Tshering Namgyal | Mongar
“We won’t die of COVID-19 but of starvation for sure.”
In Mongar, this is an oft-repeated phrase. There has been price rise, particularly for vegetables, recently; rush in the market has become a kind of new normal.
On the top floor of the town’s three-storey vegetable market where local products are sold, local potatoes are now sold at Nu 60 per kg. The price rise is between Nu 10-50 depending on vegetables. For example, the price of cauliflower has risen from Nu 50 to Nu 80 per kg. Same for broccoli. Beans are selling for Nu 150 to 200 per kg.
“Everything gets sold so quickly these days,” said Dorji, a farmer from Chali village.
The prices of imported vegetable such as onion, tomato and ginger, among others. have also increased.
“The suppliers in the border areas bring the vegetables inside the gate now and they charge extra for that,” a vendor said.
A bag of SK Gold rice now costs anywhere between Nu 1,450-Nu 1,900. A 5-litre oil costs at least Nu 450. Prices of dry fish and dry chili have increased to at least 400 per kg.
“I did not stock items after hearing the announcement on the BBS. But I had to buy 45kg SK Gold rice at Nu 1,850. There is panic buying,” said Dema, a farmer from Jamchoeling.
Customers say that shopkeepers have ganged up to fix prices of the commodities. Some shopkeepers say they are left without a choice.
Many shopkeepers blame price rise on increased transportation cost. They now have to pay up to Nu 50,000 on transportation cost via Thimphu.
“There is a need to regulate prices of the commodities,” a civil servant said. “Long-term impact on the people could be serious.”
Mongar’s thromde thuemi, Namgay Dorji, said that vendors were told not to increases prices of commodities.
An official of regional trade and industry said that the situation was being monitored to address unfair trade practices.
“However, we have been informed by some traders that transporting commodities via Thimphu is expensive and, hence, the price rise,” said officiating regional director, Karma T Rinzin.
You name it— foods, clothes, books, drink and online fitness classes—global Covid-19 pandemic has created a massive demand for e-commerce and online shopping platforms in recent months within the country.
With health advisories encouraging physical distancing, consumer behaviour has been forced to change, people is changing the online world through what they are buying, when, and how. Segments across e-commerce are helping ease peoples’ anxieties by bringing solutions both virtually as well as to the doorstep.
Since the first confirmed case in Bhutan, a vegetable and fruit delivery enterprise in Thimphu, Bhutan Smart Shop has seen an increasing trend in the number of online orders. The founder, Sangay Nedup, said that every day, the shop gets a minimum of 30 orders compared to 4-5 orders in the past.
Customers can place their orders through Bhutan Smart Shop’s website, text messages, phone calls or social media platforms.
Sangay Nedup said that in a worst case scenario such as a national lockdown, the shop is prepared to supply fruits and vegetables within Thimphu.
However, he is concerned about the safety of his team on delivery. “We are seeking safety training opportunities from authorities as we only have sand sanitisers, gloves and face masks.”
Happy Delivery Service (HDS), a delivery service within Thimphu and Paro quarantine centres started towards the end of March is seeing a ten-fold increase in orders.
The founder of HDS, Jigme Singye, said his service is not confined to foods, but like a one-stop shop and deliver whatever clients’ order.
Dish8Door, an app-based food delivery service within Thimphu has 38 restaurants listed with them. The founder, Ngawang Tobgay, said he is exploring delivery in the quarantine centres too. Delivery charges are fixed and based on location.
While the number of walk-in sales has decreased in One Click Shop, online orders have increased as people are cautious, said the founder Zigyal Tshering. “Bulk orders are common nowadays as people are stocking up essentials fearing a complete lockdown.”
The shop offers door to door home delivery of groceries, vegetables, cosmetics, meat items and household items. With a minimum of 25 orders a day, business has picked for the shop. The shop at one time received 60 orders in a day.
As of yesterday, 27 business entities have listed with Yellow Bhutan on social media platform, Instagram. The initiative encouraged physical distancing through delivery of essentials, exercise, education, and entertainment to people.
The services registered were in education, food deliveries, books, groceries, electronics, and virtual exercise classes and resources among others.
Nim Dorji | Trongsa
The milk processing unit (MPU) at Dangdung in Langthel, Trongsa, which remained closed for more than a year opened yesterday.
The unit started operation in September 2018. However after three months, it had to close shop because of shortage in milk supply.
The unit was constructed with financial support from Mangdechhu Hydropower Authority and is run by 27 members of Langthel livestock development cooperative.
According to the cooperative’s chairperson, Ugyen Tshomo, most of the cows the members owned died, which led to a shortage of milk. “Without milk we couldn’t operate,” she said. “People in the community with cows, but not member of the cooperative, did not bring their milk to the unit because of the better price it fetched when sold on their own,” she said.
However in the last one year, the cooperative in collaboration with dzongkhag livestock sector has worked on a plan to make the cooperative sustainable.
Through a cost-sharing mechanism, 40 cows were handed to the members where 70 percent of the cost of a cow is borne by dzongkhag and 30 percent by the individual member. This was to encourage and help the members buy more cows.
The unit buys the milk at Nu 40 per litre from the members. The unit will be producing yoghurt, milk, butter cheese and will be making panner (raw milk cottage cheese) on demand.
There is also a plan to supply their products in nearby towns in the future. The unit also aims to promote local produce and reduce the dependency on imported products in the current Covid-19 situation.
Some of the members who can’t afford to buy cow are planning to quit, but it won’t hamper the milk supply as most members have more than two cows each.
The dzongkhag livestock sector provided technical assistance, capacity development training and other policy-level support to the cooperative.
Dzongkhag livestock officer, Jigme Chophel said that dzongkhag administration and livestock sector through the dzongkhag development grant intervened to allow farmers to invest in the business with long term sustainable strategy.
New equipment such as cream separator, yoghurt-filling machine are provided while a new butter churner is proposed. Some members of the community were trained on breed intensification through artificial insemination while the livestock sector will start fodder development.
…as Covid-19 affects sporting events
The new coronavirus has not only cancelled football tournaments, but its impact is eating into the sustainability of local football clubs.
With local and regional tournaments put on hold, football clubs are finding it difficult to pay footballers, especially who are totally dependent on the sports for a living.
Of the 13 registered football clubs under the Bhutan Football Federation (BFF), Thimphu City FC, Paro FC, Transport United FC and High Quality United FC were the worst affected.
This is because club owners had been sustaining the club on income generated through tourism related business and prize money of the tournaments.
Thimphu City FC’s owner, Hishey Tshering said that more than football, they are worried about the footballers. Hishey Tshering is a tour operator and owns hotel. “My priority at present is to ensure that I pay salary to my tourism and hotel staff. Due to my passion, I invest in football from the extra income I get. With tourism dead, it is difficult to pay salary for footballers and other staff,” said Hishey Tshering.
There are 23 players, two managers and a coach with Thimphu City FC. The salary for the players ranges from Nu 8,000 to 10,000 a month. Salary for team director and coach is Nu 22,000 and 50,000 respectively.
“Among 23 players, only two have regular job. From this month, we can’t pay salary. We have decided to pay the rent and provide ration to those who live in the club house. If the tournaments continue in the future, club will compensate some amount,” said Hishey Tshering.
Transport United FC’s board member, Yeshey Samdrup, said that until last month, they have been giving salary for the 12 players who are dependent on football. “From this month, we won’t be able to pay their salary. We are dependent purely on the prize money and if the tournaments are to be withheld, it is definite that the club would be closed.”
As of now, there are no foreign players in the clubs.
Clubs are even suggesting continuing with the local tournaments behind closed doors.
Paro FC’s board member, Chencho Norbu said that from the nine board members, seven are doing tourism related business.
“We own a football ground, but it is closed. There are 22 players and only two players have regular job. At the moment, we can’t afford to pay,” said Chencho Norbu.
Since some players have no place to live, Thimphu City FC and Transport United FC have rented an apartment.
Thimphu City FC pays a monthly rent of Nu 17,000 to accommodate eight players. Transport United FC pays a rent of Nu 20,000 for the nine players.
Clubs representatives said that in other countries, rich people own the football club, but in Bhutan, middle class people own clubs. “We don’t get anything in return. It is simply driven by our passion for football.”
National players are not affected as they earn Nu 30,000 a month with support from the BFF and the Druk Holding and Investment Limited.
According to BFF officials, almost 200 people were employed by the 13 registered football clubs under the BFF at present. “Discontinuing the clubs would increase the unemployment rate,” said an official.
BFF to the rescue
To help the clubs amid the Covid-19 crisis, BFF has given Nu 200,000 each to six clubs- Thimphu City FC, Paro FC, Transport United FC, Paro United FC, High Quality United FC and Druk Stars FC yesterday.
BFF’s General Secretary, Ugyen Wangchhuk, said that the AFC has stopped some fund for BFF that the federation used to support the clubs. “AFC themselves is facing difficulty. We understand the problems of the clubs, but it is global problem,” he said. “We have excess funds at present but it is all activity tied funds and we cannot use it directly. We have to get approval from FIFA and AFC.”
Meanwhile, big football leagues around the world like the La Liga, English Premier League, Bundesliga and Serie A players have agreed to the pay cut. Barcelona and Athletico Madrid players have agreed to take a 70 percent pay cut in salary to help employees during coronavirus. It cannot be replicated in the country because of already meager salary of footballers.
To contain the spread of Covid-19, the government has announced the prohibition of all the sports that involve physical contact since March 27.
A 31-year-old man is at large after he escaped from the quarantine centre at Panbari Primary School at Tading, Samtse on April 3.
Sources said he escaped from the quarantine centre between 1am and 3am in the morning of April 3. It had rained and there was no power when the man escaped from the facility.
The man is from Tobchenthang village of Tading and was quarantined since March 31. Although officials are tightlipped, Kuensel found out that the man was brought in to the quarantine centre from a point of entry at Simana Dara, a small village that borders with Indian town of Totapara.
The man has a history of travelling to Darjeeling, Sikkim and Kalimpong in India about two months ago.
After returning, he had stayed at Totapara. He was working at a mining company for two months.
It has also been learnt that the escapee is a drug abuser and had been in police custodies several times before.
Big businesses take the lead
Yangchen C Rinzin
If small is beautiful, the Gomtu community is living up to the phrase.
Gomtu is a small town that has remained almost isolated after Bhutan’s border was sealed on March 23. Located almost 60km from Phuentsholing and Samtse, there is no internal route to travel from Gomtu to Samtse.
In the face of such a situation, the people decided to do something together. They got together to come up with immediate and future plans.
There is a Gomtu Covid-19 Task Force.
Lhaki Cement, Jigme Mining, Penden Cement, Bhutan Polymer, and small business entities are the members of the task force. Included in the team are also the Royal Bhutan Police and local government officials.
Vice chairman of Lhaki Cement, Sonam Tobgay Dorji, said that task force was formed to assist the government prepare for the case scenario.
What’s being done?
First of all, the companies have decided not to layoff their employees. Instead, some of the employees are deployed with police and DeSuups to guard the porous border.
“This is the time when they need us and we should be there for them,” Sonam Tobgay Dorji said. “The government has to look after entire country so, we can atleast take care of our own employee.”
Jigme mining’s joint managing director, Ugyen Kezang, said that this initiative was to sustain and survive in the worst-case scenario. “We’re mainly looking to ensure that food supply continues. Logistics will be arranged, roads maintained, and the quarantine centres taken care of. Individuals and companies have begun donating to the fund.”
Employees too have volunteered to donate a day’s salary.
The fund has hit Nu 0.9M today.
The task force has also prepared the contingency plan. Machines have been deployed at two internal roads to see the possibility of using during case scenario.
Ugyen Kezang said that task force would look after the quarantine centres at Penden Cement and a Gomtu school. Internet services and meals at the centre are provided from the fund.
There is also a separate kitchen that caters for quarantine centre.
The task force has requested Food Corporation of Bhutan to supply of essential items directly to Gomtu.
“The protocol today is that supplies are first sent to Samtse and then we have to get them from there,” Ugyen Kezang said. “We want to ensure enough supplies stocks in case of a lockdown.”
Shopkeepers are also encouraged to stock the supplies.
The members of the task force have supplied hand-washing facilities and sanitisers.
Meanwhile, Jigme Mining donated Nu 5M to the Covid-19 Relief Fund and four oxygen concentrators to Samtse hospital. Three ventilators the company purchased to be donated is stuck at Jaigaon, India after the lockdown.
Jigme Mining and Lhaki Cement also donated Nu 7.5M to His Majesty’s Kidu Fund.
The second Bhutanese to test positive for Covid-19 shares her views with Kuensel in this letter written from the isolation ward of the national referral hospital
The recent novel coronavirus outbreak has undoubtedly taken the world by storm. It has affected the life of every individual, directly or indirectly.
Flights back home, as you all must already know, have to transit either through Bangkok or Delhi and amidst fears that the cities were going to soon be on lockdown, I had to leave London where I am a university student. I did not think for once, even in the slightest, that I would become victim to the novel coronavirus. I was convinced I had a strong immune system that would fight it off.
Most of how I felt could be attributed to the way the UK government was reacting to the situation while I was there. For many in London, life went on as normal despite the alarming rate at which Covid-19 cases were growing. At Heathrow, airport staff were not wearing even simple surgical masks. I was not screened for symptoms before boarding nor was it mandatory for me to wear masks or protective gear on the flight. In short, protocol measures were severely lacking in the face of this global pandemic. However, it is not my intention to disregard anything that has changed since. I am simply writing about my experience.
Nine hours later, I landed in Delhi. Immediately after I was screened for fever, the airport health team cleared me by stamping a certificate that was to be presented at immigration. In contrast to Heathrow, there was relatively a better sense of health procedure. Approximately five hours later, I boarded my flight to Bhutan.
I landed in Paro in the early hours of March 18. Screening procedures by medical staff was swift and efficient. Coming from London, I could not have been more impressed with how our small developing nation was dealing with the situation. Within half an hour I was out of the airport.
A few days before I arrived, the government had announced a mandatory quarantine period of two weeks (it has now changed to three), for every person flying into the country, in a facility. However, these so called facilities weren’t really what they sounded like. In show of solidarity with His Majesty The King and the government, many private hotel owners have selflessly given up their business as quarantine centres and employees have willingly volunteered to ensure that we were all quarantined comfortably.
Medical teams at the quarantine centre would screen us for new coronavirus symptoms twice every day for the first three days and we were told to call the 24-hour call line in case of any emergency. My hotel was surrounded by a beautiful pine forest. Wonderful meals were provided daily and quite frankly, quarantine was more like a peaceful retreat.
Eight days passed before I lost my sense of smell. After failing to recover for two more days, I informed the health staff. Immediately after I reported my concern, they collected my sputum and mucus samples through a swab and sent it to be tested for the novel coronavirus. 12 hours later, I was woken by a call from the health ministry telling me I had tested positive, making me the fourth person in the whole country to have the virus (now it is five).
So far, all the earlier cases were imported and there have been no inter-community infection as a result of our strict quarantine measures. Early next day, on March 29, I was given a hazmat suit and was brought to the national hospital in Thimphu where I am currently sitting, writing this piece.
I have received the best medical treatment possible from our doctors and have faced no issues whatsoever in the seven days that I have been here. I owe a special thanks to all the nurses who have been on duty during my time at the hospital. They have worked round the clock, not once taking off their protective gear, which if may I add isn’t the most comfortable for 8-12 hours, to make sure I am cared for.
I am eternally grateful to them.
In light of this, I hope that all Bhutanese realise how lucky we are. While the so called superpowers of the world with advanced economies struggle to battle the new coronavirus, our small country has managed to contain it efficiently and while leaders of the first world remain shielded within their sheltered offices, His Majesty The King stands in the southern region making sure that closing borders with India does not ill affect the food supply. Moreover, His Majesty is currently touring the country to inspect the preparedness against the coronavirus. We must never forget how fortunate we are to be blessed with such visionary leaders.
A shared responsibility
However, as citizens we share a huge chunk of social responsibility in battling this pandemic. Extensive efforts that have been put in by our King and the government will amount to nothing if we don’t do our part.
I would like to talk about a few ways that we at an individual level can act in response. Social distancing is an obvious measure. In addition, I think it is important to understand that no matter who we are, no one is immune to the virus. The virus does not have an affinity to specific people.
You must be mentally prepared, if by any chance, you happen to catch it. I do not know much about the scientific technicalities of it, but I do know however that though it is only like a common flu, it spreads quickly and as a consequence, it has created significant level of social scare.
This scare has manifested itself in many forms and one is the social stigma. In my opinion, because of the fear that this has generated, when put in the position, you may feel afraid to confront it. This is what I experienced. Since my symptoms were mild, I tried to convince myself otherwise. I’m grateful to my good friend and roommate for encouraging me to tell the health staff. I request society to not let stigma restrict people from coming forward. Be compassionate. The virus is naturally occurring. If infected, it is simply a case of luck and misfortune.
As a Buddhist nation, we seek comfort in religion. Our spirituality guides us at times like this when science fails us. Impermanence and uncertainty are two of the underlying foundations of Buddhist philosophy. Nothing lasts forever. Situations change rapidly. Your good health can immediately be affected by the virus and in the same way, ill health can soon be recovered. In addition, mortality rate for the new coronavirus is extremely low.
I have tried to keep up my morale by keeping in mind the above. Use isolation and quarantine to do something productive and occupy your mind- paint, listen to music, read, and write. Find time to do something you would otherwise not be doing. Utilise this period to develop a new skill, devote time to meditate and pray at least twice a day. I promise you that it goes a long way. When you avail yourself in this manner, you gain a sense of accomplishment. It is addicting and makes passing days so much quicker. I know that it is easier said than done, and I also know that when you have nothing to do, you lack the will to do things you normally would be doing. Don’t let this pandemic get the worst of you. It will challenge you. Fight to overcome it.
The new coronavirus has tested the globe in ways like never before. Instead of letting it divide us and playing the blame game like most of the world, Bhutanese have shown solidarity in these trying times to battle the pandemic as one nation.
Our King, government and people have come to fight this in unity. It is no doubt that I have always considered myself extremely lucky to be born as a Bhutanese but this situation has made me truly realise how fortunate I am. Bhutan is clearly no superpower. We are a tiny developing nation but we are tackling it better than a lot of other countries. I can only hope that we can serve as an example to the world as we fight this and the world can see how it is possible to emerge victorious if we all stand together.
4th April, 2020.
Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral
Yangchen C Rinzin
The teacher raises her hands and exclaims: “Dear students, we’re going to study this today.”
Standing in front of a green screen inside a brightly lit room, she points to the right: “Yes, we’re going to learn about Phonetics.”
She goes on to explain what phonetics is and makes the sound of an apple by pointing in the air and asks the students to repeat after her. The room is silent. The teacher smiles and says: “Yes, good girls and boys, you got it right.”
She shrugs and asks the cameraman if she got it right.
Similarly, there are two more teachers in separate rooms shouting on top of their voices.
They are busy recording lessons for Bhutan e-learning, a tele-education programme which is aired every morning on Bhutan Broadcasting Service, as a means to engage students as schools remain closed owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. The air time is different for various classes up to Classes XII every day.
However, it is not as easy as it looks on the television.
More than 300 volunteer teachers for the Teachers of Bhutan Volunteers (V-TOB) are involved in various stages of the process to teach on television.
The teachers have to imitate in front of the camera and record the lesson, which is the biggest challenge.
Many teachers volunteered as presenters, but without the experience of acting, a teacher takes more than 30 minutes to complete a lesson.
Among them are mothers who leave their children at home to record lessons for every episode every day. But before they record the final footage, there is a chain of activities such as planning the lesson, developing teaching materials, content writing, reviewing it among peers, and then preparing the mock session in front of the camera.
The education ministry, Royal Education Council (REC)and V-TOB first approve the content, identify the presenter, then record in different studios, an official from REC is placed in each studio to ensure contents are correct, and then it goes to post-production. A review monitoring committee reviews the footage before it is telecast.
Film Association of Bhutan, iBest, Loden Foundation, and Royal Tutorial Project Studios record the lessons.
What started as a single man’s idea has now become a collective effort among teachers where teachers work round the clock. Some travel from other dzongkhags almost every day to Thimphu just to record their lessons.
About nine teachers from outside Thimphu have also volunteered and have camped in a classroom at Motithang Higher Secondary School in Thimphu.
Teachers said the biggest challenge is acting in front of the camera.
“We’re not used to teaching in such situations especially without students,” a teacher said.
Mathematics teacher Sangay Wangmo from Changangkha MSS said it is also difficult because these are general topics for three grades together.
“In the class, it’s easier since we can concentrate on one topic for one class. One must be trained to teach multi-grade but we’re not giving up.”
Another teacher, Tashi Choden from Gedu HSS said for the visual effect, teachers have to act without a clue which makes them edgy and prone to mistakes.
“It’s extremely difficult and we worry if we got the words and sentences right. I was so shy in front of the camera in the beginning but now we all are gaining confidence.”
Teachers also said that in the class they can move around, check on students. “Now, we just have to stare into the camera, and remain rooted in one place, which makes it difficult to concentrate.”
They also have to memorise the lessons without any script and sometimes go blank as soon as they come in front of the camera.
“I hope everyone will understand when they find mistakes. But we want people to know that we’re trying our best,” Kencho Dorji, a Dzongkha teacher from Paro said.
For many, it does not end with the recording and broadcasting of lessons. What comes thereafter is what many dread. Their biggest fear is peoples’ reaction to the lessons after watching them. Teachers have been receiving both negative and positive feedback on social media.
“In the class, we’re aware of the environment of the class and what kinds of students are attending the class, so we teach according to that,” Karma Yangzom, a teacher said. “But on TV we don’t even know who is watching.”
Many teachers have also started asking their students to watch the lessons on TV and assign homework just to ensure they are engaged. Students have also started recording the lessons and later send them to teachers to clarify their doubts.
While they are trying to ensure timely delivery of lessons for their students, they constantly worry about their children at home, most of whom are without anyone to guide.
The V-TOB will have to have at least 500 episodes and so far has completed about 230.
Sonam Norbu, a teacher from Lobesa MSS and a founder of V-TOB said that despite minor challenges, many teachers have volunteered.
“This is a baby step towards Bhutan’s e-Learning in future,” he said.
“We want to set an example that e-Learning should be embraced and not enforced.”
Kelzang Wangchuk | Samdrupjongkhar
Four people who were involved in smuggling tobacco products from across the border are quarantined in Samdrupjongkhar. Police arrested 12 people in possession of tobacco. Eight are in police custody.
The four were quarantined as they have crossed the border risking exposure to the new coronavirus while the border remains sealed.
On April 2, while on patrolling, police arrested two women in possession of tobacco products. According to the sources, the duo had asked an Indian to pass the cigarettes over the wall near the Indo-Bhutan friendship park. Police seized 25 packets of cigarettes from the suspects.
Police also arrested a truck driver ferrying grocery items for a shop based in Samdrupjongkhar as he was found carrying tobacco products on April 3 around 6:30pm. Police later arrested his three friends who asked the driver to bring the products.
According to sources, the driver was sent in quarantine as he had stopped along the Indian highway to buy tobacco. “Any vehicles ferrying grocery items are not supposed to stop in India as India was locked down because of Covid-19,” said the source.
Police seized two packets of bidi, 40 packets of chewing tobacco (baba) and a packet of cigarette from him.
Police also arrested two women and a man who were also in possession of tobacco products on the same day around 7:30pm. Sources said that they have asked Indian vegetable suppliers to send tobacco products along with the vegetables.
Police found the products while unloading the vegetables. Police seized 60 packets of baba and 30 packets of cigarettes from them.
Police also arrested three men for trying to cross the border during patrolling around 10:30pm on the same day. The suspects tried to cross the border from Tashi Poktor. “They would be forwarded to the court as they have gone to India after the closure of border gates,” a police source said.
Meanwhile, police patrolling team also found 280 capsules of contraband drugs along the boundary wall around 10:30pm on April 4. Although, the suspects are at large, police suspect it would be for someone to pick it up later as the team found those products when someone threw over the wall from across the border.
Police are investigating the case.
Samdrupjongkhar police, Desuups and other officials are doing round the clock patrolling along the Indo-Bhutan border since the closure of all entry points on March 23.
Even as international border crossing has been restricted since March 23 to prevent importation and spread of Covid-19 in the country, it has been found that people continue to sneak in and out of the borders clandestinely. This poses serious risk of the disease spreading in the country.
The immigration department has issued a new notification which states that individuals wilfully violating the restriction shall henceforth face severe consequences, including punitive action. If harsher measures are called for to keep our people safe, so be it.
Many are found to be sneaking out to bring in foreign workers. Recently, just four days ago, the police in Samdrupjongkar arrested several individuals who were trying to smuggle in tobacco products. Those who had crossed the border have been quarantined but that does not solve the problem. The threat of infection coming into the country from across the border remains high.
What we must know is that the problem is not just in the border areas. We are dealing with a pandemic that is spreading like wildfire. Consequences have been deadly in many countries. It is in this light that the people should understand the importance of lockdown.
If health advice and protocols are observed sincerely, we can succeed in keeping the pandemic away, albeit not without disruptions. In the countries that have done well to suppress the transmission of Covid-19, it has been found that social or physical distancing can reduce the chance of the disease spreading by almost 70 percent.
Spatial and temporal distancing is, thus, critically important. Both will come with costs, of course, but the need of the hour is to keep our nation and people safe from the pandemic.
It is for this reason that we need to relook and upgrade some of our strategies constantly. Officials responsible ought to make sure that there is strict vigilance; we cannot afford to be complacent. When the entire nation is impelled to face one of the biggest scourges of the modern age, people taking advantage of the situation for personal gains is plain despicable.
We have so far not had a single local Covid-19 positive case. The chances of importation from the borders remain high, though. That is why vigilance has to be strict in the border areas. We must, therefore, restrict unnecessary travel as far as possible and encourage spatial and temporal distancing for as long as we must.
Neten Dorji | Trashigang
Jamyang is a young and industrious farmer in Bartsham, Trashigang.
Jamyang graduated 12 from Jigme Sherubling Central School and pursue National Certificate level two (NC 2 on farm machinery) from Khangma, Kanglung. Later, he got trained at Agriculture Research and Development Centre (ARDC) in Wengkhar, Mongar.
Today, when people are worried about vegetable shortage due to lockdown in India, Jamyang supplied 825kg cabbage, 400kg broccoli, 320kg carrots and 600kg of cauliflower to Regional of Agriculture and Marketing Centre in Mongar.
He made Nu 70,000. In a week’s time, he will have more to supply.
Agriculture and Research Development Centre helped. Jamyang underwent various training on grafting and pruning, fruits processing, commercial farming and land management, bookkeeping, layout and designing on orchard and marketing.
“I always shared my knowledge with youth. Sometimes, I go around the village to encourage them to take up farming,” said Jamyang.
He said that vegetable import could be greatly reduced. “There is support from the government. It is up to the farmers. There is no problem if you do not have land. We can go for large scale farming with land user certificate. These are opportunities.”
Kelzang Wangchuk | Samdrupjongkhar
For more than two years the residents of Pangthang Goenpa in Trashiyangtse have been struggling with an acute shortage of drinking water.
People wake up early and go to the neighbouring villages Nangkhar Goenpa and Kanjur Lhakhang to fetch water. This happens at least thrice a day.
Karma, 30, said although the village had water supply connection there was water shortage because the sources are shared with Domtshang village.
Gewog administration carried out a survey for maintenance, said Karma. “However, nothing has happened until now.”
Yeshi Zangpo, 44, said without water it was impossible to carry out daily chores at home. Hygiene is today a major problem in the village.
Villagers said they have to wake up early to fetch water because their children leave for school at 6am.
“Agencies concerned should fix the problem,” Yeshi Zangpo said.
Toetsho Gup Dechen Wangdi said that since Domtshang village in Khamdang also shared the same water sources, Khamdang gewog carried out maintenance work in the 2014-15 fiscal year as the villagers faced water shortage.
“People also fail to take up their responsibilities such as clearing of debris in the intake and pipelines,” Gup said.
Gup said the gewog administration had allocated Nu 2M for the drinking water maintenance projects in the gewog. “But we could not procure the materials because of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
There are two water sources for Pangthang Goenpa—Lakawa and Brokpa Pangthang. Both the sources are more than a kilometre away from the village.
Nim Dorji | Trongsa
Villagers of Mangdephu and Phumzur in Trongsa are well aware of the government’s e-learning initiative. The problem is they are cut off and cannot access the programmes, both on television and online.
The two villages, one in Langthel gewog and the other in Nubi gewog, are not connected with electricity. While mobile network is reachable at certain points, internet connectivity on mobile phones is a problem. Not many carry smart phones.
However, students are not wasting their time. There are about 30 students in the two villages. Some are in higher secondary school. Students are busy helping their parents in the fields. It is spring and there is plenty of work. Some herd cattle while others are busy in the fields, busy preparing for maize plantation.
“Our children are missing out on their studies,” said a worried farmer, Jamphel Lhendup of Mangdephu. “They had not been studying since the school closed and came back here.”
Without electricity, villagers try to not to use their mobile phones unless necessary. When switched on, they keep their mobile phones on the windowsill to receive the faintest of network. Parents are worried, especially those who have their children in higher classes.
Villager Tsagay has three sons, all studying in Class XII. “It is difficult to charge a phone,” said Tsagay. His village is about an hour’s walk from the nearest road head. “They have board exams. I don’t know how they will prepare.”
Asked why he didn’t send his boys to live with relatives outside the village, Tsagay said that there is no relatives in other places. “Besides it is safer here in our village,” he said. “And who will buy them smartphones?”
Neighbouring villages like Jangbi and Wangling have access to internet and television. But parents have no clue of what is being taught online or on the television.
Dorji Khandu of Thangnyel village said that his son is always watching TV, but he is unsure if he understands anything. “We don’t know what is being taught or if they understand,” he said. His son studies in Class PP.
Villagers feel that the e-learning is only for the those with good access to internet and with educated parents to guide students.
The Office of Consumer Protection (OCP) has penalised a shopkeeper for selling substandard hand sanitisers on inflated prices and vegetable vendors for overcharging customers on green chillies, according to a press release from the OCP.
The OCP in collaboration with the Drug Regulatory Authority investigation revealed that the hand sanitiser does not meet the minimum acceptable level standard set by the World Health Organisation.
A man who works in a pharmaceutical shop in Thimphu had imported the product from an unreliable source and supplied it to pharmacy shops in Thimphu at unreasonable prices by manipulating documents.
“There was sufficient evidence in a product labelling that an average person could reasonably foresee and infer that the product is not fit for the particular purpose. As a certified competent person he failed to exercise professional diligence instead supplied the inferior product through fraudulent practices,” it stated.
The OCP directed him to recall the inferior product from the market and accept the return of the product from buyers.
The OCP imposed a fine of Nu 53,225 for charging exorbitant prices taking undue advantage of the market situation as per the provisions of the Consumer Protection Act of Bhutan 2012.
The OCP also found that there were other brands of hand sanitisers that did not meet the minimum acceptable level which were recalled for safety reasons.
The OCP also investigated the claims of unreasonable prices on green chillies at Centenary Farmers’ Market (CFM).
The OCP found out that the vegetable suppliers, brokers and vendors were unfairly charging unreasonable prices on green chilli aggrieving consumers.
They had failed to comply with the notifications issued by the government directing business entities to avoid charging unreasonable prices taking undue advantage of current difficult situations.
The office imposed a fine of Nu 4,320 on a vegetable supplier after establishing his acts as unfair and unethical trade practices contravening Consumer Protection Act of Bhutan 2012.
The OCP also fined four other vendors Nu 4,060, Nu 12,960, Nu 1,440 and Nu 1,740 respectively for overcharging.
The OCP, according to the press release, is continuously receiving the complaints on price escalation and other unfair trade practices from various parts of the country.
To address such issues, the OCP has formed market surveillance and monitoring teams involving officials from various departments of economic affairs ministry and deputed to different areas in Thimphu, Paro, Haa, Wangdue and Punakha.
“At the regional, dzongkhag and gewog levels, we are collaborating with Regional Trade and Industry Offices, dzongkhag and gewog administrations to carry out market surveillance and monitoring to protect economic interest and safety of the consumers. The teams are constantly observing and monitoring the markets to ensure that unfair trade practices are not proliferating,” the press release stated.
The OCP has also formed teams in all dzongkhags and thromdes to collect market price information of essential commodities on a real-time basis and publish for consumers to make informed purchase decisions. “It is also to keep track of price movement in the markets and monitor price manipulation.”
The OCP requested people to dial consumer helpline toll-free number which is operated round the clock to advise consumers, facilitate lodging of complaints and address consumer issues in the market.
P’ling starts work to prevent dengue fever
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
Results of five dengue cases, which tested positive when tested on rapid test kits from Nganglam and Pangbang hospitals, were sent to the Royal Centre for Disease Control (RCDC) in Thimphu for further confirmation.
The sample results were forwarded as officials couldn’t rely on the test kits although it tested positive.
The health ministry’s chief programme officer with communicable disease division, Rixin Jamtsho said the RCDC will confirm the results today.
On March 26, Nganglam reported two dengue positive cases, one IgG case and one NS1, while Panbang reported of two IgG cases and one IgM case on March 20.
“Of the total, three are IgG cases, which indicates infection from the past, meaning the patients are not suffering from dengue at the moment,” Rixin Jamtsho said.
But the other two cases were IgM and NS1, which indicate that the patients were infected with dengue fever in recent time.
Rinxin Jamtsho said that health ministry has already started putting in place all the measures for prevention and control. General public are requested to practice precautionary measures, he added.
In 2019, Rixin Jamtsho said about 5,400 people tested positive for dengue fever from across the country out of 22,600 patients tested for dengue. A total of 9,500 were clinically screened for dengue across the country. Six people died out of which four were pregnant women.
Phuentsholing reported the first and the highest cases.
Currently, in Phuentsholing, the thromde has already formed a Thromde Dengue Taskforce in its effort to prevent a dengue outbreak. The taskforce on Friday went on a vector surveillance and advocacy programme and discovered several spots where mosquitoes were breeding. About 17 different breeding centres have been identified.
Thrompon Uttar Kumar Rai, who is the chairman of the taskforce, said focal persons have been identified to monitor the breeding centres so that the larvae are timely destroyed.
“Advocacy and awareness are also being done,” he said.
Since Phuentsholing saw the country’s highest number of dengue positive cases in 2019, the thrompon said that it was equally important for people to shoulder responsibility in working towards preventing an outbreak this time.
“We are all already tackling Covid-19 and a dengue outbreak at this time will cripple us,” he said, adding that hospital and staffs will face huge challenges. “It will be risky for us all.”
Phuentsholing has consistently seen dengue fever cases in the last five years. Prior to 2019, the highest was reported in 2016 with 857 positive cases but no casualties were reported.
Last year, the first dengue case was reported in July and the fever quickly spread to other dzongkhags. By November, Phuentsholing had seen more than 4,000 positive cases.
An epidemiologist from the vector-borne disease control program (VDCP) under the department of public health, Dr Kinley Penjor is also currently in Phuentsholing.
“A VDCP draft as per the national plan was presented to the taskforce,” he said. “ The Phuentsholing thromde taskforce is in line to the national plan.”
The VDCP, Dr Kinley Penjor said, will carry on the vector surveillance. Further, vector control and source reductions will be carried out based on the findings.
From March 18 to March 24, VDCP team has inspected 5,766 containers (1,538 wet and 700 dry) 116 buildings and 302 units and premises in Phuentsholing.
Out of 302 units, it was found that 15 were potential sites for dengue vectors. In terms of containers, 142 were found to be potential vector sites. It was also found that a large number of stacked tyres at multiple workshops and scrap dealers at Amochhu area are potential mosquito breeding sites.
The surveillance report has recommended thromde and drungkhag to impose strict rules of cleanliness of building surroundings, automobile workshops, and drainage system. System for regular inspection should be instituted and penalties should be imposed to those who do not comply with the rules, the report further recommends.
Although no dengue case has been reported as of now this year, fogging is also being carried out.
His Majesty The King visited the southern, central and eastern parts of the country to inspect the national level preparedness against Covid-19.
His Majesty visited Tsirang and Gelephu on March 31 and has visited Zhemgang, Trongsa, Bumthang, Mongar, Trashiyangtse, Trashigang, Pemagatshel and Samdrupjongkhar since then.
During the visit, His Majesty met with the Covid-19 task-force members of each dzongkhag, who have the responsibility of, among other things, collecting data of the at-risk population and demographics of their respective dzongkhag.
His Majesty visited hospitals to inspect medical facilities, and the Food Corporation of Bhutan (FCB) branches to inspect essential food stock held in reserve.
His Majesty also visited shops to learn how businesses have been affected by the new coronavirus.
In Mongar, His Majesty visited the Royal Guest House, which has now been converted into a Covid-19 hospital. His Majesty commanded that after the pandemic is over, it would become a mother and child hospital for the east.
Throughout the tour, His Majesty emphasised, to all those working in various capacities across the country, that the greatest objective at the moment is to prevent the outbreak of the virus in Bhutan.
His Majesty also visited a DeSuung training site in Dewathang. Upon His Majesty’s command, there will be an accelerated DeSuung training programme to train about 2,500 teachers, in-service graduates, unemployed youth, and other volunteers simultaneously in seven different locations across the country.
The training will commence today, April 6, with special focus on public health and security, to prepare the trainees to support health workers in our efforts against Covid-19 if necessary.
All the volunteers and trainers will be tested for Covid-19 at the start of the three-week programme to rule out the possibility of community infection. A second batch of DeSuups will be trained upon the completion of this batch.
…all three Bhutanese patients are in stable condition: Health Minister
Early detection and containment approach, which Bhutan has adopted to fight against Covid-19, has worked well for the country.
While the three Bhutanese who have tested positive to the virus were already placed in designated quarantine facilities upon their arrival in the country, the first two patients have recovered.
Sandi Fischer, the partner of the first index case, Bert Hewitt, have tested negative to the virus twice. She is now considered recovered.
Health Minister Dechen Wangmo during a press briefing yesterday said that the tourist is ready to leave the country.
However, given the flight disruptions across the world, Lyonpo said that it is not certain when she can return to her country.
Bert Hewitt has also tested negative to the virus recently after he was air evacuated to the US on March 13.
With the couple recovered, Bhutan today has three Covid-19 cases detected in students who have returned from the US and Europe. All three are currently in stable condition in the isolation ward at the national referral hospital.
Lyonpo said that is important for the public to know from where the positive cases came. “So far, all the positive cases have come from the quarantine centres. We still do not have any community transmission.”
She said that a few more cases are expected from the quarantine centres as there were people coming from various parts of the world, with some returning from high-risk countries.
A total of 3,218 Bhutanese have returned from 34 different countries so far. All of them are in quarantine.
Lyonpo said that for those coming from high-risk areas, even before moving them to the quarantine centres, their samples were taken for testing immediately after their flights lands in the country. “The last case was detected in this way. After knowing the group was coming in from a high risk area, we immediately took their samples for test.”
Extended quarantine period
Clearing the ambiguities surrounding the new 21-day quarantine period, Lyonpo said that decision was reached following scientific reasoning and the advice received from the ministry’s technical advisor group (TAG).
She said that there was about 11 percent possibility that a person after being released from the 14-day quarantine could sill tests positive later. “Extending the period to 21 days brings about almost 98.9 percent surety that the person would not test positive later.”
Preparing for worst case scenario
The ministry has come up with three specific plans in the even the country enters the Red zone.
The minister said that once the country enters the Red zone, the objective would then shift to maintain zero fatality (zero death) and provide early clinical treatment. This would then put pressure on the limited health staff in the country.
Human resource management, she said, would be critical during the pandemic as support from international partners would be limited.
For this she said that about 48 doctors who were pursuing higher education outside were called back. 41 of them have reached the country so far.
About 92 students studying MBBS in counties like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have also arrived last month. Those MBBS graduates waiting to join the civil service, doctors in the armed forces and agriculture ministry including retired doctors and nurses have also been identified by the ministry.
With the backup plan to address the shortage of health professionals sorted out, the ministry in collaboration with the Royal Society for Senior Citizens has also devised an elderly programme.
Under the programme, the ministry is collecting data of all the elderly population across the country to provide them with timely support during times of a lockdown.
The elderlies and people with underlying health conditions are considered the most vulnerable group to Covid-19.
Also, the ministry has arranged counselling services for those in the quarantine centers in case they require any support. About 75 percent of those in the quarantine centers are students. “With these three new measures, we are tackling the problem with a whole-of-the-nation approach,” health minister said.
Ventilators and personal protective equipment
While the shortage of ventilators globally has killed many Covid-19 patients globally, health minister said that more than the number of ventilators, Bhutanese should be worried if there are enough operators to use the devise.
Lyonpo explained that not all the Covid-19 patients would require the support of a ventilator. “About 80 percent of Covid-19 positive cases don’t need them. Of the 100 infected, only about 5 of them would need ventilators,” she said. “Most positive cases recover after taking the medicines.”
There are 68 ventilators in the country and 28 more would be arriving soon, she added. The ventilators would be placed at national referral hospital in Thimphu and at the Mongar regional hospital to offer critical healthcare services.
Lyonpo added that a team of health officials would leave to the south and east to evaluate the extent of preparations in different places.
On the personal protective equipment (PPE), she said that the ministry for now has enough PPE sets and were available in places where they are needed.
Australian PM asks visa holders to return home amid Covid-19 pandemic
The Bhutanese community in Australia, like many international communities, has not taken well what the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, told journalists after a national cabinet meeting yesterday.
The prime minister said that those who had come to Australia should return to their home countries if they are not in a position to support themselves in the wake of increasing cases of Covid-19. “Australia must focus on its citizens and its residents to ensure that we can maximise the economic supports that we have,” he had said.
The announcement came after the Australian government refused support to foreign students. The international education sector contributed $34 billion to the Australian economy in 2019.
With more than 8,000 Bhutanese in Australia, as students, dependents and permanent residents, many expressed their shock and disappointment on social media.
A 36-year-old Perth resident said it was the last thing he expected in such difficult times. “We understand everything is expensive here, especially the medical bills and we want to go home but with airports closed and transits not allowed, I don’t know how we would return home.”
He said almost everyone is affected because of the pandemic, as many lost jobs or reduced working hours. “People who have arrived in Australia earlier this year are most affected, as they do not have stable jobs.”
In Canberra, a student said except for newcomers, many who have been in Australia for a longer period might have saved enough to continue their education. “We have already paid our fees and we would incur huge loss if we return just like that.”
While the Council of International Students Australia condemned the Prime Minister’s comment, the Edith Cowan University (ECU) Student Guild President in Perth, where a majority of Bhutanese students are enrolled issued a press release and stated the Prime Minister’s comment doesn’t reflect the overall positive contribution the international students bring to the country.
It stated that it would provide continued support to international students.
Meanwhile, foreign minister Dr Tandi Dorji said the Australian Prime Minister did not ask all international students to return home but only those who cannot support themselves. “All the countries are asking the same and this is nothing new.”
He, however, said that the government is aware of the situation of Bhutanese in Australia and they already discussed the issue. “The embassy in Bangkok already issued an advisory to Bhutanese in Australia.”
Lyonpo Dr Tandi Dorji said that for those who want to return home but not possible as of now because of travel ban or restrictions put in place by most countries, TashiAir and Druk Air decided to charter flights once the travel ban or restrictions are lifted.
According to the advisory issued by the embassy in Bangkok, about 150 Bhutanese, mostly from Perth wanted to return home.
The General Secretary of the Association of Bhutanese in Perth Incorporated (ABPI), Karma Choden, late last night told Kuensel that the association is analysing the situation. “We are working on strategies to address the issues like writing to universities, colleges and institutions to consider some of the issues the ABPI is putting forth,” she said.
“We are also writing to the WA government to look for grants to the ABPI and exploring other options towards supporting the Bhutanese community.”
Perth in Western Australia has the maximum number of Bhutanese in Australia. Karma Choden said the ABPI and the Bhutanese in Perth Covid-19 response group is working to help fellow Bhutanese.
When the agriculture ministry announced urban agriculture initiative, people immediately started forming groups to start vegetable farming. Then, true to form, came another notice from the ministry the same day—the agriculture department will not register the groups.
Agriculture Minister Yeshey Penjor said that the registration was put on hold because the department was in the process of procuring fallow land in the peri-urban areas of Thimphu, Paro, Wangdue, and Punakha.
“As the government land in the core town areas is not feasible for cultivation,” said the minister and that alternatives were being sought in the Dogar Gewog in Paro and Mewang Gewog in Thimphu.
On March 26, the Department of Agriculture asked individuals to register for kitchen garden opportunities. The announcement read: “The Department of Agriculture (DoA) in collaboration with National Land Commission and Thimphu Thromde is mobilising land resources within the thromde for kitchen gardening opportunities to those who do not have a backyard garden space. DoA will undertake the initial land development and seed supplies.”
The move was initiated to boost local production in the Covid-19’s wake. More than 100 interested groups registered with the department.
Director of DoA, Kinlay Tshering, said the initial registration was a test to see if people in the urban areas were interested in agriculture.
She said the department was carrying out technical feasibility and site identification studies. “We are recording the numbers of agriculture youth groups and fallow lands so that we can link them together. It depends on the willingness of the people.”
“The fallow land in the core town area has water problems so we are exploring different locations,” she said.
Groups have begun expressing their frustration on social media.
Gelephu police arrested seven Bhutanese who had visited Tokura village in the neighbouring state of Assam, located half a kilometre from Gelephu-Sarpang highway.
They were caught on three separate occasions in the past three days.
On March 30, the police and surveillance arrested two women with tobacco products while they were returning to Gelephu from Tokura village. A Bhutanese man was caught while returning from Tokura village the following day.
Another two women and two men were caught yesterday as they tried smuggling in tobacco products.
Police said that all of them were quarantined as they had been in contact with people across the border.
According to police, the six who were involved in illegal tobacco possession will be dealt as per the law upon completing the 21-day quarantine period.
In a separate incident yesterday, Sarpang police caught a Bhutanese man returning from Sarpari. The man was quarantined.
Meanwhile, since the sealing of Gelephu-Datgari checkpoint on March 23, security personnel and surveillance teams have been deployed at all the entry points in Sarpang.
However, the surveillance teams are still grappling with the challenge to control the movement of people across the porous border.