to active transmission of Covid-19, testing for tuberculosis and HIV were halted. It would resume when the situation returns to normal.
One detected positive from mobile flu clinic, considered community by health ministry
Just as the capital city, a red zone, is seeing improvement in terms of not reporting cases from the community, a shopkeeper tested positive for the virus from a mobile flu clinic in Lungtenphu yesterday.
As a part of the health ministry’s protocol, all shopkeepers are tested for Covid-19 before allowing them to open their business. The man tested positive during one such arrangement yesterday.
Thimphu was running on a five-day stretch without any positive cases from the community as of yesterday. As per the current understanding, the city has to record zero positive cases from the community for 14 straight days to consider any relaxation of the lowdown. This means that it has to start all over again and achieve the tedious 14-day clean sheet.
Also, on January 12, a frontliner who had come for a test prior to his/her deployment, tested positive for the virus. The health ministry as of last night had not clarified whether the case was considered a community detection or if the individual had prior contacts with someone infected.
Lack of clarity on how Thimphu continues to see cases from the community despite the lockdown has left many jumping to conclusions.
Are people not following the lockdown protocol strictly? Has the ministry failed to trace all the contacts of the positive cases, or is this a nature (varying incubation period) of the virus that experts have failed to understand?
Many were left confused after Sowai Lyonpo (health minister) in her briefing to the nation last night said that a shopkeeper had tested positive in Lungtenphu. This is because no details were provided. The minister did not explain how he (shopkeeper) contracted the disease nor did she provide details about his movements. Many were asking if he was at home this entire lockdown. Is he related to any of the positive cases detected earlier?
Many took to social media to ask these questions. But there was no specific clarification from the ministry. Kuensel learnt that a meeting was underway at the health ministry last night. Of the several agendas, one was on the detection-classification of the emerging cases.
Meanwhile, since the detection of the index case on December 20, a total of 372 Bhutanese has contracted the virus so far. Of the total, 45 of them have been declared recovered as of yesterday.
Kuensel could not verify independently as officials were not available for comments on the two cases that are alleged to be detected from the community.
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
Small businesses, especially restaurant and bars in Phuentsholing are in what is called the catch 22 situation.
They have to keep their business open and the timing and flow of customers is not helping them.
All shops have to close down at 5pm, which the owners said was the major deterrent to those who wanted to hit the restaurants and bars after 5pm.
Most of the restaurants and bars were empty. Even if they have customers, they cannot entertain all because of the 50 percent sitting capacity rule.
Prem Kumari Ghalley, 32, said she spends her day waiting for customers.
“None would come sometimes,” she said.
Prem Kumari said most of her customers were villagers from Phuentsholing and Lokchina gewogs. They are not coming because the vehicle movement is restricted at present. Her restaurant is located at Goedoe Lam.
Starting this year, Prem Kumari will have to pay Nu 34,000 per month as rent for her small space, which is an increase from Nu 29,000 until December last year.
The Covid-19 Incident Management Team (IMT) in Phuentsholing announced lockdown relaxation since January 6. It is in the first phase today and allows people’s movement on foot until 6pm. Restaurants and bar, including all other shops, are allowed to operate from 8am to 5pm.
Restauranteur Sonam Penjor said easing the lockdown and letting restaurant and bars to open is of no use.
“There are no customers. It is better to only let essential shops operate.”
Sonam Penjor said the situation was the same with everyone in restaurant and bar business. House owners will think there is business as usual, he said, adding the rents have to be paid anyway, with or without sales.
With business down, he said keeping their restaurants open was just additional cost from utility charges like electricity bills.
“I have not paid the rent for the last four months and I have not been given any notice for concessions. So, probably in the future, I would be asked to pay the full amount,” he said, adding that this is a big reason to worry.
Another restaurant and bar owner, Sarita Gurung, 38 said since there was no community transmission in Phuentsholing, it would be just fine to allow businesses operate until 8pm.
“Customers come only after 5pm,” she said. Sarita Gurung pays Nu 25,000 as rent for her restaurant.
Small business owners, meanwhile, feel the government should intervene and not leave waiving or slashing house rents to “moral responsibilities” of the landlord. One woman said all the house owners are benefitting from the loan deferment but didn’t pass down the benefit to the tenants.
“Only government can do something. Government should ask them to waive off,” she said.
Meanwhile, the second phase of the lockdown in Phuentsholing was supposed to start yesterday. However, the Covid-19 IMT has the first phase is extended until January 15.
Neten Dorji | Trashigang
If not for the pandemic, Thukten Lhadon from Jangphutse village in Trashiyangtse would be in Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, India, today.
In the past years, she went to Tawang to celebrate Chunipa losar with her relatives and invite them over on the third day. “But this year, we have to celebrate losar within the family.”
Like Thukten, residents of Trashigang and Trashiyangtse will celebrate Chunipa losar within their family today.
Popularly known as Sharchopa losar, people in the east usually celebrated the traditional day of offering grandly.
But dzongkhag officials have asked residents to restrict the celebration within their family this year.
Norbu, 70, from Rabti in Trashiyangtse said with restriction, people are not showing much interest.
In the past, people of Rabti celebrated the losar for two days. They refer to the first day as losar ngoma and the second day as losar zhagma.
A villager, Tenzinla, 73 said villagers would not gather to drink zomchang and play together.
A village tshogpa, Thukten Tashi said men went to other gewogs to play archery in the past. “Women would come together and dance.”
In Merak gewog, men play archery and women play a game called Kolokpa on losar.
Merak gup Lam Rinchen said after the games, people come home to drink and dance until dawn. “People carry ara and drink together. We call it duenchang.”
He, however, said the gewog asked people not to play the games and also not to gather for duenchang this time. “People signed an undertaking letter with the gewog administration stating they would abide by rules of lockdown.”
Meanwhile, dzongkhags officials also notified people to adhere to the Covid-19 protocol and not to play archery and go for picnics.
The notification stated that non-adherence to the Covid-19 protocol will be dealt as per the Penal Code of Bhutan.
It is Chunyipai Losar today, a festive occasion celebrated widely across the nation. Normally, such occasions involve visiting friends and families, lavish flow of food and alcohol and merrymaking. This time, though, in the pandemic times, we might want to keep the celebration small, low-key, indoors and strictly a family affair.
Even as many countries have begun rolling out vaccines, Covid-19 likely will linger on for some time. The pandemic’s new strains are found to spread almost twice as fast. And positive cases, particularly in Thimphu, are rising. What is evident is that where it not for the lockdown, we would have been overwhelmed by the number of positive cases.
Protocol breach has been our biggest challenge. Positive cases exploded after Nyilo celebration on January 2. It was found that even during lockdown people had visited places; some had even played archery. That’s why all celebrations must be kept indoors and small. We can do away with visits to friends and families.
The urge to go out and have fun will be irresistible, of course, but the danger of not respecting the protocol could prove disastrous. All that we have so far achieved together to keep the nation and people safe will go down the drain. Case management and cost of care could land us in deep trouble.
No doubt lockdown experience is difficult for many. Working from home has become a norm. In some cases, however, working from home has been found to be by far more productive. One of the major complaints has been that shops in the zones do not have enough essential items. In an ideal situation, the shops should have all the essential items so that with safe and logical arrangements people can buy what they need. But these are no ideal times. There will be problems but efforts are being made to address the problem.
What is important is that we need to abide by the lockdown protocol and rules. Otherwise, there will be more positive cases in the communities which will lead to prolonged lockdown. The more strictly we follow the rules, the shorter will the lockdown be. It is in this context that the losar celebration should be small and strictly family affair.
If no new cases are detected from the mass testing in Haa, the dzongkhag Covid-19 taskforce will turn the four yellow clusters to green zones declaring the dzongkhag safe from the virus.
The four yellow clusters are Tsilungkha and Beltso village of Uesu gewog, Karjena and Nagtsho villages of Katsho gewog and Haa throm.
The areas were declared yellow zones after a student tested positive for infection on December 25 last year.
One member from each household in the yellow clusters and all the boarding students of Gongzim Ugyen Dorji school were tested.
The health team collected 795 RT-PCR samples from the green zones and were sent to the Royal Centre for Disease Controls in Thimphu on Tuesday.
Haa health officer Samten said that the dzongkhag carried out 1,800 tests as per the health ministry’s instruction.
He said that those residing in green zones underwent rapid tests that are selected based on random sampling, and it covered every nook and corner of the dzongkhag.
For instance, a separate health team was sent to Sektena in Gakiling gewog, one of the remote villages in the dzongkhag, to collect 20 samples.
Haa Dzongdag Kinzang Dorji said that the task force would ease the restriction after the mass screening.
He said that the residents had been cooperative and never complained about the restriction on movements. However, he said that the people were worried about people coming from Paro and Thimphu.
The dzongkhag administration received calls from the local residents raising concerns about those coming from other dzongkhags in their locality, he said.
According to the dzongdag, the dzongkhag officials advocated people regarding the strict protocols before entering the dzongkhag and asked them not to look down on incoming travellers.
He said that if the results were clear, the dzongkhag administration’s responsibility would be to closely monitor the people coming from other dzongkhags. “By today the task force will have the result in hand and will decide accordingly.”
The dzongkhag has sufficient essential items in stock, and two southern gewogs had been supplying vegetables to other gewogs.
Kinzang Dorji said that in a few weeks the winter vegetable from Sombaykha and Gakiling would be available in nearby dzongkhags. “We are also supplying excess livestock products to Bhutan Livestock Development Cooperation.”
Unlike the first lockdown, the local government played an essential role in addressing and helping the locals. This, according to dzongdag, empowered the local leaders to address the issues as they understand the locality better.
“Local government has been proactive during the lockdown. The dzongkhag administration only provided backup,” he said.
Nim Dorji | Trongsa
With hydropower projects in the two gewog of Langthel and Tangsibji in Trongsa, gewog officials have issued letters and introduced penalty to ensure residents follow the Covid-19 protocols.
In Tangsibji, gewog administration issued a letter to relevant authorities to follow all the health protocols and monitor it.
Gup Gyempo Dorji said they asked Nikachhu Hydropower Project authorities to keep the labourers in their area.
The gewog has also requested the dzongkhag Covid task force to conduct random testing for workers in the dam, powerhouse and headrace tunnel areas. “This is for the safety of the workers and people in the gewog.”
He said 14 labourers have reached the project site after completing the quarantine period. “We are asking the projects to quarantine them for a week.”
It was learnt the labourers tested negative after completing the quarantine but they have to again test for safety. They will be allowed to go to workplace if they test negative.”
In langthel gewog, the gewog Covid-19 task force issued an order stating that if anyone is found without a facemask, they would be imposed a fine of Nu 300.
Langthel gup Sonam Dhendup said that the people were not using a facemask. “We had to issue the order.”
He said that it was not issued to penalize people and collect fine, but to ensure that people follow the health protocol. “It is for their safety.”
He claims people are wearing facemask after the office order. “The strategy is successful in the locality.”
Meanwhile, mass testing was conducted for the third time in Kela on August 12, where 179 people were tested. The result was negative for the two earlier tests.
In Bumthang, 1,013 people in yellow zone were tested for Covid-19 and the sample was sent to Mongar. Mass testing was conducted in Domkhar on August 12.
Phurpa Lhamo | Punakha
As part of the nationwide mass testing, health officials in Punakha and Wangdue tested more than 1200 individuals for Covid-19 in the last two days.
In Punakha, by January 12, 667 individuals from across the dzongkhag were tested. Antigen testing was also conducted yesterday.
The tests are conducted with directives from the health ministry’s Technical Advisory Group (TAG) to implement further relaxation in the dzongkhags.
Punakha Dzongdag Karma Drukpa said that 150 samples each from Toebisa gewog, Guma gewog, Khuruthang and Lobesa towns were collected.
He added that 63 individuals from Phenteykha village, identified as yellow zone, were also tested earlier. They all tested negative.
On December 21, two individuals—parents of the index case—from Phenteykha village tested positive. It was learned that a primary contact of the index case had visited the village for an annual village rimdro.
Meanwhile, in Wangdue, 600 individuals were tested through random sampling. On January 12, 450 people from Phobjikha, Bajo town and extended areas were tested for the Covid-19. The samples collected from Phobjikha, Bajo and the extended town have tested negative.
Yesterday, samples from self-contained zones of Punatsangchhu Hydroelectric Project I and II were collected.
Radom samples from Pelela, yellow zone in Wangdue, were also collected for testing. The testing was conducted in the flu clinic in Phobjikha.
Meanwhile, Wangdue dzongkhag has notified the public that the first phase of unlocking, which was implemented on January 5 would be extended until January 15 in view of on-going mass testing.