Given the current situation of Covid-19, the Prime Minister issued an executive order with decisions to decongest the Centenary Farmers’ Market (CFM) yesterday.
The order stated that the CFM was a high-risk location where large numbers of people gather regularly.
The vendors of CFM expressed discontentment after thromde started allocating plots to the vendors last week.
According to the executive order, Thimphu thromde shall build appropriate outlets in all the zones for interested vegetable vendors.
The vendors of CFM were to be given preferences for selection of outlets in the zones.
“The construction of outlets in the zones shall be expedited and the works shall be immediately outsourced.”
The order stated that the vendors of CFM were also to be relocated to the two multi-level car parking in Thimphu.
The remaining vendors were to operate from CFM in alternate days to avoid crowding. The order mentioned that the present CFM staff were ensured continued employment.
“Thromde may establish an entity to facilitate sourcing of vegetables from producers within Bhutan to ensure reliable supply to the outlets,” the executive order stated.
Vendors took part in a “lucky draw” for the new locations where they would be vending from.
The agriculture ministry has asked dzongkhags to grow onion and tomatoes as an immediate intervention to address the shortage in the country following India’s ban on exports.
On September 14, India prohibited exports of onion except for those cut, sliced and powdered as prices trebled in a month after excessive rainfall hit crops in southern states. The ban is likely to worsen the shortage of onion in Bhutan.
Director of agriculture department, Kinlay Tshering said that with the provision of seeds, subsidies, and technical assistance, the ministry plans to expand the production of these vegetables in the next 2-3 years to meet the domestic demand.
Kinlay Tshering said that farmers did not cultivate onions since it involved some risks.
She said that onions take 7-8 months until harvest after which the imported onions gave a stiff price competition to local producers. “Farmers don’t have price assurance from the domestic market.”
The prices of onions and tomatoes in the country increased drastically after the Food Corporation of Bhutan Limited (FCBL) resumed its import a week ago.
Although the ministry set fixed prices for onion and tomatoes, the prices hiked as high as Nu 150 a kilogram in Thimphu. The Office of Consumer Protection fined 21 vegetable sellers for charging more than the fixed retail prices for the products.
As of September 14, FCBL imported 144.79 metric tonnes of onion out of which 39 metric tonnes was distributed in Thimphu.
Some of the netizens said that Bhutan needs an agriculture policy that addresses more consolidated support and services at the ground level. The current institutions, according to them was not enough to help and support the farmers and growers.
“A focused commercial farming policy has to be set up in order to meet market demands, throughout the year, for all commodities,” one wrote.
While others think import regulation would help the farmers, some said that an enabling agricultural policy supported by fiscal and trade policy would incentivise the producers.
The government is working on attaining self-sufficiency in terms of chillies, tomatoes, and onions.
Meanwhile, the coordinator of urban agriculture initiative in Thimphu, BB Rai, said that in the next growing seasons, the farmers would focus on these commodities. “We are encouraging growers in the south to cultivate chillies, onions, and tomatoes immediately,” he said.
Last week, rumours were rife that there would be another lockdown in the country. The health ministry, however, was quick enough to debunk any such claims.
While the reason behind the rumour still remains unknown, many believe that it could have surfaced after an individual tested positive on the rapid antigen test at national referral hospital’s emergency ward. The individuals however, tested negative on confirmatory RT-PCR test.
The case at the emergency ward was one of the many stray cases health officials have come across. However, there is little to worry about such incidences according to experts.
Clinical microbiologist with the national referral hospital, Dr Tshokey, said that although there were a few incidences where people had tested positive during the rapid antigen test, none of these individuals were positive on the RT-PCR.
He said that every antigen test analyser machine had a cut-off index (COI) set where any reading above 1 on the COI gave positive results. “Anything below one, reads negative on the machine.”
He explained that those individuals testing positive on the antigen test had readings of 1.05, 2 and sometimes 3. However, these readings, he said, were low and borderline readings. Only those who had readings above 20 and 30 on the antigen analyser machine have tested positive on the confirmatory RT-PCR test so far.
“We have had these kinds of cases in most of the hospitals and none of the individuals tested positive so far, even after repeating the RT-PCR test after 24 hours,” said Dr Tshokey.
The antigen test
This latest mechanism for testing Covid-19 (SARS-CoV-2) is specifically designed to detect and identify antigens. Antigens are any foreign body (proteins) that enters the body.
The human immune system works on a simple idea: Any protein in your body that isn’t encoded by your own genes is probably from a pathogen and should be captured and destroyed. For this, when the immune system detects a foreign protein, the white blood cells create antibodies to trap and destroy these proteins.
People with no risk factors or any recent travel histories to high-risk areas have tested positive on the antigen test.
Royal Centre for Disease Control’s (RCDC) head, Dr Sonam Wangchuk, said the health ministry’s team was in contact with the manufacturers of the test kits in South Korea.
During the recent discussions with the manufactures, it was learnt that there could be some field-related factors causing the issue. Among others, the manufacturers had recommended that people collecting and shipping samples from the field needed to be extra careful.
Dr Sonam Wangchuk said that initially when antigen testing first started in the country, samples used to be collected and transported to the RCDC laboratory manually by health workers.
“The manufacturers don’t recommend shipping samples from one place to another. When you collect samples and keep it for a longer time, there is some lysis (breaking down of cells) happening in the cells.”
He said that ideally, antigen tests needed to be conducted on the spot from where the samples were collected. Today, all the 54 flu clinics have individual antigen testing facilities, conducting tests on the spot.
Dr Tshokey said that because the antigen test was a fairly new method, large quantities of the test kits were being constantly produced and supplied across the world.
He said that the manufacturers in Korea have indicated that certain batches of the test kits that had been circulated had these issues. The company has asked countries not to use a certain lot of the kits.
“The company has also asked us to collect the data from the machine and send it to them so that they can analyse how the samples were read by the machine,” he said. “They have communicated that what we have read as 1.05 and 2 on the machines all seems to be false positive.”
The number of such cases has gone down recently.
Nothing to worry
Both the members of the TAG said that detection of false positive results among the population was better than having false negative results.
With the country going all out on testing the population, Dr Tshokey said that the more tests the ministry conducts, there is more likelihood of getting false positives.
He explained that a highly specific test with about 99 percent specificity would still produce one percent false positive results. “If we test 100 people, one would test false positive. But when we test 1,000 people, we would get 10 false positive individuals.”
The government has recently started to perform Covid-19 tests on all individuals coming for admission at the hospitals including their attendants. All health staff are tested fortnightly.
Dr Tshokey said, “What is important for us is that we are taking no chances. Anyone testing positive on the antigen test, we confirm it by doing a RT-PCR test. And if needed, we repeat the RT-PCR in 24 hours.”
Amidst the global shortage and increasing demand for testing kits, Bhutan has been using all the three available testing methods. The rapid antigen and antibody tests are used as screening methods.
The confirmation if an individual is infected with Covid-19 is done through the RT-PCR test, the gold standard, according to the World Health Organisation.
On BIMSTEC’s Secretary General issue
The National Council (NC) today will review the foreign ministry’s response on the government’s appointment of Tenzin Lekphel as the next secretary general of BIMSTEC, according to NC members.
The NC wrote to the foreign ministry a few days ago, expressing its concerns about the appointment. Tenzin Lekphel is one of the founding members of the ruling party, Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT).
NC Chairperson Tashi Dorji said that the NC would review the ministry’s response on the issue. The Chairperson said that the NC would inform the media about the issue after the discussion among the members.
The NC’s good governance committee chaired by member from Chhukha, Sangay Dorji, had sent a set of questions related to the criteria on the appointment of the secretary general to the foreign ministry a few days back after the controversy on the issue.
Among other questions, the good governance had asked to the foreign ministry whether the post was advertised.
According to the foreign ministry’s response, there is no requirement for the post to be advertised, as the prerogative to nominate the secretary general solely depends on the respective government on a rotational basis, as per the Memorandum of Association on the establishment of BIMSTEC.
“There are no set criteria for the post of secretary general. As per Article 4(A) of the Memorandum of Association of the Establishment of the BIMSTEC secretariat, the secretary general shall be appointed by the BIMSTEC ministerial meeting upon nomination by the party on the principle of alphabetical rotation,” the foreign ministry wrote to the NC good governance committee.
The foreign ministry in its response clarified that it was a diplomatic post equivalent of an ambassador. The foreign ministry stated that all the member countries had accepted the nomination of Tenzin Lekphel as the secretary general of BIMSTEC. This is Bhutan’s turn to nominate the secretary general.
The foreign secretary replied that the government would have considered options on who would be the secretary general.
The current secretary general who is from Bangladesh will complete his term in September. The 21st session of the BIMSTEC Senior Officials Meeting on September 2 accepted the nomination of the candidate.
The rumours doing the round is that there could be another lockdown soon. Scuttlebutt can’t be helped such as we live in these testing times but what ought we to make of it? Should we be rattled again and run helter-skelter to stock up on supplies and essentials?
Due to the unpredictable and relentless nature of the pandemic, fears and worries are only to be expected but the health ministry and expert groups tell us that second lockdown is not at hand. That such a situation is not on the horizon is reassuring but it should not make us complacent.
If we have learnt anything from the recent experience, lockdown can bring untold challenges to the people, especially when it is imposed at a stroke, without prior warning. Lack of seamless coordination and service delivery systems add to the difficulties. We are yet to streamline the systems so that in times of disaster and national emergencies we are not left stunned and out of commission.
What we must bear in mind is that coming out of lockdown doesn’t mean that we have defeated the pandemic. In fact, we are more exposed, which means if we go back to our reckless nature after lockdown the risk of getting infected is high.
With the restriction on movement of people and vehicles now relaxed, schools have opened; dzongkhag to dzongkhag travel has resumed; crowding and gathering is now back; and sporting events are taking place. That we do not have new Covid-19 positive case is comforting but we must never lose sight of the dangers.
Health protocols are important, as is wearing face masks and hand-washing at all times. Compliance monitoring should be stringent, especially in education and transport sectors. How this is done and how frequently and with what competence levels should be audited strictly by the authorities concerned. Carelessness and complacency is what we can ill afford.
There may not be another lockdown but we should be worried. Could it be that the rumours are stemming from the seeming ease with which we are facing the threats? So it appears. Therein lies the rub.
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
If the cost of transportation determines the cost of goods, Bhutanese consumers will have to live with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the travel restrictions.
Transporting the goods into Phuentsholing and beyond has become expensive these days. For importers beyond Phuentsholing, there are at least four different costs to bear before the consignments are through from the Rinchending check post.
In addition to the loading charges in Jaigaon, there are costs to bear in transporting the goods until the Mini Dry Port (MDP) in Phuentsholing, unloading them, reloading and transshipment charges. The latest addition is the cost for hiring a driver between the Rinchending check post and the MDP.
Transportation of goods procedure changed after the lockdown.
After vehicles bring consignments at MDP from across the border, it has to be transshipped in a different vehicle, which will be then cleared and driven until Rinchending. For this, a separate driver has to be identified. This is to ensure Phuentsholing-based drivers don’t drive beyond the Rinchending check post.
Hiring a driver between MDP and Rinchending costs anywhere between Nu 500 to Nu 2,000 these days. On September 15 evening, an importer from Thimphu, Tshering Tashi was waiting for his consignment at Rinchending.
“I had to pay the Jaigaon loaders first, then there is another cost to deliver them to the Phuentsholing MDP. At the MDP, I had to pay for unloading and transshipment,” he said. Including hiring a driver to bring his goods until Rinchending, he paid more than Nu 4,000.
At the newly constructed integrated check post in Rinchending, a team of RSTA officials starts disinfecting the vehicles from 8 am. After 30 minutes of disinfecting the inside of the vehicle, the vehicle is then sent for body disinfection. Only then, the driver from Thimphu can take over the vehicle.
Two separate places have also been identified for Thimphu drivers to rest. A driver, Tashi Tobgay, who was waiting for a Gedu-bound consignment said it would be better if hiring a driver between Rinchending and MDP was not there.
“What’s the use? After the disinfection, we have to take the same seat where the Phuentsholing driver had sat,” he said.
“It would be better to allow us to go to MDP with better safety protocols.”
Tashi Tobgay said that he recently paid Nu 2,000 for hiring a driver to get his consignment to Rinchending from MDP. However, he said these days, the rate is between Nu 500 to Nu 1,500.
On September 15, by 5:30pm, the RSTA disinfection team had allowed 70 vehicles from Rinchending.
Tshering Tashi, who had come for the first time to get his consignment said it was difficult to get correct information about bringing his consignment until Rinchending.
“We must know what will happen here before we are here. We cannot sleep here if our consignment fails to reach by 5pm.”
Meanwhile, there are complaints about loaders charging exorbitant loading and unloading charges at the MDP. However, an official from the labour office clarified that the revised rate was being followed.
“There are importers who even pay more than the fixed rates and there are some who say the rates are fine,” the official said.
“But there are also those who give heavy work to loaders and don’t want to pay. Our job is to ensure both the loaders and importers benefitted.”
As per the revised rate, loaders cannot ask more than Nu 6,000 for loading and unloading a 40 feet container. It is Nu 5,000 for transshipment goods from the same container.
After the lockdown, 47 loaders had started working at the MDP, out of which 12 have already left. Today there are only 35 loaders.
With the preliminary examination (PE) fixed for November 8, university graduates are resorting to online coaching classes to prepare for the first hurdle where 50 percent of the graduates vying to sit for the Royal Civil Service Commission examinations will be screened out.
Gatherings are not allowed and both graduates and those coaching graduates have resorted to the online classes.
Tshewang Choden, a recent graduate with B.A Mass Communication from the Symbiosis Centre for Media and Communication at Maharashtra, India, said that she was attending online PE coaching under the initiative of Druk Infinity Consulting based in Thimphu. She is paying Nu 1,000 in coaching fees.
“I stay in Mongar due to which I am unable to attend physical classes in the capital. There aren’t any tuition classes going on in Mongar. The online PE classes helped me,” said Tshewang Choden.
Druk Infinity coaching classes began on September 14 and will go on until October 25.
Tshewang Choden said that she would prefer physical classroom over online classes, but said that online class has its own advantage. “Videos, notes and quizzes are shared through online platforms which I can always refer when in doubt.”
Druk Infinity provides 10 lectures or explainer videos on basic ideas of PE, more than 400 past PE questions (2014-2018) for problem solving and data interpretation along with solutions, more than 200 questions for English vocabulary, comprehensive notes for Dzongkha and one free guidebook.
Live classes are scheduled every Tuesdays and Thursdays to solve doubts via Zoom and Facebook. At the end of the coaching period, one complete practice online exam will be conducted, where it will be graded immediately.
A B.A History and Dzongkha graduate from Sherubtse College, Dawa Dolma Moktan, said that she also took part in the online PE coaching, which a Gedu College lecturer organised. More than 300 graduates took part in it.
“We discuss questions related to problem solving and data interpretation. It was worth participating,” said Dawa Dolma Moktan.
Meanwhile, some Facebook pages are also created to discuss the PE and main exam and engage the graduates. Currently, Facebook page such as Let’s Discuss PE, Bhutan Preliminary Examination, and BCSE exam discussion (PE and main exam) are the most active pages sharing questions online where followers answer questions in the comment section.
The PE is an initiative of the RCSC to test the competency of graduates in the field of English, Dzongkha, problem solving and data interpretation.
Nima | Gelephu
Sarpang dzongkhag Covid-19 taskforce decided to lift the lockdown in phases from today with the improved focus on manufacturing firms and schools in the dzongkhag.
The manufacturing firms are allowed to operate from today as a containment facility where workers will have to walk for the next two days until public transport service resumes on September 20.
This is expected to help small and medium scale industries in the dzongkhag resume working swiftly as the firms remained closed during the lockdown.
Sarpang Dzongdag Karma Galay said there are many people dependent on small and medium enterprises to support families. “This time we have allowed them to open in the first phase. But, we want them to be in a self-contained facility. People should be in the campus and follow Covid-19 protocols,” he said.
The dzongkhag is also planning to resume the export of wood-based products besides the export of agriculture products such as potatoes, cardamom and ginger.
Officials from the Bhutan Chamber for Commerce and Industry in Gelephu said industries were worried about raw materials getting damaged and have managed to pay workers despite remaining closed during the lockdown.
There are seven manufacturing and production-based enterprises operating in Gelephu thromde today, at least employing 75 workers.
All schools to open with boarding facility
Schools for classes X and XII would be opened from Monday followed by classes for IX and XI on Thursday. All students will study in boarding schools to ensure safety.
This is done mainly to reduce the risk of students getting exposed to infection as the Thromde is a high risk area.
It is also expected to help schools practice social distancing measures strictly.
The education ministry had instructed to open schools in the dzongkhag earlier, but Sarpang could not as it was in the process of lifting the lockdown.
The dzongdag said the thromde was asked to make arrangements where students don’t have to go home after school.
“It doesn’t look safe for the students to move around. We are requiring students to stay in the campus,” he said. There would be no day schooling and the thromde is expected to come up with the required arrangement.
However, none of the schools under Gelephu thromde has boarding facilities. The schools used by the frontline workers would be sanitized and disinfected to make it safe for use. The dzongkhag has identified two primary schools to be used as a containment facility for the frontline workers.
The dzongkhag deferred the plan to lift the lockdown last week after two frontline workers tested positive for Covid-19 on September 11 during mass testing of the frontline workers.
Rinxin Jamtsho, TAG member said that it was good to start lifting the lockdown, as prolonged lockdown would be a hassle to the people. “There are signs that people are used to the new normal. I have seen them follow safety measures,” he said.
However, the official highlighted the need to ensure strict monitoring of the people’s compliance with safety protocols during the lifting of the lockdown, as the risk of getting an infection is never zero.
The Snowman Race is deferred to October 13, next year, the race’s secretariat confirmed.
It was scheduled on October 13 this year coinciding with the ninth Royal Wedding Anniversary.
The board of directors has made the decision after thorough and careful consideration of the ongoing uncertainty of Covid-19.
A news release from the Snowman Race secretariat stated that the race deferment gives them an added opportunity and mandate to launch the first edition of the race in a much more enriched style and strength. “Moreover, this will also give us time to strategise more activities and knowledge to achieve the motive of the race which is bringing the global community together in committing to combat climate change.”
“At the moment, the health and welfare of the participants, as well as the local, national and international communities at large are our highest priority,” the news release stated.
The run was scheduled to start from Gasa, and the participants were supposed to cover more than 300km within five days before ending in Bumthang. The route takes them to elevation ranging from 2,850 to 5,470 metres crossing 11 passes, six mountains over 7,000 metres, glaciers and two national parks: Jigme Dorji National Park and Wangchuck Centennial National Park.
The idea of the run emanated from His Majesty’s visit to the highlands to protect the natural environment and preserve the unique age-old culture and tradition of the highland communities, adversely affected by climate change.
…1,474 in facility quarantine
Yangchen C Rinzin
The government has so far spent Nu 248.279 million on hotels that served as quarantine facilities for 14,667 people as of yesterday.
Of the total 14,667 quarantined since March, 89 percent or 13,059 were discharged so far.
Today, there are 1,608 people in the quarantine facility, including 262 people quarantined in the last 24 hours.
Hoteliers offered their hotels as facility quarantine when the government made it mandatory for those returning from abroad to undergo a 21-day quarantine. The government agreed to pay hoteliers, as a support and to avoid laying off of staff and they were paid at the end of the quarantine period.
The government pays Nu 1,000 for a single bed and Nu 1,500 for a double bed for budget hotels. The charges increase to Nu 1,200 and Nu 2,000 for single and double beds in 3-star hotels and for the 4-star hotels, it is Nu 1,500 and Nu 2,500.
The cost is inclusive of three meals, evening snacks, and room charges. The rate is paid on a per person per day basis. Meals are provided based on the menu set by the health ministry.
The expenses are met from the Covid-19 fund, according to Cabinet Secretary Sangay Duba.
Cabinet Secretary, who oversees the quarantine facility protocol, said that hoteliers who voluntarily offered their services have not withdrawn. His team uses the facilities on a rotation basis specified by the health ministry to give an equal chance to all hoteliers.
There are almost 200 hotels across dzongkhags designated as facility quarantine of which most are in Thimphu (56 hotels) hosting about 300 individuals at present. Paro has 44 hotels with 114 people in quarantine.
Sangay Duba said most of those in quarantine today are primary and secondary contacts of Covid-19 positive cases. With schools re-opening, students returning from high-risk areas are quarantined in the facilities too.
Others include those visiting other low-risk dzongkhags.
“Since there is lack of facilities in places like Samtse and Sarpang, students are sent to other dzongkhags for quarantine before returning to schools,” the cabinet secretary said.
“We try to quarantine students in the nearest dzongkhag so that we can send them directly to schools after completion of the quarantine period of seven days.”
More than 300 students were brought from Samtse yesterday and were sent to Haa, Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, and Wangdue where they will be quarantined for seven days.
Sangay Duba said that a few had come forward to pay for the quarantine themselves but were asked to deposit the money directly to the Covid-19 fund and not to pay to hoteliers directly.
“Some parents wanted to bear the cost of quarantine, we advised the same if they wish to pay. It’s a government’s policy to bear the cost of quarantine so we cannot ask them to pay for the quarantine facility.”
Sangay Duba said that a De-Suup escorts those returning from high-risk areas in a bus till destination and they are directly quarantined. Others travelling in private cars or taxis are advised not to stop anywhere and go to the destination straight.
“Otherwise, people are quarantined before travelling where there are enough facility quarantines in dzongkhag.”
However, those from Project DANTAK and IMTRAT who were quarantined in the facilities have paid for their own quarantine, including few diplomats.
“We did not make them pay us or the hotels, but asked them to deposit into the Covid-19 fund.”
Election officials are preparing to carry out the bye-election in Bumthang’s Chokhor-Tang constituency.
Secretary of the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB), Dawa Tenzin, said that preparations were being carried out and that the bye-election would be held if the election commission decides to do so.
The constituency became vacant with the official resignation of former Opposition Leader Pema Gyamtsho (PhD) on September 7.
However, there is no election commission today as the former commission completed its tenure on July 31.
As per the election Act, a bye-election for filling a vacancy to Parliament shall be held within a period of 90 days from the date of the occurrence of the vacancy.
However, the bye-election can be deferred if the election commission, in consultation with the government, certifies that it is difficult to hold the bye-election within the said period, according to Section 579 of the election Act.
Dawa Tenzin said that it was possible to conduct the bye-election as there was no local transmission in Bumthang. “The constituency is also relatively small.”
The ECB secretary said that the ECB would announce the bye-election as soon as the new commission decides the date. “But it will depend on the commission to decide,” he added.
Both the ruling and the opposition parties have not announced their candidate.
A Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) MP said that his party had identified a candidate and would announce the candidate soon.
The Opposition Party has won one bye-election and lost another in the past. In 2013, DPT won the bye-election in the Nanong Shumar constituency of Pemagatshel but lost the bye-election in North Thimphu constituency in 2016.
The ruling party, Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), is also yet to declare its candidate. However, sources said that DNT is likely to field its 2018 candidate, Dawa.
In the 2018 general election, Dawa secured a total vote of 1,536 votes. Former OL Pema Gyamtsho secured 3,251 votes.
The constituency had a total registered voters of 6,051 in 2018.
According to the election Act, the electoral roll for a parliamentary constituency shall be revised before a bye-election to fill a casual vacancy.
Bhutan Exporters Association (BEA) will resume export of cardamom by tomorrow according to the Standard Operating Procedures(SOP) for export by private exporters.
The SOP was issued by the agriculture ministry recently.
The SOP, prepared to reduce Covid-19 risk, is applicable for export of apple, orange, vegetables, cardamom, and ginger.
Export of the agricultural and horticultural products were affected due to Covid-19 and subsequent containment measures in the country.
An official with the BEA, said that despite challenges, the association could export cardamom towards the end of May which was stopped completely after the nationwide lockdown last month.
He said that BEA’s expectation was to export about 100 metric tonnes of cardamom to Bangladesh this year. The company also exports ginger to India.
Cardamom is procured from farmers by small traders or farmers bring the spice to Samtse, Sipsu, Phuentsholing and other towns.
He, however, said that market for ginger and cardamom in Bangladesh had gone down. “The pandemic has affected the market in India as well.”
Due to border closure, there was no export of cardamom to Siliguri except one consignment in the beginning of June, he said.
The SOP mandates the exporters to communicate with the importers, make deals and ask them to open letters of credit from banks which will be opened tomorrow in Phuentsholing.
BEA will coordinate with the exporters and producers for the transportation of apples and oranges from source to mini dry port/ regional revenue and customs office/ Phuentsholing Higher Secondary School ground in Phuentsholing and coordinate transshipment of consignments to India and Bangladesh.
The vehicles moving in and out of transshipment area will be strictly monitored by Royal Bhutan Army or De-Suup in compliance with the mini dry port containment protocols and health advisories.
Meanwhile, the recent SOP issued by the Department of Revenue and Customs for importers and exporters requires online submission of documents for goods clearance to regional revenue and customs office a day before the entry of the vehicle.
The export and import documents to India and third country are provided by the department on their website and social media pages.
Vendors from the Centenary Farmers’ Market (CFM) in Thimphu appealed to the Prime Minister (PM) on Monday after the decision to relocate to different zones by the thromde.
In the letter dated September 13, the vendors indicated that if the CFM is closed due to the pandemic they would not engage in business transaction at CFM. The vendors requested the PM to allow vending in three locations including CFM.
Furthermore, the vendors requested PM to intervene and allow them to return to CFM if there were plans for the current relocation to be considered for an indefinite time.
Chencho Tshering, a vendor from CFM, said that they have not heard from the PM.
He said that there was no prior plans to relocate them. “The decision was made unexpectedly. Our livelihood is affected.”
The decision to relocate the vendors of CFM to different zones across the thromde is in line with the government’s directive.
About 80 fruit and cereal vendors from CFM gathered at the thromde office for “lucky draw”. The vendors will get new location.
A cereal vendor from Punakha said: “Moving to a new location will hamper our sales as we lose our regular customers.”
However, some vendors support the decision for relocation.
Sonam Dorji, a vendor from Paro, said that considering the current situation, the government’s decision was right.
He said: “If the old vendors were made to leave and new vendors were given the space then it becomes an issue. When the situation gets better, hopefully, we can occupy the same space.”
The business owners above the CMF were worried that with the relocation of vendors their livelihood was at stake.
Tshering Yangden, 40, from Zhemgang, said that she had no customers for the past three days. “In a month, about Nu 50,000 is spent running a bar. It is difficult for us to make ends meet.”
Tshering Dorji, a shop owner, said that without the vendors at CFM his business was affected significantly. “Shops in vicinity survive because of customers walking to the CFM and the meat shops.”
A resident from Babesa said that the decision made by the government allowed her to shop conveniently in the neighbourhood. “Making trips to CFM on weekends was a hassle. I do not get parking space and the area is crowded.”
The Centenary Farmers’ Market (CFM) in the capital city will be closed in two months. In other words, the thromde has managed to decongest a busy part of the capital city. It is a good decision.
The CFM is recognised as a high-risk area and with challenges in controlling the crowd, the thromde decided to relocate the hundreds of vendors across the city. To be fair to those who managed the market, the CFM is well organised. It is even a tourist spot where the management is lauded for its management of the market. It is clean and an example of how rules work when implemented strictly.
However, outside the market, it is a mess. It is the most congested place for four days in a week. Why should all the city’s people rush to the CFM to buy vegetables? The idea of spreading vegetable shops across the city is good. It will not only decongest the CFM, but also make vegetables available at all places. There are vendors around the city, but with the CFM known to be the big market, many still wait for the weekend to visit the CFM.
A day after the decision, some vendors are appealing to the government. The thromde should not budge. Decongesting the city should be the priority. We cannot have all the offices, business and markets in one area. We have opened up the city from Dechenchholing to Debsi. There are spaces and making use of it will help decongest the city.
We had a grand plan to build Thimphu as a dream city two decades ago. We are still dreaming. When the once rice fields were included in the town planning, the plan, based on a concept of intelligent urbanism, was to balance development with nature and heritage, making it convivial and efficient. Thimphu city was to have adequate space to work, drive, jog, cycle, picnic, relax and be close to nature while preserving the traditional Bhutanese outlook.
The idea now is how to decongest it. We had to wait for a pandemic to implement our grand plans. But like we say, it is better late than never. We should take cue from what the Covid-19 pandemic taught us. It is not only building vegetable markets across the city, what is now known as zones. The concept of zone is also not new. If we had implemented the commercial or residential zones, for instance, we would have people, banks, offices and businesses wanting to move out of Norzin or Chang Lam.
As we learn from mistakes, let the decision on CFM be the beginning. Let there be bolder decisions to not attract everyone to the already congested city. Concepts like Sunday or Farmers’ market should be encouraged. As everybody sells from the CFM, the only beneficiaries are the middlemen. Farmers and consumers are at the receiving end of the unreasonable profit middlemen make.
As we emphasise on agriculture as an important alternative, market, fair price mechanism and facility could make farming more attractive. A farmer could choose to take his chilies or beans to any of the vegetable markets in the city. Today, they are at the whims of the CFM vendors, especially when they have to return home on the same day.
While the country’s stringent conservation policies have hailed Bhutan as an environmental champion in the world, the country is not safe from the global environmental challenges, according to the World Wildlife Fund Bhutan.
This comes with the release of WWF’s Living Planet report 2020 (LPR), which found that between 1970 and 2016, the global population size of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have suffered an average two-thirds decline due to environmental destruction contributing to the emergence of zoonotic diseases such as the Covid-19.
The report says farming and deforestation are two of the major causes, while overfishing is a major problem for life in the ocean and freshwaters. The WWF says the destruction of ecosystems means a million species (500,000 animals and plants, and 500,000 insects) will be threatened with extinction over the next 100 years.
Wildlife populations found in freshwater habitats have suffered an average population decline of 84 percent, equivalent to 4 percent per year since 1970, while more than 85 percent of the area of wetlands has been lost.
According to an official from WWF Bhutan, the wetlands in the country are faced with challenges such as habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation linked to large scale development activities like hydropower, roads and other infrastructure in both urban and rural areas, water pollution, rampant illegal fishing, and over-extraction of riverine resources, among others.
Bhutan currently has three designated Ramsar sites, with a surface area of 1,225 hectares. They constitute different ecosystems like lakes, rivers, streams, glaciers, marshes, peat bogs, and fens.
The country’s conservation efforts should include freshwater biodiversity which has been neglected and has received less attention when compared to terrestrial biodiversity, he said.
The official said that the country should raise the profile of freshwater biodiversity conservation and bring it at par with the terrestrial biodiversity.
“We need to start valuing our rivers and wetlands other than just for hydropower development and address the drivers of unsustainable development and growth,” he said, adding that there is a need to build back better and a greener environment post-Covid-19.
The living planet index shows that factors believed to increase the planet’s vulnerability to pandemics including land-use change and the use and trade of wildlife were some of the drivers behind the 68 percent average decline in global vertebrate species populations between 1970 and 2016.
This, however, couldn’t be deduced due to lack of data in the country. While there was data for certain species, there was a huge data lag in the country, the official said. “We have species diversity data and not species abundance data, which is important to monitor such trends. So, this is a huge gap that needs to be addressed.”
LPR’s assessment of a sample of thousands of species of global plant diversity showed that one in five plants which are 22 percent are threatened with extinction. In Bhutan, the trend couldn’t be studied due to lack of standard data to measure such trends.
Although there were initiatives to study reptiles and amphibians, butterflies and moths including aquatic invertebrates in the country, it was on a small scale, the official said. He said that Bhutan should broaden the base and coverage.
To counteract habitat loss and degradation, based on a paper, ‘Bending the curve of terrestrial biodiversity needs an integrated strategy,’ co-authored by WWF and more than 40 NGOs and academic institutions are expected to reverse the loss of nature caused by humans’ destruction of natural habitats.
Changes needed include making food production and trade more efficient and ecologically sustainable, reducing waste, and favouring healthier and more environmentally-friendly diets.
WWF Bhutan has implemented the initiative in freshwater biodiversity conservation, which is lost faster than terrestrial or marine species. In collaboration with the government and Bhutan for Life, the office has supported effective management of the protected areas network in the country since 2019.
“In the future, the Living Landscapes Programme in the country implemented by WWF focuses on the identification and management of high conservation value areas outside the protected areas network and integration of that in the land use planning,” the official said.
WWF Bhutan along with partners has proposed the implementation of the freshwater biodiversity emergency recovery plan to bend the freshwater biodiversity curve through six actions such as letting rivers flow more naturally, reducing pollution, protecting critical freshwater habitats among others.
The report states that conservation action alone was not enough, but to make transformational changes to the way people produce and consume food to help address some of the major drivers of biodiversity loss.
The report published every two years presents a comprehensive overview of the state of our natural world through the index, which tracks trends in global wildlife abundance, and contributions from more than 125 experts from around the world.
The index has tracked almost 21,000 populations of more than 4,000 vertebrate species between 1970 and 2016.
Phurpa Lhamo | Gasa
Gasa hot spring’s income for the 2019-2020 financial year has decreased by around Nu 300,000.
In the 2018-2019 financial year, the tshachu generated more than Nu 2.5 million (M). This decreased to Nu 2.2M in the last financial year.
The tshachu, which closed on March 22 due to the pandemic, reopened to public on July 3, only to be closed on August 11 due to the lockdown.
According to tshachu Manager Tandin Dorji, Nu 125,000 was generated in two months of July and August this year.
Last year, in August alone the tshachu generated Nu 139,000.
Although peak season begins from November, guests continue to come in small numbers even in lean season. “In November last year, income was Nu 500,000 a month. In December it was Nu 400,000.”
After the easing of the lockdown, the tshachu was opened to public on September 13.
There are around 15 guests at the tshachu today, all from Punakha.
Tandin Dorji said that the management would not accept more than 50 guests and would also monitor the number of people in the ponds.
He added that only six or eight people were allowed in a single pond to ensure a metre distance between two individuals.
“Some say they are family members and stay together in the room but we still ensure they have a metre distance between themselves in the pond.”
The guests are also checked for fever and other flu-like symptoms during registration.
Face masks have been made compulsory and police has also been stationed to ensure that the Covid-19 safety health protocols are followed.
The tshachu management has notified the guests to clean their rooms, to carry soaps and practice frequent hand-washing.
High Quality United FC will face Paro United FC
High Quality United FC (HQUFC) will take on Paro United FC (PUFC) in the ongoing 2020 BoB Bhutan Premier League tomorrow at Changlimithang Stadium.
The tournament remained suspended since August 11 due to the nationwide lockdown. Only six games were played as of August 10.
The matches will be played behind-closed-door without spectators. However, MyCujoo sports network will broadcast the matches live as usual.
PUFC’s Skipper, Tshering Dendup, said that HQUFC was a competent team considering the presence of few national players. “But we will compete.”
“Our team had practised thrice as of yesterday following the lifting of lockdown. We have resorted to self-training at home during the lockdown” said Tshering Dendup.
In the previous match, both HQUFC and PUFC have lost to Ugyen Academy FC and Thimphu City FC with 3-1 and 2-1 goals respectively.
HQUFC’s Manager Dorji said that tomorrow’s match was crucial for his team and he expects to snatch a win. “So far, there is not much point difference among the teams in the table. If we win this match, we will get three points to maintain our status.”
“During the Bhutan Super League early this year, our team had defeated the PUFC in the final. We will keep this trend,” said Dorji.
Dorji said that his players have self-trained amid lockdown by learning necessary steps from YouTube. “Our regular training is underway.”
Ugyen Academy FC, Thimphu City FC, Transport United FC and Paro FC have played two matches each. Tensung FC and Druk Stars FC have featured one match each.
So far, Ugyen Academy FC leads the table with four points.
6 months after detecting the first positive case, the last patient at the JDWNRH isolation ward was moved to de-isolation on September 14
After 194 days of serving as the busiest centre dealing with positive Covid-19 cases, the isolation ward at the national referral hospital in Thimphu finally saw its last patient leave the facility on September 14.
The last patient, a 23-year-old de-suup, who tested positive in Gelephu earlier, was moved to the de-isolation facility after testing negative twice within 24 hours.
What does this mean?
Since the detection of the first positive case on March 5, the eye hospital at the JDWNRH was the primary centre handling all the clinical treatment and management of positive cases.
As of yesterday, with zero active cases inside the isolation ward, the facility and the team manning the patients inside could finally take the much-needed breather.
Clinical microbiologist with the national referral hospital, Dr Tshokey said: “We really wanted this break because people there have been working continuously over six months.”
He said that the much-needed break was required to regroup, readjust and review the arrangements inside the ward to better prepare the system in the future. It was also an opportunity to analyse and strategise the health protocols and address any technical issues going forward.
JDWNRH’s Medical Superintendent, Dr Gosar Pemba, said that it was a good opportunity for the health staff who have been on their toes since the detection of the first case to take a breather.
He said that working inside the ward was a stressful experience. “You have to be there in full PPE and even if there is not much of a work, people are stressed. While not compromising the safety of the patient, you are constantly worried of getting infected yourself.”
It was also a time for the isolation facility to be sensitised and cleaned after running continuously for more than six months.
With the command from His Majesty The King to provide the best of the treatment and accommodation for Covid-19 patients, the newly inaugurated eye hospital was converted into an isolation ward.
The Royal Guest House in Mongar and the Royal Institute for Governance and Strategic Studies (RIGSS) in Phuentsholing were both converted to Covid-19 wards upon the command of His Majesty The King.
Dr Tshokey said: “We are not celebrating anything yet. The battle is far from over. For now, we are just happy that we could get this break after a very long time. We really hope this would be a long gap until the next positive patient is sent here.”
The isolation experience
The eye hospital, manned by multiple security personnel, housed the first ever Covid-19 positive case in the country and also the largest number (29 patients at a time) so far.
The health staff and the patients inside the ward also had their own share of bitter-sweet experiences.
Dr Tshokey said that during the initial days, it was difficult for the patients to comprehend that they tested positive for the virus. “Besides the patients, their family members were equally worried. But after a few days as they recovered from the shock, they all adjusted well.”
He said that most of the young patients were engrossed in playing online games. Whenever someone tested negative, all the staff partook in the joy and happiness. “Everyone equally shared the sorrow when individuals failed to recover after repeated testing.”
However, the biggest concern for the health staff manning the isolation ward was when elderlies and pregnant woman were admitted at the facility.
The eldest Covid-19 patient, a 68-year-old man after completing the two-week de-isolation period was released for home on September 14. “While this is a very good news for all, people must not misunderstand. Not all 68-year-old would recover if there is a large outbreak. People should continue to follow the preventive measures.”
Dr Tshokey said that people’s complacency could lead to outbreaks. The increasing number of cases could in turn increase the risks of complications, including mortality.
Covid-19 management teams
So far, all the four Covid centres in the country—Thimphu, Phuentsholing, Gelephu, and Mongar—have had experience of managing active cases.
Dr Tshokey said that as of yesterday, a total of 348 health workers including drivers, cleaners, ward boys, nurses, X-Ray technicians and doctors, among others were involved in active case management. The isolation ward at JDWNRH has involved about 224 health workers and support staff.
Gelephu and Phuentsholing each have involved 40 and 72 staff, respectively. Mongar currently has involved the dzongkhag’s first 12 health workers at the isolation ward.
But behind these frontline workers, there are teams of experts led by the medical and nursing superintendent of the respective Covid centres. Departmental in-charges who tirelessly worked to keep all services running at all times wholeheartedly contributed to the success story so far.
Dr Tshokey said: “We have managed to is keep all our health staff safe and uninfected. This is one of our biggest achievements so far. And this was made possible because of stringent protocols that we follow.”
Dr Gosar Pemba said that given the possibilities of health workers contracting the infection inside the ward, the management made sure that there was minimum contact between the patients and staff. “We do bundling of works, whereby, if a nurse wants to go check on the patient, he or she should compile and do all the tests and inspections together at a time. This is to avoid frequent contact between the health worker and the patient.”
He said that after six months of having dealt with active cases at the ward, there were no major issues. “This is also because most of our cases besides the American were all mild. We had no Bhutanese patient placed on ventilators so far.”
As of yesterday, Gelephu and Mongar Covid centres had one and four active case, respectively. Of the 68 cases in Phuentsholing, 34 were in de-isolation.
Two women De-Suups were critically injured in a freak accident yesterday, and are undergoing treatment at Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital (JDWNRH).
One of the De-Suups, a 25-year old woman is in the intensive care unit and a 33-year-old woman is at the emergency unit, as of last night.
They were hit by a Bolero pick-up truck at a four-way junction near the old Bank of Bhutan building in Babesa, Thimphu yesterday at around 5pm. The Bolero was parked about 100 metres above the site of the accident when the driver who was not in the vehicle lost control. An eyewitness said that the driver had parked his vehicle on a slope with a stone placed under the tyre to hold the vehicle. “The driver started the vehicle and came out of the vehicle to remove the stone and before he could get in, the vehicle ran down the road,” he said.
The two women were hit when they were crossing the road. The 25-year-old woman, after the vehicle hit her, rolled over the road and hit her head on a manhole, an eyewitness said.
Emergency Specialist with JDWNRH, Dr Sona Pradhan said that the 25-year-old woman suffered polytrauma or multi-trauma. She had a fracture in the neck, pelvic bone, cervical spine, multiple rib fracture, multiple lung injury and a severe cut in the skull bone. “She is breathing with the help of a ventilator,” she said.
The 33-year-old woman complained of chest pain due to lung injury and all her vital organs were fine, according to the doctor.
Meanwhile, a Babesa resident residing near the accident spot said that the accident area is an accident-prone area without traffic signals, zebra crossing or speed breakers.
“If there was a speed breaker or a no parking signpost, it would have prevented this accident. It’s critical to have traffic signals at junctions,” she said adding that the area has become busy.
The case is being investigated. Kuensel couldn’t contact traffic police.
Yangchen C Rinzin
Classes for X and XII re-opened from yesterday except for schools in Sarpang, Samtse and Samdrupjongkhar thromdes, which are still considered as a high-risk area.
Schools in the south will have to wait until the “unlocking” procedures are complete to begin classes.
However, students residing inside the Royal Bhutan Army and Royal Bhutan Police areas will have to wait to join schools since the two institutions are still operating in self-containment, according to the education ministry’s director, Kinley Gyeltshen.
He said that the ministry had informed principals and teachers to keep following up so that if situation improved after following government’s directives on relaxation, they could ask the students to join schools.
Since the two institutions worked on the frontline and were exposed, they are kept under self-containment since the nationwide lockdown and the associated risk. They will operate under self-containment until September 17 as of now.
Classes for IX and XI will begin from September 21 where schools have remained closed since March.
With many students back home and residing in various dzongkhags, Kinley Gyeltshen said that respective dzongkhag’s Covid-19 taskforce would help students register and travel back to school.
However, he said that those students returning from high-risk to low risk would have to undergo seven-day mandatory quarantine as per the health ministry’s protocol. After seven days, a Covid-19 test would be carried out.
Kinley Gyeltshen said that students travelling from high-risk to high-risk areas or low-risk to low-risk areas would not be quarantine or undergo Covid-19 testing.
Students residing in high-risk areas, especially in Phuentsholing, would be sent directly to school after completion of the quarantine period. Buses would be arranged, but students will have to bear the bus fare.
Students from the red zone containment areas in Phuentsholing will also be allowed to register and travel after a week of quarantine, as per the Covid-19 taskforce notification.
This would also apply to students who would be returning to colleges outside. But students of Gedu College of Business Administration would be quarantined in Gedu while students from red zone containment area will be quarantined in Phuentsholing.
The ministry did not have a record of the total number of students stranded in other dzongkhags.
Meanwhile, students of Phuentsholing were relocated yesterday to Punakha and Wangdue after students and staff tested negative for Covid-19.
Education ministry’s officiating director-general, Kinley Gyeltshen, said that these two dzongkhags were selected following several meetings and based on the space and weather. “If we move them to a cold place, the students would not be able to adjust. The schools also have adequate space to accommodate students and teachers.”
Students of Norbu Academy, a private school, will be sent to Dorokha Central School in Samtse where the ministry will arrange bedding and food.
Kinley Tshering said that the ministry would also provide a stipend of Nu 1,500 like public school students, which would be used for food.
The examination for Classes X and XII will be in March and Classes IX and XI in February.
However, the academic session for Classes PP-VIII will be completed by November. The education ministry will announce enrolment for new students in Class PP subsequently.