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Updated: 2 hours 50 min ago

Bhutan supports deferring 2020 Olympic Games 

Fri, 03/27/2020 - 11:49

Thinley Namgay 

The nation rejoiced when a 29-year-old female archer, Karma, became the first Bhutanese athlete to qualify for an Olympic quota.

She booked the spot in the recurve women’s archery at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics during the Asian continental qualification tournament held at Bangkok in November last year.

However, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has postponed the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and the Paralympic games scheduled on July 24 until next year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The decision came after IOC President Thomas Bach and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan met on March 24.

Karma said that it was a good decision. “The athletes still have the opportunity to participate next year. It will not make any difference. I discontinued my practise at the archery range in Langjophakha due to the coronavirus. Now I practise at home.”

Despite qualifying for the quota, she still has to hit the minimum qualifying score (MQS) of 605 points. Her upcoming qualifying championships in Bangladesh and Thailand were also cancelled.

The joint statement from the IOC and the Tokyo 2020 organising committee stated that owing to the present circumstances, the two leaders have agreed that the Olympiad in Tokyo must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021 to safeguard the health of the athletes and those who are involved in the event.

BOC’s Secretary-General, Sonam Karma Tshering said that Bhutan supports IOC’s decision for postponing the Olympics games. “It was in the best interest of the athletes.”

He said that Karma has qualified for the quota, but she should maintain an MQS of 605 points. “She has not fulfilled the MQS as of now.”

Bhutan’s debut in the Olympic Games dates back to the Los Angeles Olympics in the United States of America in 1984.

Sonam Karma Tshering said that participating in the Olympic Games is not only about winning and losing. “It represents our country as a sovereign nation. Moreover, it is also a source of inspiration for our youth.”

He said that Paralympic Games are also progressing in the country under the Bhutan Paralympic Committee since its inception in 2017.

Pema Rigsel and Kinley Dem became the first para-athletes to represent the country in 2018 at the third Para Asian Games in Indonesia.

Bhutan has been a member of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) since 2017.

“The understanding between the IOC and IPC was that whichever host city conducts the Olympic Games, the same city will also organise Paralympic games. Due to the resource constraints, IPC always collaborates with IOC to conduct the event. It is obvious that IPC has to accept IOC’s decision,” said Sonam Karma Tshering.

Olympics have never been delayed in the last 124 years due to such pandemic. Although the IOC cancelled the Olympics in 1916, 1940, and 1944, it was due to world wars.

The postponement of Tokyo 2020 is expected to have economic implications on Japan.

The total cost of the Tokyo Olympics, according to some reports, has been put at almost £10 billion and there were projections that it would cause Japan’s GDP to shrink by 1.5 percent. Millions of hotel bookings will have to be rearranged.

It was also agreed that the games will keep the name Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.

The re-naming as Tokyo 2021 would incur additional expenditure as most of the medals, banners, logo, and other requirements were almost complete.

The first Olympic Games were held in 1896 at Athens, Greece from April 6 to 15. Bhutan became a member of the IOC in 1983.

Bhutanese in Australia contribute AUD 111,567

Fri, 03/27/2020 - 11:47

The Bhutanese Communities in Australia donated AUD 111,567.86 to His Majesty The King’s Kidu Fund for COVID-19.

The money was contributed by various associations.

Adelaide Group donated AUD 155, Australia Bhutanese Association of Canberra (ABAC) AUD 21,022, Association of The Bhutanese in Perth Incorporated (ABPI) AUD 78,760, Brisbane Bhutanese Association Incorporated AUD 7,032, Druk Melbourne Association incorporated AUD 3,803 and Sydney Bhutanese Community AUD 795.

First Bhutanese to test positive for Covid-19 

Fri, 03/27/2020 - 11:43

The female student had returned from Europe this week  

Younten Tshedup 

In a span of 20 days, Bhutan has detected three Covid-19 positive cases. However, the situation remains the same and the threat level is still Orange for the country.

The third patient was a student who had returned home from Europe on March 22.

Health Minister Dechen Wangmo, during a press briefing yesterday, said that the female student started having mild fever and cough while at the quarantine centre around 3pm on March 25.

She was screened and health officials subsequently carried out a confirmatory test as per the set standard operating procedure. “The test result came positive. She was then removed from the quarantine centre to the isolation unit at the national referral hospital,” said the minister.

The patient, according to the health minister, is in stable condition and has not shown any more symptoms for now.

Her roommate who had travelled along with her has been shifted to a separate room.

 

No reason to panic

Lyonpo said that although the number of positive cases has increased to three, there were no reasons for Bhutanese to panic. She explained that although the patient was a Bhutanese, she was infected outside the country. “We still do not have any community transmission within the country.”

She said that because the patient and all those who had travelled with her on the same flight were already under quarantine, chances of spreading the disease to the public was almost negligible.

There were 21 passengers on board including the patient. The 11 crew members, now considered as the primary contacts of the patient are also on quarantine.

The 44 people identified as the secondary contacts (related to the crew members) have been asked to self-quarantine themselves at their respective homes.

Lyonpo said that as a precautionary measure, the government has made arrangements to put all those arriving in the country from abroad under a designated quarantine facility. “Nowhere in the world, there is a provision like this. They only practice home quarantine.”

There are 2,590 people under facility quarantine as of yesterday.  

Calling it a ‘gold standard’, the minister said that despite the World Health Organisation (WHO) not recommending testing to people without symptoms, in Bhutan all primary contacts irrespective of symptoms are tested.

However, she said that given the shortage of testing kits internationally, it was important to use the kits effectively based on scientific evidence. “There are many who have approached us requesting tests. We cannot go on doing random tests.”

As of yesterday, the health ministry has conducted 558 sample tests of which 25 were conducted in the last 24 hours. 

A total of 2,409,336 people have been screened on the ground while 11,612 were screened at the airport so far.  

Lyonpo added that there were no risks to the hotel staff including the health workers and police personnel deployed at the quarantine facility where the patient stayed.

“This is because the mode of transmission of this virus is not airborne. The virus is spread through aerosol droplets,” she said. “The health workers and police placed at the hotels don’t have physical contact with the suspects.”

Meanwhile, the 57-year-old American woman at the isolation ward is well and has started treatment for Covid-19 symptoms.

Covid-19: Press conference March 26, 2020

Thu, 03/26/2020 - 14:00

2:42

The health minister said that 44 people were identified as secondary contacts and asked to remain on self-quarantine at their homes.

— Kuensel (@KuenselOnline) March 26, 2020

 

 

 

2:29 Health Minister on lockdown: If everything stops, essential services to patients and public services would be affected. If everyone practices physical distancing and takes care at the individual level then lockdown would be out of the question. Everyone has to shoulder responsibility.

 

2:23 The 33 patients in Vellore and 55 patients who are undergoing medical treatment and their attendants have been asked to adhere to strict personal hygiene. Given the difficult circumstances, their allowances have been increased and dispatched: Health Minister.

 

 

2:15 Health minister says the third Covid-19 positive patient who is a student arrived on March 22 and started having mild fever and cough yesterday. She was then removed from her the quarantine centre and isolated. A confirmatory test was done which also came positive.

She is still in stable condition and has not shown any more symptoms.

The minister says all flight attendants and crew, and those who have been in contact with her have been traced.

Unless people show symptoms, testing liberally would be expensive and result in huge pressure on the already scarce resources, the minister said.

Hong Kong tourist who visited Bhutan tests positive

Thu, 03/26/2020 - 12:08

…risk of infecting Bhutanese minimal from the tourist: health minister 

Younten Tshedup

Risks of infecting Bhutanese by the Hong Kong tourist who tested positive after returning to Hong Kong from Bhutan is minimal, according to health minister Dechen Wangmo.

The health ministry confirmed that the 54-year-old  tourist who was in the country from March 3 to March 12, tested positive to the new coronavirus on March 22.

His guide and the driver were immediately quarantined after receiving the news of the tourists’ status on Tuesday night.

Both of them have tested negative to the virus on their first test.

Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo during a press briefing yesterday said the ministry received information on the tourist at around 10pm on March 24.

“We managed to trace the close contacts of the tourist by midnight and then placed the driver and guide under quarantine.”

While the tourist has tested positive to the virus, Lyonpo said that he could have been possibly exposed to the virus during the transit (on March 13 or 14), after he had left the country. “If he was exposed while in the country, he would have grown symptomatic a bit earlier.”

She said that almost 99 percent of the infected so far have shown symptoms for the virus within five to eight days of infection.

The minister added that the wife of the 54-year-old tourist, who accompanied him during the visit, informed that her husband started showing symptoms on March 19. Three days later he tested positive for Covid-19. The wife, however, has tested negative as of now.

“The driver and guide including the wife said that the 54-year-old was healthy and did not show any symptoms when he left the country,” Lyonpo said.

The tourist had visited the regular tourist sites in the country including the Memorial Choeten, Dochula, Gangtey, Buddha Point, Craft Bazaar, and Punakha tshechu during his stay in the country.

While there is a very low possibility of the tourist being infected while in the country, Lyonpo said that the ministry is tracing his contacts in the country as a precautionary measure.

There were 72 passengers on his flight back to Bangkok but most of them were foreigners, the minister added.

 

Stepping up preparedness

Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo said that Bhutan for now should focus and strengthen its preparedness measures as the number of Covid-19 cases increase across the globe and in the region.

She said that should the country’s situation worsen, there are only about 3,000 health staffs to cater to the public. About 600 Desuups have been trained in Covid-19 screening and the ministry targets to bring on board about 5,000 Desuups.

Meanwhile, 24 of the 48 doctors who were undergoing higher studies abroad have returned to the country and are currently in quarantine. The ministry has also compiled a list of retired doctors and health personnel too, should there be need for additional human resource.

Lyonpo reassured that regular health care services would be equally prioritised should the country enter the Red zone, adding that the country has enough medicine stock to last for nine months.

The ministry is also preparing 119 certified and clinical counsellors to attend to those in quarantine centres.

Govt. urges farmers to ramp up production

Thu, 03/26/2020 - 12:05

Sanam Lyonpo wants to make the Covid-19 a blessing in disguise

MB Subba

The novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has suddenly made farming a lucrative job in the country.

The closure of border gates with India has given Bhutanese farmers the opportunity to substitute a large portion of the country’s vegetable and meat requirement that are imported from India.

The country is expected to face shortage of food items that are temporarily banned if farmers do not ramp up production. The country imports food items not only because they are comparatively cheaper but also Bhutanese farmers have not been able to meet the demand nationwide.

The agriculture ministry wants to take the COVID-19 pandemic as a blessing in disguise. Agriculture Minister Yeshey Penjor has said that the pandemic had called for a test of sustainability.

Amid the ban on import of vegetables, meat and doma, the government is urging farmers to increase production through local governments and agriculture extension offices.

The minister on March 22 wrote to all 20 dzongdags to encourage farmers in their respective dzongkhags coordinate with agriculture and livestock officials to provide assistance to farmers to increase production of food items.

The minister said that there was no need for farmers worry about possible over- production or lack of market. “I urge our farmers to produce as much as possible without worrying about market,” he said.

The government, he said, would buy from if the production is at a commercial scale. But he added, “The price has to be reasonable.”

To motivate farmers, the agriculture minister said that the cottage and small industry (CSI) bank would provide loans at the minimum or zero interest rates. The ministry also promises to provide technical and procurement support would to farmers.

The import of meat and vegetables has not seen any significant decrease over the years despite the government emphasising on self-sufficiency.

According to statistics with Renewable Natural Resources (RNR), Bhutan imported 10,454 metric ton (MT) of vegetables worth Nu 152.96 million (M) during the six months from January to July, 2019. During the same period in the previous, Bhutan had imported 17,855MT of vegetables worth Nu 166.17M.

The country imported 3319MT of meat worth Nu 485M during the first six months of 2019. During the same period in the previous year, Bhutan imported 2,893MT of meat worth almost Nu 405M.

The country also imported 415.8MT of fish worth Nu 62M from January to July last year.

Some observers believe that some of the people who have been rendered jobless will return to their villages to take up farming. They are of the view that the government’s economic stimulus plan should cover the agriculture sector.

However, farmers say lack of irrigation facilities, connectivity and access to markets are a big challenge. In absence of proper storage facilities, farmers are also forced to sell their produce at the earliest irrespective of market situations.

According to the annual agriculture statistics, Bhutan produced a total of 82,877 metric ton (MT) of various vegetables in 2018 although statistics for 2019 is not released.

In the same year, the country produced a total of 3,517MT of meat and 200MT of fish. The production of chicken saw a constant increase from 944MT in 2014 to 1,687MT in 2018.

Beef, which is one of the most consumed meat items, saw a decrease from 639MT to 410MT during the same period. The production of fish remained almost stagnant from 119MT to 200MT.

The agriculture sector provides more than 65 percent of the total population employment and contributing more than 20 percent to GDP.

Phuentsholing retailers running out of rice

Thu, 03/26/2020 - 12:01

They worry about bringing in stocks from across the border

Rajesh Rai  | Phuentsholing

Until dusk yesterday, Phuentsholing didn’t witness any panic buying although news of lockdown in India had many worrying.

By 6:30pm, stores, wholesales and retail shops saw many customers rushing to buy essentials.

Tashi Departmental Store located at the heart of the town, which saw only a number of customers during the day bustled with customers in the evening. Many queued at the billing counters.

Although many store owners claimed the rush yesterday was a decrease from what it was on March 23, the first day of the gate closure, most of their rice stocks had exhausted yesterday.

Tashi Departmental Store’s manager said they finished the rice stock by yesterday evening and are expecting to restock it today.

Zimdra Impex, one of the largest departmental stores also had a few number of customers during the daytime yesterday. But it increased in the evening.

A staff said that the store saw a massive rush on Monday. Some bought about five to six bags of rice. The store had to restrict people from buying more than a bag of rice to make sure there is proper distribution.

Rice, oil, salt and sugar are the most bought items.

According to the staff, trade officials are also enquiring about the stocks time and again.

Meanwhile, many shopkeepers said they are worried about bringing in stocks from across the border.

The owner of RR Enterprise said she sold all the rice on Monday. She is wondering how to bring additional stocks the business stocked at Hasimara.

HD Enterprise at Phuensum Lam also ran out of its rice stock yesterday. “We have already ordered but it has to come from Hasimara,” the shopkeeper said. “I don’t know how it would be brought.”

With the gates sealed on March 23 and the lockdown in India, the growing concerns among the shopkeepers in the town is the lack of labourers to help transport, load and unload goods and commodities.

A grocery shop owner, Tashi Wangyel, said that they are having a difficult time without labourers.

“We are receiving orders from Mongar but there is no one to load now,” he said, adding that he has enough stocks in the godown. “But we don’t have labourers.”

On the first day of the gate closure on March 23, about 676 labourers exited Phuentsholing.

Panic buying in Paro

Thu, 03/26/2020 - 11:58

Phub Dem | Paro

Paro vegetable market was unusually crowded for a weekday yesterday. 

Lhamo Drukpa, a vegetable vendor said that the place was empty for days. But with the news of a ban on the import of vegetables, people quickly flocked at the market to stock up. 

She was only left with some onions and shrunken cabbages. “That’s all I have. If there is a ban I have nothing to sell.” 

She said that it would take some time for the local vegetables to hit the market. 

Another vendor, Lhakpa said that although the government said that local vegetables would be available, Tsirang was supplying only cauliflowers as of yesterday. 

He said that even if farmers grow vegetables, the problem was with the sustainability of the supply chain. “Farmers can supply varieties of vegetables only in summer. What about other seasons?” 

He questioned if the government had studied the impact of the unexpected closure. “Vegetable growing season is just beginning and the stocks are already exhausted.”

By noon, the vegetable market had run out of chillies and tomatoes.   

The agriculture ministry recently announced the restrictions on import of fruits, vegetables, doma and betel leaves as a temporary measure.

Trongsa dratshang distributes blessed water to combat Covid-19

Thu, 03/26/2020 - 11:55

Nim Dorji | Trongsa

Coinciding with the auspicious 30th day of the first Bhutanese month, Trongsa dratshang distributed ngag-chu, blessed water, to the public as a preventive measure against Covid-19 on March 24.

The dratshang collected various drupchu (holy water) and damzey (sacred medical substances), and conducted rituals before distributing the water to the residents in Thruepang parking.

The secretary of Choetse Rabdey, Sonam Rinchen, said the blessed water is expected to keep people safe.

He explained that about 80 years ago, a disease widely spread in the locality but with the distribution of a holy water made from the tooth of the 27th Je Khenpo Pema Zangpo (a sacred relic in the dzong), many people got cured.

“We have soaked the tooth of the late Je Khenpo in the holy waters with various other elements and distributed to the people,” Sonam Rinchen said.

In the wake of the Indian lockdown

Thu, 03/26/2020 - 11:53

With India in a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the new coronavirus, words are going around that Bhutan should follow suit.

Technically, we are already in a lockdown. We share borders with India on three sides. All the borders are sealed. There is no movement of vehicles across the border with a few exceptions.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided for the total lockdown, asking its 1.3 billion people to stay home, because the country’s massive population can overwhelm the effort to fight the disease.  India is crowded. The population and its density are challenging the effort to contain the virus.

A total lockdown, not allowing people to get out of their homes in not recommended as of today. Beyond a few towns, Bhutan is sparsely populated. If ever there is a need of a lockdown, it could be in a few towns like Thimphu, Paro and Phuentsholing.

A complete lockdown would mean no movement of people and vehicles except for a few crucial ones.  With borders sealed indefinitely, we need to reap the advantage of what each dzongkhag is good for.

The sealing of borders and banning of import, especially vegetables could come as an opportunity for the country. It would be the first time to completely ban the import of vegetables. We know how bans in the past worked.

There is a rush at the centenary farmer’s market yesterday. There are vegetables, mostly from what vendors brought in before the closure of the border gates. The centenary market sells local produce including chillies in winter.

When the imported stock runs out, we will know the local capacity to supply vegetables. It will provide planners, authorities and implementers of regulations a real insight into what is imported, locally produced and other practices in the vegetable business. It could come handy in long-term planning.

Besides vegetables, we need not worry about other essentials. There is assurance of continuity from the highest authorities.

While many people were rushing to groceries and the vegetable market, His Majesty The King was in Phuentsholing to inspect the plans put in place to ensure uninterrupted supply of essential goods from India, in light of the closure of our borders, and the 21-day lockdown in India.

For us, it is fortunately the vegetable growing season. Harvest from places like Tsirang and the Punakha-Wangdue valley has started coming in. It may not be enough when vendors have to cater to hundreds of hotels. But with most hotels closed or business lowdown, local produce should meet the demand.

If there is a concern for price, authorities are one step ahead. They have warned of hoarding or hiking price and inspectors are keeping vigil.

There is no reason to panic or hoard. We can live a few weeks or months without imports. It is, in fact, a blessing in disguise to see our potential in many areas.

What we need to be concerned is about our health. By staying clean and safe, each one of us could be contributing to the fight against the spread of Covid-19.

Agriculture ministry places import restriction on select produce

Thu, 03/26/2020 - 11:52

Customers complain of inflated vegetable prices  

Choki Wangmo

Early morning, the Centenary Farmers’ Market in Thimphu woke up to full parking spaces, large groups of people and rushing vegetable pickup trucks. Within a few hours, a vendor sold off her whole day’s stock.

Tashi Tshering, a doma addict rushed to the market after hearing about the ban on betel leaf and areca nuts. He bought betel leaf and nuts to last him for two months. Disappointed, he said, “By the time I got here, Bangla pata was sold out. The outer layer of the areca nut is not removed, even.”

Since the agriculture minister Yeshey Penjor announced a temporary ban on imported fruits, vegetables and areca nuts and betel leaf on March 24 in Covid-19’s wake, people have gathered at the vegetable market to panic-buy. “Import of vegetables is forced to stop due to no disinfection option.”

He justified that a ban was imposed since the health ministry advised the agriculture ministry to disinfect goods coming into the country, but it was not possible for fruits, vegetables and meat. The ban is applicable to betel leaf and areca nuts.

Lyonpo’s Facebook statement said: “Farmers have been requested to increase their farm produce with a buyback guarantee from the government. Urban dwellers are once again requested to start digging your backyard and other open spaces in the vicinity.”

However, a vegetable supplier, Sangay Om said, that the ban should be imposed only after studying the market situation. “More than half of Bhutanese populace lives in towns. Many are reluctant to work on farms.”

The local vegetable and fruit production might not be sufficient, Sangay Om said, adding that the local produce is expensive.

A few days ago, she imported more than 2,000 kilograms of vegetables. She also supplies vegetables to hotels that have turned into quarantine centres across the capital.

Tshering Dema, a vegetable vendor, buys from the wholesalers. She said it would be easier to buy the local produce but was worried about how the local market would be able to meet the demand.

“Bhutan’s vegetables are seasonal,” she said.

A local vendor who buys vegetables from Tsirang and Punakha is, however, hopeful. Cultivating the fallow lands with increased inputs, she said, might increase production.

A youth working in one of the agriculture groups said that the group was processing for land lease in the dzongkhags to start large-scale farming. She, however, had concerns about how the local producers can meet the domestic demand as the vegetable growing takes time.

An official of the Bhutan Agriculture and Food Regulatory Authority said the authority did not get any official directives from the ministry and the earlier import ban is still on for beans, cauliflowers, chillies and meat, “including raw, processed, frozen and dry meat until further notice.”

To increase local food production, the agriculture ministry announced that the government is committed and prepared to support all venturing into food farming such as low-interest rates, marketing, technical guidance, and procurement of implements.

The netizens appreciated the ministry’s move to go local but shared concerns on the increased price of the local products. They suggested monitoring the price as the price of a kilogram of chilli increased from Nu 100 to Nu 250 yesterday alone.

In response, Lyonpo on his Facebook page wrote that people should not worry about the shortage of supplies in the market since it is a growing season. He urged people not to hoard and panic buy as the price will depend on how consumers behave. “If consumers rush and hoard, sellers will take advantage.”

He clarified that the import control was a temporary measure and not a ban.

At a press conference yesterday, Health Minister Dechen Wangmo said, while there was no medical evidence that Covid-19 can be contracted from vegetables, fruits and meat, if Bhutanese could eat local products, it is safe and quality assured.

A man quarantined in Lhuentse

Thu, 03/26/2020 - 11:51

Tshering Namgyal | Mongar

Lhuentse dzongkhag quarantined a man at the Lhuentse Higher Secondary School hostel two days after he returned from India.

The 43-year old trucker from Gangzur village was quarantined on March 23, following police inspection based on information provided by the Nganglam checkpost.

Entry details showed a man entered the border gate at 6.45am and told the officials at the gate that he was returning from Rangya in Assam with construction materials. However, it was learned that there was no exit history found either from Samdrupjongkhar or Nganglam checkpost.

He was traced out through vehicle number from Chumidrang, a few kilometres from his hometown towards Gangzur gewog centre, while he was taking hot stone bath with relatives and villagers.

Lhuentse district health officer, Ugyen Dorji, said 14 villagers, mostly relatives, were found at the bath with him.

On questioning, he told the officials that he spent that night in Yangbari, then unloaded his truckload at Gyalpoizhing and spent the night at Mongar the next day before he left for Lhuentse on March 22.

Ugyen Dorji said his family members and those who came into contact with the driver were advised.

Meanwhile, some said his wife, a staff member with the Mongar Middle Secondary School, who returned from her husband’s home to Mongar yesterday should also be quarantined.

Three quarantined in Trashiyangtse

Thu, 03/26/2020 - 11:49

Eight home quarantined in Trashigang

Neten Dorji | Trashigang

Trashiyangtse dzongkhag has quarantined three people as of yesterday evening, two women and a man.

The three are quarantined in Tsenkharla central School.

Trashiyangtse hospital’s medical officer, Dr Namsa, said a 74-year-old man from Phongmey in Trashigang was quarantined, as he was returning from Arunachal Pradesh in India. He went via Daifam in Samdrupjongkhar.

Surveillance in Jangphutse border area traced the man.

The two women, who are sisters, were quarantined after one of them returned home from Phuentsholing.

Dr Namsa said school counsellors and health staff are counselling the three people every day.

Meanwhile, eight people were home quarantined in Trashigang, two in Kanglung and six in Merak.

Pandemics, quarantines, and history

Thu, 03/26/2020 - 11:49

University of Pennsylvania’s history professor Alex Chase-Levenson explores pandemics and quarantines in his upcoming book, and shares some lessons we can take from the past to help manage the present.

As concerns about the new coronavirus sweep across the world, so does the prospect that vast swaths of populations will wind up under some type of quarantine. With China currently restricting movement of tens of millions of people and Italy’s countrywide lockdown over the pandemic, many citizens across the globe are wondering what the pandemic will mean for their day-to-day lives.

Alex Chase-Levenson, University of Pennsylvania’s assistant professor of history, looks at a historic and massive quarantine system in his new book, “The Yellow Flag: Quarantine and the British Mediterranean World, 1780–1860,” set to publish later this spring. The system ensnared every single person, ship, letter, or trade good moving from the Ottoman Empire and other parts of North Africa to Western Europe into the 19th century. It affected everyone from sailors to celebrities like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Lord Byron. Chase-Levenson talked to Kristen de Groot of University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Today about some key takeaways from his research and lessons we can learn from pandemics and quarantines of the past.

How did you get interested in this topic? 

I’ve been interested in quarantine for a long time. At the end of college, as I was working on a paper about European travelers in Egypt in the 19th century, I came across a guidebook from the 1840s, the first British guide for travelers to Egypt. Almost the whole introduction was about dealing with quarantine on the return trip. A central rationale for this system was the occasional presence of bubonic plague epidemics in Middle Eastern cities, but even when there were no reports of any disease, every person traveling from the Middle East to Western Europe needed to be quarantined, usually for at least three weeks. I found this amazing, and I still do. The quarantine system ensnared millions of people over its existence, roughly from the mid-eighteenth century to the 1850s. These people had to have their clothes fumigated, had to hand over every piece of mail to be dipped in vinegar and smoked. Sometimes, you can still smell that on early nineteenth-century letters.

It was just really interesting that in this early period, a international medical system existed on this scale. This continental border was so real and tangible and intense at a time when we are not expecting to find such a transnational system.

And this system was built from the ground up by low-level bureaucrats in Mediterranean port cities. Through the regular exchange of letters among local boards of health, mutually assured disinfection emerged. That is, boards of health made it known to other boards: If your procedures aren’t up to snuff, ships from your port will be quarantined elsewhere in Europe. As I’ve researched my book, it’s been so fascinating to see how this shared, continental transnational border took shape.

For the average person, what are some key takeaways from your book?

One would be the way that elite, national politicians were forced to go along with the procedures that bureaucrats in port cities developed. All these members of the boards of health had developed their rituals and traditions of disinfection, and, sure, there were government ministers who thought quarantine was ridiculous and over the top. More than 90% of ships being quarantined came from cities with no reports of disease and had no disease on board. But because boards of health had built such tight links with each other and could always point to the threat of retaliatory quarantine, politicians who wanted to relax procedures were brought on board.

Another takeaway people might find interesting is how much some of these disinfection procedures and ideas from another era resemble beliefs we continue to hold. This is a period before germ theory, and diseases were understood to be spread in various ways: Advocates of quarantine suggested there was some nebulous contaminating substance called ‘contagion,’ but opponents of this idea stressed causes that were more atmospheric and environmental.

Some of the procedures that happened during nineteenth-century quarantine are still being used today. Alcohol, vinegar, and chlorine were some favorite disinfecting substances both then and now. And even though we think we’ve moved way beyond ideas that some ‘miasma’ in the atmosphere can make you sick, you still see traces of environmentalist medical ideas too. Lots of people say, for example, that swamps are unhealthy—and not just because they breed mosquitoes—that being inside with really intense air conditioning and then going out into hot weather can give you the flu. Or your parents might tell you: ‘Don’t go outside with wet hair, you’ll get sick.’ We still have understandings of disease, contagion, and contamination that go well beyond the science of bacteria and viruses.

And a final major takeaway that really resonates with the present is the dramatically different way people of different classes experienced quarantine in the period I write about. If you were rich, and the people who published travel narratives about quarantine generally were quite wealthy, the whole thing often sounds unexpectedly great. ‘Oh, it might be a little bit sinister, but I managed to catch up in a lot of reading, and the food was wonderful.’

The vast majority of people quarantined, though, were sailors, soldiers, and fishermen who had to move back and forth across the Mediterranean. These people were crammed into tiny rooms, and they had to stay there for weeks. This would have been almost unbearable, and you get glimpses of it even in accounts written by very rich people. One such traveler, for example, who could pay for private lodging at a quarantine station at the Austrian frontier, casually mentioned seeing a crowd of 300 peasants crossing from the Ottoman Empire who couldn’t afford to rent any kind of shelter and had to camp outside in freezing weather for 10 days while wearing clothes that had been ‘fumigated’ by dipping them in cold water.

In his review of your book, David Barnes, associate professor of history and sociology of science at Penn, says the book ‘delves deeply into one of the great questions of the 19th century, and indeed of our own age: What are the responsibilities of the modern state?’ What did you find those responsibilities are?

Quarantine is really the oldest precedent that the government needed to invest itself in the health of the nation as a whole, that putting money from taxation behind a medical measure was legitimate. So, it’s a crucial precedent for our modern understanding that the state should be responsible for public health, for the wellbeing of its citizens. Also: Long before there were passport control lines, quarantine constituted a major border regime. There are many ways this system shaped our understanding of what modern states should do.

What can governments today take from what Britain and its Mediterranean trading partners did?

I think my work shows that quarantine policy worked most effectively when politicians stayed out of the way. For the most part, the boards of health that ran the lazarettos [quarantine stations] had professional integrity that enabled the system to function.

All told, quarantine practices and debates contributed to the idea that medicine formed its own sphere of expertise where professionals should be in charge. That’s certainly a relevant lesson today, especially in the United States. Equally important: Quarantine can easily reinforce racism and stereotypes. When the practice is necessary, we need to think about way it can be applied as universally, equally, and sensitively as possible.

How does your research inform what is happening now?

From reading a huge number of travel narratives about quarantine, I have some pretty good ideas about how people have dealt with long periods of medical isolation. It’s a different kind of routine, a change of pace that take some adjusting to, and especially if we can disengage from the 24/7 news cycle—something I’m finding pretty hard to do in these days of coronavirus—social distancing could be more manageable.”

Benjamin Disraeli, way before he was prime minister of the United Kingdom, traveled to the Eastern Mediterranean in his 20s, and when he came back to Western Europe he was quarantined for several weeks. Despite having complained to his father about how much he was dreading this, Disraeli spent the time finishing writing a novel and later claimed that reading old newspapers that were lying around the Lazaretto of Malta is what made him ‘understand politics.’

So, as we seclude ourselves from normal life more than we ever have before, if we want to learn from the travelers who experienced quarantine two hundred years ago, we should think about how important it is to develop routines and cultivate small pleasures. I’ve been cooking a lot, and it makes me remember one traveler who said that in quarantine, eating dinner was the ‘great event of the day.’ In many of the travel narratives I’ve read, quarantine was something people didn’t hate as much as they thought they would, which is something optimistic we can take from that time.

By Kristen de Groot, University of Pennsylvania. The interview was first published by Penn Today. Permission given to Asia News Network members to republish.

Tele-education in the wake of Covid-19 threat

Thu, 03/26/2020 - 11:47

Jigme Wangchuk

The lesson of the day is “comparative advantage”. What is it? Simply put, it is an economy’s ability to produce goods and services at a lower opportunity cost than that of trading partners. In other words, a comparative advantage gives producer or a company the ability to sell goods and services at a lower price than their competitors and so realise bigger sales margins.

Jamyang Tshulthrim, an Economics teacher of Chukha Central School, is delivering the lesson for the key stages four and five—for classes nine to twelve. The delivery of the lesson, however, is not happening in a classroom. It is in one of the studios of Bhutan Broadcasting Service Corporation (BBSC).

Bhutan and Japan both produce apples but, if Japan can do so at a lower cost than Bhutan, Bhutan had better look at producing something elsewhere it can do at a cheaper rate. That’s Jamyang Tshulthrim trying to bring the meaning of comparative advantage home to the students.

The Ministry of Education has begun an initiative to educate children through television challenges because schools have closed due to Covid-19 scare. The programme that was supposed to begin yesterday will be launched today. But broadcasting the lessons will start only from March 27.

Running a school system this, of course, comes with challenges myriad.

A good number of households, especially in the rural parts of the country, do not have a television receiver or set. A large number of students could, therefore, miss the lessons. There are other impediments also.

Two BBSC studios began recording the lessons from Sunday last after a two-day trial. 

Only about 40 thematic lessons have been recorded so far. Editing them before broadcast could take some time.

There are six studios in Thimphu recording the lessons for all the key stages up to Class 12—three in Motithang Higher Secondary School, which has been turned into Education in Emergency Centre, one in iBEST Institute, and two in BBSC.

Then there is an online group called VTOB or Teachers of Bhutan Volunteers. But then, teachers coming forward to record lesson in the studios have been few and far between. 

The Education Ministry is having to call teachers from the dzongkhags to come to the studio to record the lessons.

Tashi Dorji, general manager of BBS 2, said that stocking the episodes was the major challenge. Some teachers do not come on time to record the lessons. Many become nervous and retakes eat the time.

Wangpo Tenzin of the Royal Education Council (REC) said that the REC had outlined the thematic urgency clearly. If at all, the problem might arise from recording the lessons and broadcast time, he added.

BBSC is also buying Bhutanese films to keep the people at home. At this time, when the virus scare is raging, social distancing is critically important. However, BBSC has been able to procure only three Bhutanese files.

Chik-thuen is coming too.

This is an effort by actors and musician to help keep people at home. There will be programmes—songs and dances, among others. The programme will begin from today.

His Majesty in south to inspect preparedness plan

Thu, 03/26/2020 - 11:46

His Majesty The King is in Phuentsholing to inspect the plans put in place to ensure uninterrupted supply of essential goods from India, in light of the closure of our borders, and the 21-day lockdown in India.  

While in Phuentsholing, His Majesty also inspected the Amochu Land Development and Township Project area (near YDF), the site chosen for the construction of temporary shelters for Bhutanese living in Jaigaon. On His Majesty’s command, the Royal Bhutan Army has deployed about 1,300 soldiers and officers for the construction. Over 5,000 Bhutanese have been evacuated from Jaigaon, and are currently sheltered in schools. Schools nationwide are closed since March 18 until further notice to prevent Covid-19.  His Majesty is on a tour of Samtse and Phuentsholing.

Covid-19: Press conference March 25, 2020

Wed, 03/25/2020 - 13:45

2:51: The international quarantine period is 14 days. But the national technical advisory committee will come out with a decision on whether the period is enough: health minister.

 

 

2:44:Health personnel stretched thin that is why BAFRA staff have been asked to help in disinfecting all the goods entering the country, hotel rooms, and vehicles ferrying people to quarantine centres.

 

 

2:30:The country has enough international standard testing kits to conduct about 6,000 tests. Request for more kits has been put to the World Health Organisation.

 

 

2:27: Regular health care services would be prioritised should the country enter into the RED zone. Certain cosmetic health care or services would not be offered.

The country has enough medicine stock to last 9 months.

 

 

2:25: 600 Desuups trained in Covid-19 screening, the ministry targets 5,000 Desuups.

Health ministry preparing 113 certified counsellors and 6 clinical counsellors to attend to those in quarantine centres.

24 of 48 doctors on training abroad have returned to the country and are currently in quarantine. The ministry has also compiled a list of retired doctors and health personnel too, should there be need for additional human resource.

 

 

2:17: Hongkong tourist who visited Bhutan had tested positive. He began showing flu-like symptoms on March 19. His wife said that he was still healthy when he left Bhutan.

Health ministry is tracing his contacts in Bhutan despite there being a very low risk of him being infected while he was in the country.

Samples from his driver and guide tested negative. Both are in quarantine.

BNB sanctioned PSL loans without following guidelines

Wed, 03/25/2020 - 11:36

Tshering Palden and Tashi Dema

Bhutan National Bank (BNB), while sanctioning Nu 152 million (M) under priority sector lending (PSL) to 118 clients in the country, applied different loan terms and interest rate.

The Royal Audit Authority (RAA) pointed out the discrepancy in its compliance audit report issued to the bank in November last year.

The report stated that the bank sanctioned loan at 8 percent with five years repayment term to two clients and 8.5 percent with seven years repayment to two other clients to establish piggery farms.

“The bank had sanctioned the loan above the maximum limit of Nu 500,000 for primary production under agriculture cottage and small industries (Agriculture CSI) to two clients,” it stated.

RAA stated that sanctioning loans at different terms and interest rate discriminates the clients under the same loan product and since the PSL loan are guided by its guidelines, any loans sanctioned under the flagship needs to be in compliance with its provisions. “The terms of the loans should be applied consistently.”

BNB officials justified to the auditors that BNB sanctioned loans at 8.5 percent to two clients, who were willing to pay the interest and show 30 percent equity portion, which is applicable under agriculture CSI in consultation with the Royal Monetary Authority of Bhutan.   

BNB has also violated another section of the PSL guidelines that mandated loans for all activities to be based on cash-flow or project financing along with fire and theft insurance while sanctioning Nu 2.1M to three clients for setting up project and purchase of machines, equipment and vehicle.

Audit verification found that a client who took Nu 1.6M loan has not operationalised any activities and did not purchase machinery and equipment despite even seven months after the sanctioning of the loan.

It was also found that the supplier had credited the amount back into the client’s account and the client did not use the loan for its intended purpose.

“Further, the client had not made any payment after lapse of three months gestation period and has not responded to officials during site visit,” the audit report stated. “Although the loan amount has been directly credited to the supplier’s account, the machineries and equipment were not supplied and insurance was not processed.”

Another client who took a loan of Nu 516,000 has also not fully utilised the loan amount to purchase equipment and machinery. “The loan amount has also defaulted,” according to the audit report.

PSL guideline also mandates financial institutions to ensure that all loans extended for priority sector activities are for approved purposes and the need use must be continuously monitored. “Financial institutions must put in place proper check and balance for all priority sector lending operations through its credit appraisal system,” the guideline states.

RAA stated that as stipulated in the guidelines, BNB should strictly adhere to proper appraisal of credit before sanctioning of the loan and periodically monitor the progress of the activities.

BNB officials justified that they issued cheque or deposits directly to suppliers in all loans pertaining to PSL but in rare cases, the amounts are deposited back to the clients account without informing the bank, as suppliers fail to deliver the equipment. “In order to avoid such issues from recurring, we discussed to issue stringent payment letter requiring an undertaking by the supplier, stating an obligation to deliver the stated equipment on time and in case of cancellation of the delivery, the supplier is fully liable to refund the full amount to the bank.”

Meanwhile, PSL was introduced as an integrated platform that will coordinate interventions from several government agencies to stimulate cottage and small industries to transform the country’s economy through improved access to finance.

Should the quarantine period be increased?

Wed, 03/25/2020 - 11:35

Kuensel online poll and people Kuensel talked to say “yes”

MB Subba

Following the recommendation of the joint parliamentary committee on Covid-19 to increase the quarantine period, a debate has ensued over whether or not a person can be declared free of the virus on completion of 14 days in the quarantine.

Most people Kuensel talked were in favour of increasing the quarantine period as some cases were detected after two weeks from the day the person was exposed to Covid-19. 

However, health experts both in the country and outside say that those cases were outliners. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the upper limit of the incubation period of Covid-19 is 14 days.

The second Covid-19 patient in Bhutan tested positive 28 days after she had come in contact with her 76-year-old infected partner. The two had met on February 22 but she tested positive only on March 20.

The guide and the driver of the American tourists, who were released upon completion of the 14-day quarantine period, were also re-quarantined at a quarantine facility in Motithang after the second Covid-19 case was confirmed.

An overwhelming  88 percent of Kuensel viewers on Facebook voted in favour of increasing the quarantine period from 14 days to 28 days. As of 10pm yesterday, more than 22,200 Facebook users had participated in the poll.

Executive director of the Association of Bhutan Tour Operators (ABTO), Sonam Dorji, said that suspected contacts and contacts could be asked to stay at on home quarantine after the 14-day quarantine period as a preventive measure.

“They can be kept in home quarantine after the completion of two weeks depending on the status of the person,” he said.

Samtse’s Dzongkhag Tshogdu chairman, Nima Dukpa, said that the quarantine period should be increased to make sure that the person is not infected when he or she leaves the quarantine. He suggested that given the way the virus was behaving, the quarantine period should be increased to four weeks.

“We have heard of cases where persons tested positive after completion of the quarantine period. They were not sent to isolation since there were no symptoms,” he said.

Branch manager of RICBL in Pemagatshel, Soenam Tshewang, said that the quarantine period needed to be increased in spite of experts saying that the incubation period of the virus is 14 days.

He said that increasing the quarantine period was required as a preventive measure, adding that the economic impact of a Covid-19 outbreak in Bhutan would be more costly than the cost of maintaining the quarantine facility.

There are also concerns about the pressure on the national exchequer. 

As of yesterday, there were a total of 2,091 people in various quarantine centres in the country. The government spends about Nu 1,000 for food and other facilities per person on a daily basis.

However, secretary general of Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), Phurba, said that the quarantine period should be increased only if it was scientifically justifiable. “It has to scientifically approved. During the pandemic, going by public views, could create lot of problems.”

Chairman of the joint parliamentary, Dorji Wangdi, said that 14 days was a minimum period recommended by WHO.

“The recommendation is based on the evidence that the partner of the American tourist was detected positive after 28 days and she is still asymptomatic. All efforts and resources spent in 14 days will be rendered null and void even if one person spreads the virus,” he said.

The country, Dorji Wangdi said, was at a preventive stage and that the committee had recommended extension of the two-week period in facility quarantine rather than in home quarantine. He said home quarantine was difficult to monitor.

The committee made the recommendation in view of the existing epidemiological evidence about the Covid-19 having shown that it is difficult to confirm within two weeks if a person was infected with the virus.

Health experts Kuensel talked to said that the two-week quarantine was scientifically adequate. But the fear is about the outliner cases spreading the virus. 

An epidemiologist and professor at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry in New York, Rossi A. Hassad (PhD), wrote on MedPage Today (health website) that the two-week quarantine period was actually observed for a small proportion of cases of SARS.

“In the context of an accelerating COVID-19 epidemic and growing uncertainty, a higher upper limit (possibly 21 days) for the incubation period seems reasonable and warranted in the interest of adequately protecting the public,” he wrote.

The health minister and other members of the cabinet could not be contacted for comments.

UN in Bhutan contributes USD 1.14M for Covid-19 

Wed, 03/25/2020 - 11:34

Staff Reporter  

The United Nations (UN) has contributed USD 1.14 Million (M) to support the national Covid-19 preparedness and response and other immediate assistance.

The UN resident coordinator, Gerald Daly, on behalf of the 26 resident and non-resident UN agencies, funds, and programmes working in Bhutan handed over the amount to the Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering yesterday.

The resident coordinator said, “We need to cut through the red tape as much as possible while remaining effective and accountable. We are in an unprecedented situation and it can no longer be business as usual.”

He said that like the rest of the world, Bhutan is facing potential impacts from the virus. “But, through decisive action, and through working together, we do have a small window to get ahead of it,” he said. “These are challenging times. On behalf of the UN, I would like to commend the Royal Government for the hard work and results being achieved towards the Covid-19 preparedness and response plans and action.”

According to a press release, a contribution of USD 50,000 was provided to support Bhutan’s immediate needs of the quarantine facilities across the country.

USD 10,000 each came from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), World Food Programme (WFP) and the United Nations Resident Coordinator’s Office (UNRCO).

Three UN agencies through their agency’s emergency funds have mobilised USD 1.09M of which certain portion have already been transferred to the government, while some are underway.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) mobilised USD 550,000, World Health Organisation (WHO) mobilised USD 244,500 and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) mobilised USD 300,000.

“Recognising the fact that Covid-19 is not just a health crisis and its social and economic impacts threaten to leave scars for years to come, the UN recognises the importance of a comprehensive, multi-dimensional response package,” stated the press release.

With WHO and UNICEF in the forefront supporting the government in its response in the health sector, the other UN agencies has also committed to extend technical support to the Covid-19 response plan, the national contingency plan, the economic stimulus plan and any other sectoral initiatives beyond the health sector.

“The UN hopes that all these actions will materialise into a comprehensive national response plan, which can be a guiding as well as a reference document for use by the Royal Government of Bhutan, and its development partners for resource mobilisation.”

UN Secretary General, António Guterres, said, “We are facing a global health crisis unlike any in the 75-year history of the United Nations – one that is spreading human suffering, infecting the global economy and upending people’s lives. This is, above all, a human crisis that calls for solidarity.”

The press release stated that the UN stands ready to undertake reprogramming within the joint RGoB-UN annual work-plan for 2020, to further support the government.

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