With about 33 people quarantined in Samdrupjongkhar, the dzongkhag has identified hotels, schools and institutions to quarantine more people if needed.
According to dzongdag Tharchen Lhendup, hotels offered free accommodation to the 33 people quarantined as of yesterday evening. “Fooding is provided with budget from the government and hotel staff are trained to prepare hygienic foods.”
He said 300 more people could be accommodated in hotels and if the numbers increase, they would use schools and institutions. “We have readied isolation rooms.” No one has been isolated as of yesterday.
The dzongkhag has also put in place handwashing facilities in about 20 areas as a preventive measure against Covid-19 in the town, in front of offices and at the official entry points.
Dzongdag Tharchen Lhendup said businesspeople in the town came together and sponsored the facilities.
He also said while the three official entry points are manned by enforcement group comprising of representatives from concerned agencies, they have closed all informal routes into the dzongkhag.
“We have people manning the informal routes and have also asked the gups and tshogpas to ensure there are no illegal entries,” the dzongdag said.
He also said Bhutan-India Friendship Association (BIFA) officials conducted many sensitisation meetings and awareness with Indian business community members, day workers and Indian taxi drivers last week.
10 people quarantined in Pemagatshel
Yangchen C Rinzin
People of Pemagatshel panicked after a rumour about a monk from Denchi had returned from Sikkim, India and had Covid-19 symptoms.
Following the rumour, the surveillance team from health ministry followed up and found that the news was fake. No monk had returned from Sikkim.
“The health officials did all that was within their capacity to trace the man but it turned out it was a fictitious figure,” said a health official.
Later, the dzongkhag administration of Pemagatshel clarified and issued fake news advisory. It mentioned that the person who is currently being quarantined is a painter who had recently returned home from Vietnam.
Dzongrab Passang Dorji said that the painter had come to the village to visit his father who was unwell. He had travelled by flight on March 15 and had been to Trongsa from Paro on the same day. He had then travelled to Kanglung, Trashigang on March 16 and then to his village on March 17.
“However, since we had sensitised people in the gewogs on Covid-19, gewog officials informed dzongkhag about him,” Dzongrab said. “We immediately followed up and he was quarantined in Denchi on March 18.”
The dzongkhag administration, dzongrab said, made sure that measures were put in place as contingency plan.
The dzongkhag administration continues to give advocacy, has created flu clinics, including facility quarantine and isolation wherever possible.
“We’ve also prepared quarantine centres in gewogs in case the situation worsens,” dzongrab added.
There are a total of 10 people under quarantine including the painter as of March 22, of which, eight are quarantined in Nganglam.
Of the total, two people quarantined in Pemagatshel, a 17-year-old male is under home quarantine in Chimong gewog. He had travelled from Guwahati on March 16.
Of the eight quarantined in Nganglam, two are under home quarantine who had travelled from Rangia and Guwahati in Assam. Six are at the facility quarantine.
Most of the suspects had travelled from Guwahati, Assam, and Kuwait between March 5 and March 19.
Although there were 11 people quarantined earlier, a 32-year-old female who had returned from Delhi was released after completing 14 days on March 21.
Phub Dem | Paro
It is unusually quiet in Paro international airport. Although there are hundreds of passengers flying in, the airport campus wears a deserted look.
Unlike the regular homecoming excitement, the passengers, mostly students, look anxious and are silent. Parents keep a safe distance. Some have come to drop SIM cards and food for their beloved.
The passengers are then directly taken to quarantine centres.
In the last two days, Paro international airport saw 876 stranded Bhutanese fly in from India, Nepal, and Singapore.
Four hundred and thirty-eight passengers who arrived on March 21 were accommodated in 23 quarantine centres in Paro along with 274 passengers that arrived in the country earlier.
Yesterday, six flights brought home 438 Bhutanese. Of the total, 398 passengers were sent to seven quarantine centres in Thimphu because the centres in Paro were filled.
Twenty-nine passengers were kept in separate rooms because they showed flu-like symptoms during the screening process. And nine were sent for home quarantined.
Assistant District Health Officer, Karma Chendup, said that all 21 swap samples from the first batch tested negative. Eight more swap samples yesterday were sent for examination.
Fourteen Bhutanese are reportedly stranded in Delhi after showing flu-like symptoms.
Karma Chendup said that the government had directed to accommodate the passengers in hotels and resorts because the quarantine facilities identified by the government such as the Rinpung campus in Paro lacked basic facilities.
The foreign minister, Dr Tandi Dorji, said that additional flights were sent to bring Bhutanese stranded in India home.
Lyonpo said that 26 students who registered with the airlines could not be accommodated. They were asked to either arrange domestic flight till Bagdogra and bus till Phuntsholing.
“There are more than 26 Bhutanese in India and around the globe, but we are bringing those who have booked air tickets,” he said.
Lyonpo said that there was a plan to send separate airbus to pick Bhutanese from the Middle East if the situation became serious.
Bhutanese in the Middle East whom Kuensel talked to said that they were home quarantined and everything was fine.
Drukair and Bhutan Airlines started additional flights to bring in stranded Bhutanese before India closes international flights. Drukair has planned an additional Singapore-Paro flight today.
The nation paused to listen to the His Majesty The King yesterday evening. The short address to the nation, on recent developments, came as an assurance when the country is going through a difficult time because of the new coronavirus.
His Majesty called on the people to come together, work as members of a family in facing the threat posed by Covid-19. His Majesty said that our smallness and the good experience of the King, government and people coming together in times of need could help us get through the problem.
Since the first case was reported in the country, His Majesty The King had been on the frontline overseeing preparedness and coordinating national efforts in ensuring the well-being and the safety of the people.
Entry gates to the country along the southern borders would be closed from today. It is a preventive measure to ensure the safety of the people. Many countries have sealed their borders. More are following it. This should not be a cause of panic among our people. The government already assured that there are enough stocks to last for three months. Panic means chaos and this is not what is expected at this crucial time.
What each individual could do at this important time is help the government and health officials, those manning the border, those tending to people quarantined in luxury hotels and those confused with fake news. What we can do, as one, is cooperate and listen to health advisories, cautions and above all be honest.
All the restrictions, some at a huge cost to the government, are a part of our effort to control the spread of the virus. We have recorded only two cases. Not a single Bhutanese has tested positive so far. The effort and the wish is to see that none of us are infected.
The risk of Covid-19 is literally at our doorstep. India, with which we share open and porous border, recorded about 396 cases as of last night. Their own health experts are saying this is just a tip of the iceberg. In neighbouring West Bengal, the fourth case was confirmed yesterday. Bihar reported one positive case. The risk is imminent.
At home, besides the threat from Covid-19 we are concerned about students missing classes and businesses losing income. Even here, there is assurance with the government initiating online learning and working on an economy stimulus plan.
It is troubled times. While there are assurance, it is also a time for the people to play their part to sail through rough times. We cannot leave everything to the government. There are gestures from individuals and organisations, private and public, but there are also others who feel inconvenienced due to measure like mandatory quarantining.
We are fortunate that we are spared, as of now, from the experience many are going through. We are fortunate that we have not gone through bad time in recent memory. We have reaped the opportunities during peaceful times.
It is time to heed to the call. It is time to come together.
Tshering Namgyal | Mongar
When gewog officials of Mongar are busy with Covid-19 issue, a farmer from Sangsibi village in Chali gewog took a farm road dispute matter in his own hands and blocked the road.
The farmer blocked a kilometre of farm road recently, claiming it is encroaching into his land. He blocked it using sacks of concrete mixture at a point and turning it into small terraces at another point.
The 47-year-old farmer said he blocked the road since the only farmer who benefits from the farm road refused to allow farm road construction through her land.
He said the farm road construction, which would continue from the one running through his field, would benefit more than 28 households including him.
“But the owner of the only household that benefits from the existing farm road refused to allow construction through her land,” he said. “As much as her land is important to her, my land is important but I allowed the construction since farm road is an indispensable infrastructure.”
He said seven landowners were affected when the road was constructed. Though they didn’t sign any papers, they verbally agreed to allow the road construction, which would pass below the house of the woman in the 12th Plan.
“She is my first cousin and I never thought she would do that,” he said.
He said he informed the gewog administration before he blocked the road on March 14.
The woman, who did not allow the road construction, said she only had a small portion of arable land below her house and she could not allow the construction.
She said she allowed the road to be constructed above her house but two other landowners refused it.
Meanwhile, Chali gup Tashi Dhendup said he received the complaint verbally.
“The woman complained but I was engaged in Covid-19 awareness programmes these days,” he said.
According to the gup, a 4kms new farm road would be constructed in the 12th Plan from Shingkharshong on the Mongar-Lhuentse highway until Kharduma village in the first year and then only continue connecting remaining households in the second year.
Never has the world witnessed such incredible unity in history; fighting the elusive common enemy that is the Coronavirus, COVID-19 has quickly become every individual’s battle. Needless to say, the health and economic crisis we are in has given us this unique opportunity to reflect and evaluate our way of life that we take for granted.
The Bhutanese have been gifted with extraordinary beings, who shaped this beautiful nation that we hold dear today. It’s extremely heartening to see our beloved Druk Gyalpo, His Excellency the Prime Minister, and the Government work tirelessly to steer our small nation off to safety from rough waters. We are truly blessed as Bhutanese to have His Majesty’s personal leadership at our disposal. Whether we realize it or not, the Bhutanese are privileged citizens of the world, and we couldn’t be more grateful to our King and our government.
At this critical juncture, we also owe immense gratitude to our health workers who are in the frontlines in the fight against this deadly virus. Thank you very much!
All of us enjoyed the nectar while times were good that we often took it for granted. But now is the time to step up; it’s time each of us, in every way possible, small or big, pay our dues to uphold all that is dear to us as Bhutanese. We owe it to our King, the government, and our country to step up to our plate.
It’s unprecedented that the world is in crisis. We have all heard about deadly pandemics of the past, but we were never this mobile and vulnerable as a society. The world at large has never been exposed to as big of a threat as we are now. There is no better time to return the favour! Our country is counting on each of us.
While Bhutan and the world quickly adapt to the reality of the Coronavirus, so do we. These are trying times with the tourism and hospitality sector being directly/immediately hit by it. As a tour operator, we too have become one of many direct economic victims of the pandemic.
But just as we often fail to acknowledge our good times, we cannot afford to play victim when it’s time to rough it out. Instead, it’s become our moral responsibility to do everything possible to aid the government and the country in need. It gives us hope, however, to see many of us already step forward to help the government feel at ease. We also applaud those building owners who are willing to offer rent relief to their affected tenants.
At our level, we pledge to commit a total of Nu 1.3 million as a relief fund. The fund includes Nu 0.6 million contribution towards COVID-19 Fund – to support government’s effort in fighting the deadly Coronavirus, and Nu 0.7 million to our team members (most of whom are freelancers), to help offset their living costs.
These contributions are a small token to express our appreciation and support for our government, fellow citizens, and those who helped grow with us over the years.
For good times and bad, we shall always remain in support. Let’s act responsibly, do our part and get through this together! Let’s respect and abide by what’s expected of us by the government – Avoid going out in public; wash hands; keep social distance; and stay vigilant.
N.B: The sole intention of this written presser is to stoke a sense of urgency and rouse the spirit of Bhutanese camaraderie to help the country when it’s in need. It’s disturbing to hear that many are waiting for government handouts, while many more risk getting laid off. But as a society, this should not be allowed to happen in a country like Bhutan.
Phuntsho Norbu for
Team Bridge To Bhutan
But numbers are insignificant to achieve stable wild population
In 15 of the 41 priority zones, Bhutan recorded 27 white-bellied herons (WBH) this year, an increase by two individuals from the previous year.
Nineteen birds were found in the Punatsangchhu basin, seven in Mangdechhu basin and one in Kurigongri basin. The highest number of five individuals was reported from Tsaidang in Zhemgang.
The 18th WHB population survey from February 27 to March 2 confirmed 24 adults and three sub-adult individuals along Punatsangchhu, Mangdechuu and Kurigongri basins, spanning more than 400 kilometres.
Population size reflects the combined outcome of three demographic processes: reproduction, survival, and movement.
Two live nests with three eggs each were sighted in Punatsangchhu and Mangdechhu basins during the survey.
While the increase in the population of WBH this year is a positive sign, the chief of research with the Royal Society for Protection of Nature, Indra Acharja, said, the rise in numbers was not significant considering the population size required to achieve stable wild population. “This still shows lots of WBHs have disappeared. The size is extremely low and ecologically not at equilibrium.”
Last year, 25 birds were counted and five nestlings fledged in mid-2019. The bird population is still decreasing on average.
Even keeping the flexibility of increase or decrease by 10 percent due to survey errors, the population still remains under 30 and this indicates the need for long-term conservation efforts to save the bird from extinction, the survey report stated.
The report also found significant change in local population demographics in key foraging habitats. The population in older habitats—Phochu, Mochhu, Punakha, Zawa, Kamechhu, Adha, and Nangzhina— drastically declined over the surveyed years.
Since the annual WBH survey population was first started in 2003, the trend shows a drastic rise between 2008 and 2009. Before 2007, Phochhu and Mochhu areas had reported eight WBH but currently no individuals visit the area. The reason is attributed to disturbance due to Punatsangchu hydropower projects.
“From 2009 to 2013, the population decreased from 30 to 20 in the area,” Indra Acharja said.
This year, no herons were sighted in Phibsoo Wildlife Sanctuary, Lamoidzingkha and Hararongchhu which were critical sites for several years. However, there were no conclusions about the change in population due to lack of conclusive studies on movement and migration of the species.
“We know WBH moves from one feeding habitat to other but maybe they move from basin to basin too,” Indra Acharja said.
WBH is critically endangered under the IUCN Red List of threatened species and is listed under Schedule I of Forest and Nature Conservation Rules and Regulations 2017 in the country.
Bhutan today has 45 percent of WBH global population, which is estimated at 60.
The extremely low and shrinking population of WBH across the region can be attributed to human exploitation and disturbances in riverine habitats.
High Quality United FC (HQUFC) defeated Paro United FC 2-1 to win the Bhutan Super League 2020 title at the Changlimithang Stadium on March 21.
In an equally contested finale, despite numerous goal-scoring opportunities, the first half ended goalless.
Paro United’s Gyeltshen Zangpo broke the deadlock in the 64th minute. The lead however, was short-lived as Paro conceded two consecutive goals in the next eight minutes.
HQUFC’s skipper, Lhendup Dorji equalised in 70th minute. Two minutes later, Tenzin Thinley scored the winning goal for the team.
At the end of the 90 minutes, HQUFC had made 14 shots in total against four of Paro.
The champions were awarded with the rolling trophy and the cash prize of Nu 300,000. The runners up took home Nu 150,000, while Tensung FC who came third was given Nu 50,000.
Paro United’s Sherab Gyeltshen was declared the most valuable player of the tournament. With 10 goals in five games, HQUFC’s Yeshi Dorji was the highest scorer in the tournament. A trophy and Nu 10,000 were awarded to both the players.
In a superiority display, High Quality FC topped the league round with 18 points. Of the seven matches played, the team won six and lost one.
HQUFC entered the finals after defeating Tensung FC 3-1 on March 14. Paro United also grabbed the final place by beating Tensung FC 4-2 in the penalties.
By securing second position in the league round, Tensung FC received two opportunities to play the semi-finals. As per the Bhutan Football Federation’s (BFF) 2018 amendment on the qualification system, it has a provision where the third and fourth position team from the league have to play against one another and then the winner has to play with the loser of the first semi- finals.
Defending champions, Druk Stars FC were defeated by Paro United 1-0 in the semi -final.
Based on the league points, HQUFC, Paro United FC, Tensung FC, Druk Stars FC, and BFF Academy FC enters the upcoming 2020 Bhutan Premier league.
CST FC, Paro Rinpung FC, and Gomo FC have been relegated to dzongkhag league. CST FC is the only team, who failed to acquire any point in the entire league.
Bhutan Super League is the second highest division of professional football league in the country.
A total of eight teams from Thimphu, Paro, Punakha and Phuentsholing took part in the league that began on February 6.
Meanwhile, as a precautionary measure to combat Covid-19, Changlimithang and Changjiji Stadiums will remain closed starting yesterday until April 5.
Starting today, our land borders will be sealed.
We are compelled to take this drastic measure in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. As you have been made aware through various government bulletins, the virus is spreading, causing immense disruption worldwide, and drawing closer to us each day.
At such a time, the health and safety of the people of Bhutan is of the greatest priority, and as such, we are putting in place every measure necessary to safeguard the people of Bhutan.
Should those of you who are abroad at this time wish to return home, the government will help you. I ask those of you who are studying or working abroad, not to worry.
Covid-19 will cause great disruptions to the global economy, and Bhutan will not be an exception. The economic repercussions will not just impact a select few sectors, but each and every one of us. At such a time, we must exhibit the strength that comes out of our smallness, remain united and support one another. During such exceptional circumstances, the government will take the responsibility of alleviating any suffering to the people due to the virus.
As you know, all schools have been closed as a preventive measure, and children are at home instead of in their classes. We do not know when the situation will improve and schools can be reopened. Parents must guide their children, and children must take it upon themselves to use this opportunity to continue studying- at your age, education should be your most important concern. Do not waste time.
On the part of the government, there are already plans to make learning materials as widely available to students as possible. Internet providers, television, and even newspapers, have been tasked to bring learning materials to you. Therefore, it is your responsibility to take advantage of the avenues that will be made available to you.
According to experts, the elderly population is at the greatest risk from Covid-19. We must take care of our elderly, protect them, and ensure that their environment is safe and clean.
As a small country with a small population, we can overcome any challenge we are faced with, if the people and the government work together.
It is important, however, to not lose sight of our national objectives, and aim to bring normalcy as soon as possible so that when this pandemic is behind us, we can continue to work on making our future better and stronger.
In the meantime, we will continue to work ceaselessly through this challenging situation.
Government will maintain status quo on its preparedness plans and strategies
The ‘extra’ precaution Bhutan has taken in handling the Covid-19 situation has proven to be practical in detecting the country’s second positive case yesterday.
The partner of the 76-year-old index case (patient zero) who was air evacuated to the USA on March 13, tested positive for the new coronavirus on the fourth test conducted on March 19.
The 59-year-old partner, along with the tour guide and the driver who were the primary contacts of the 76-year-old American patient were scheduled to leave the quarantine facility yesterday, after completing the 14 days quarantine period.
The driver and guide tested negative for the virus.
As per the World Health Organsiation’s (WHO) guidelines, a suspect is tested and retested only upon becoming symptomatic during the 14-day incubation period. However, irrespective of the symptoms, the health ministry conducted at least three tests so far on all the suspects under quarantine. A total of 400 tests have been conduced so far with 40 tests in the last 24 hours.
Given the international shortage of testing kits, Covid-19 testing elsewhere costs more than USD 3,000, whereas, in Bhutan it is provided for free.
Nothing changes for Bhutan
Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering during a press briefing yesterday said that the detection of second positive case in the country doesn’t bring in any changes to the government’s strategies and preparedness plan for now.
Following the detection of the first Covid-19 case in the country on March 5, all primary contacts of the patient zero, which is also the same for the 59-year-old partner, were traced within the first eight hours and put under quarantine.
Save for the partner, none of the others have tested positive to the virus so far.
No threat from second case
Lyonchhen said that the threat from the partner is negligible and there is no need for the public to panic. He said that the patient is asymptomatic for now and has been moved to the isolation.
“The biggest threat for now should be the deteriorating situation across the world and increasing number of positive cases being detecting in the nearby regions.”
India recorded at least 50 news cases as of 9 PM yesterday, the highest in a single day since the outbreak weeks ago.
While there are no separate plans designed to treat the patient, Lyonchhen said that medical staffs would be deployed as it was done for the first patient and as and when the partner shows any symptoms, she would be treated for it.
“Unless she recovers and tests negative to the virus, it is our responsibility to ensure her safety,” the Prime Minister added.
It was also decided that the guide and driver would have to continue to stay at the quarantine facility in Mothithang, Thimphu. “While they have tested negative and are doing well, their quarantine is being sustained, subsequent to the second positive case detected in the partner,” according to officials from the Prime Minister’s office.
The guide and driver had initially opted to leave the facility quarantine and practice self-quarantine at their respective homes following the completion of the 14-day incubation period yesterday.
Testing is highly sensitive
With people growing skeptic of the testing kit and procedures, Lyonchhen explained that the fact that the fourth test on the partner coming positive after three consecutive negative results, showed how sensitive the testing procedure was.
“No test is 100 percent specific but this test is highly sensitive. We test and retest samples when the results are negative but we do not do the same when we have a positive result. This is the nature of the test.”
Bhutan is using an internationally certified machine, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to test sputum, blood and body fluids of suspected new coronavirus patients.
The PCR uses artificial intelligence to deliver results and human error is very minimal, according to Lyonchhen. The WHO supplies the reagents used in the testing.
The government is expected to impose restrictions on the movement of Bhutanese vehicles, except those transporting essential goods, via Assam and West Bengal in view of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.
“Only vehicles that need to transport medicines, fuel and food supplies, will have to move across the border with precautions even if the situation gets worst,” Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said at the press briefing yesterday.
He said that the Indian government had assured the continued flow of essential goods to Bhutan. He urged people to avoid travelling across the border as a precautionary measure.
India reported a total of 233 (as per NDTV) coronavirus cases from various states as of yesterday.
The neighbouring state of West Bengal reported a new case taking the total cases in the state to two. Another neighbouring state, Assam, did not report any case as of yesterday evening.
The prime minister hinted at stopping buses from Phuentsholing after two days. He added that buses could be stopped immediately if there were no advance bookings for two days.
He said that the government had asked the Road Safety and Transport Authority (RSTA) to provide details of how many advance bookings to other places from Phuentsholing were made.
“They should be allowed to move if people have already bought tickets. We are planning to stop the movement of buses after two days,” he said.
Regional transport officer in Phuentsholing, Karchung, said that about 84 buses depart to various places from the Phuentsholing bus station on a daily basis. Buses to Kolkata and Silliguri have already been stopped.
He said that his office had not received any directive from the government on stopping bus service from the border town. “We will enforce if the government gives us such directives,” he said.
Earlier, the joint parliamentary committee had discussed with the prime minister about the possibility of restricting private vehicles from using Indian routes.
The committee chair, Dorji Wangdi, said that committee was of the view that buses could ply vial India with clear protocols such as the need for passengers to carry lunches and restrictions on interaction with other people along the way.
But he added stopping nature’s call in between would be impossible.
Informal routes sealed
The Royal Bhutan Police (RBP) yesterday notified that it would seal all the informal routes along the border areas to enhance surveillance and compliance to preventive measures.
Informal routes include mule tracks or other routes that are not used officially.
Several temporary checkpoints would be set up within the country to beef up screening and vigilance. Health staff and RBP personnel will man the temporary checkpoints.
The RBP requested travellers entering Bhutan through formal points of entry to declare their travel history honestly. “Irresponsible behaviour and dishonest declaration of one could endanger the lives of many,” it warned.
Samtse dzongkhag on March 17 made it mandatory for vehicles, including public transport buses and taxis, to ply through the Samtse-Phuentsholing secondary national highway.
Students to use stipends for internet data
Yangchen C Rinzin
Following the government’s directives to close all schools and educational institutions including early childhood care and development (ECCD) centres and vocational training institutes from March 18, colleges have started sending students home from March 19.
The faculty members will, however, have to remain in college to prepare and carry out teaching materials for online education.
International students studying in a few colleges are also being sent home as per their parents’ approval.
Royal University of Bhutan’s (RUB) vice-chancellor, Nidup Dorji, said college administration should help and arrange transportation for students home while some parents decided to pick up their children.
He said the faculty members were also asked to keep the students engaged through online education. “However, there are various constraints while conducting online education.”
Nidup Dorji said that although many colleges have virtual learning environment (VLE), it works within the campus, as it was facilitated through dongle. “The biggest challenge is getting access to internet and data affordability.”
He said students would be in different places and it would be challenging to engage all of them since some students would not even have proper internet access on mobile phones.
“Yet, we’ve decided to go ahead with the online education where faculties would upload reading materials, notes and reference materials,” the vice-chancellor said. “We’re not sure how successful it would be, but we’ll try to keep students engaged.”
He added that the current measure is to keep students engaged until the colleges reopen. “If we have to keep colleges closed for more than a month, RUB will have to work out a solution to enhance online education.”
Nidup Dorji said they shared the same concern with the government and sought its intervention to provide access to internet or free internet data from the two telecom companies.
Meanwhile, the vice-chancellor said the university, with approval from the government, has also decided to provide students their monthly stipend. “The students are expected to use it for internet.”
RUB has also decided to send information and communications technology experts to colleges to ensure all necessary arrangements are done or if there is a need for any requirement of additional equipment. “We’re also exploring the possibility of sharing common modules on one platform like broadcast media. We can do this by letting teachers record and then broadcast it.”
There are more than 10,000 students in 10 constituent colleges and two affiliated colleges.
Companies ready to help govt. fight Covid-19
The Druk Holding and Investments (DHI), the commercial arm of the government and its subsidiary companies has proposed to contribute more than Nu 1.50 billion (B) to the government in response of a possible economic slowdown due to the Covid-19 health emergency.
The contribution is in addition to the normal dividend and taxes, which DHI will remit to the finance ministry in the coming months for 2019 financial year.
Besides, to ensure all essential services like electricity, communication, air-transport and banking running in times of emergency, a press release from DHI stated that its subsidiary companies will continue to provide their services to ease all constraints as a result of the Covid-19 situations.
DHI’s subsidiary companies like Bhutan Power Corporation (BPC), Bhutan Telecom (BT), Drukair, Bank of Bhutan (BoB) and Druk Green Power Corporation (DGPC) have stocked up all necessary spares and input materials to last for at least a year.
With the education ministry developing online contents for students following the indefinite closure of schools, Bhutan Telecom is working with the government to ensure availability of affordable and reliable voice and data connectivity. BT also ensures to provide uninterrupted communication service to hospitals and facilities set-up to fight Covid-19.
Bhutan Telecom officials said they could slash rates to help the government facilitate online education. The company is in discussions with the education and information and communication ministries for details. “We need details of where we could extend our assistance. It is possible and we are comfortable,” said an official. However, he said that details are important to ensure that there is no congestion in some areas, which if not planned could defeat the whole purpose.”
The national airline, Drukair will ensure the continuity of its services to help Bhutanese living abroad to return home. In addition, should there be a need, Drukair, the press release stated, stands committed to help in air transport of mass cargo and also for mass evacuation of the Bhutanese residing outside the country.
DGPC has adequate reserves of essential spares and commodities in its power plants to ensure generation of power at all times, while BPC has a manned a team to attend to any electricity related problem that may occur in hospitals and quarantine facilities.
BoB has also extended its full support to the initiatives and measures the Royal Monetary Authority could outline to ease challenges related to monetary issues. A BoB official said they are exploring possibilities to help those affected by the virus and are in discussions with the central bank through the Financial Institute Association of Bhutan. A detailed proposal is expected to be announced next week.
Facilities and other supports
In the fight against Covid-19, DHI has procured and supplied facemasks and hand sanitisers for all its frontline staff of its subsidiary companies. The company has also supplied about 4,000 facemasks to the national referral hospital.
It has offered the use of its guesthouses, human resources and equipment from across the country to support local governments fight the disease. DHI has offered to leverage its network and relationships outside the country to source essentials commodities including medicine.
While the situation is expected to improve eventually with measures put up by the government, the economic impacts could be felt for a long time, stated the press release. “DHI is exploring and evaluating projects that could be undertaken soon to help jump start the economy.”
On March 15, DHI presented a detailed presentation of its initiatives to the Prime Minister outlining its plans and preparedness against Covid-19.
Bhutanese society is on high alert. Sections of the government are working round the clock, senior government leaders are taking more initiatives than they normally do, citizens are cooperating and supporting each other, civil society volunteers are helping to coordinate social activities, youth are being encouraged to stay home, the news media are generally on their toes, and people seem to be generally better behaved.
There is also an enhanced and shared consciousness about maintaining health and hygiene. Most of us have never washed our hands so often or cleaned our houses so thoroughly. Officials along our porous southern belt are more vigilant in dealing with cross border movement of people and goods. We are staying home more than normal, which means closer intimacy with families – a blessing in disguise.
This is the spirit of coming together when faced with a common threat, not entirely spontaneously but with guidance and leadership, as always, from the Throne.
Of course some inevitably fall by the wayside, including school children roaming the street in groups, businesses taking advantage of the panic, people hoarding essentials, and other forms of selfishness. But, generally, there is a sense of an extended family working together.
Can this be the Bhutanese system that we want, a system that functions because we are mindful and prepared and willing to act? The cohesion here comes from a sense of trust, trust in the leadership and, to an extent, trust in each other.
Here’s a somewhat provocative thought. Why is such motivation only a temporary one? What if we worked like this through the year?
There are countries and societies that do function with such diligence and effort. That’s how the Southeast Asian tigers became tigers. They were easy going islanders who decided, or were inspired, to work hard. Some of it came at a GDP-driven cost but the point is that hard work has results.
Today, there is a strong sense that Bhutan has reached a crossroad of sorts. In many ways the world has reached a crossroad of sorts. For example, technology has evolved with such rapidity that “imagination may truly be the only limit”.
It is at such a time that we should look ahead with optimism and determination. What would it take for us to maintain the momentum that the Covid-19 has stirred in us? Do we need common enemy – a common threat?
Ironically, we are faced with a menace more ominous than the virus. For Bhutan, it is the risk that, if we relapse into our old ways as soon as we sense the absence of the immediate threat, the Royal vision of preserving and strengthening the Bhutan that we have inherited for the future generations will be a dream.
After the confirmation of the first Covid-19 case in the country, the government had to take numerous steps to prevent further spread of the virus. As a result, the entire tourism sector came to a standstill, entry of labourers from India is stopped, entertainment centres closed, and the transportation sector faces restrictions. The government also informed that, should the situation worsen, some districts or the entire country may get locked down. In such a case, many will lose their job, default loans, rents or fail to perform their contractual obligation. The government is planning to roll out an economic stimulus plan and coming up with numerous fiscal and financial policies to cope up with the situation.
In such a situation, are there any legal protections for those who may not be able to pay their loans, employers from paying their employees or tenants who may be unable to pay their rents or other contractual liability in Bhutan?
Yes, there is a possibility under the doctrine of force majeure (French word “cas fortuit” meaning “superior or irresistible force) ” where an event or effect that cannot be reasonably anticipated or controlled”.
It is often compared with the Act of God and includes natural disasters, diseases, strikes, lockouts, accidents, wars, terrorism, which are beyond the control of parties in the contract. Under this doctrine, the law “relieves the parties from performing their contractual obligations” and does not have to pay penalties for non-performance under such circumstances and Bhutan is no exception.
Generally, the clause of force majeure is also known as a hardship clause is incorporated within the respective contractual documents. Covid-19, a global pandemic is one such event that will qualify under the force majeure clause.
In-light of this, the performance of contractual obligations such as loans, house rents or other contractual liabilities may become impossible.
In Bhutan, incorporation of force majeure clause within the contract documents is not common. However, Section 87 of the Contract Act of Bhutan, 2013 provides this clause in all contracts automatically. It states “If after a contract is entered into, the performance of a promise made under the contract becomes unlawful or impossible by reason of some event which is not within the control of the promisor, the contract shall become void when such performance becomes unlawful or impossible, and such a contract need not be performed”.
This section makes it clear that banks, house owners or government agencies, private entities, employees and other promisee can’t impose penalties nor performance of contractual obligations in such situations. This is because, due to Covid-19, repayment of loans, salary or house rent or other contractual obligations is “rendered impossible or impracticable” which was not known when the parties entered into contracts nor “had reason to know”.
Considering force majeure as extremely exceptional cases, courts are often required to interpret “a force majeure clause in light of its purpose to limit damages where the reasonable expectation of the parties and the performance of the contract have been frustrated by circumstances beyond the control of the parties.
This means it is not automatic that parties can invoke Section 87 of Contract of Bhutan merely because the Covid-19 case existed in Bhutan but must prove that, the non-performance of the contractual obligation is a result of this disease and performance became impossible and impracticable.
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
Twenty-two hotels in Phuentsholing have volunteered to offer their facilities as quarantine centres for Covid-19.
These hotels are the members of the Hotel and Restaurant Association of Bhutan (HRAB).
The HRAB representative of Chukha, Jigme Tshering, who is also the owner of Park Hotel in the town, said a total of 548 beds were kept at the ready.
“Most hotels are giving all rooms for free. A few are charging minimal fees.”
Officials from the response team are also given rooms. However, they maintain distance and stay separately from those quarantined.
Hotels are charging for the meals. Nu 600 is being charged for three meals per day, which includes evening snack and bottled drinking water.
As of yesterday evening, seven hotels were occupied. Hotels are given sequence numbers so that they can prepare prior to their turn.
The manager of Bhutan Residence, Tshering Tshogyal, said that the hotel had started receiving people since March 19. Bhutan Residence has 47 beds. “We are also charging Nu 600 for the meals.”
Tshering Tshogyal said that the government needed support at this time. Phuentsholing shares a porous border with Jaigaon and so the risks were higher, she added.
The proprietor of Hotel Palm, KN Katel, said it was time for the community and people help the government fight Covid-19. “This is the right moment to help in whatever ways.”
Hotel Palm has also started quarantining people from yesterday.
Meanwhile, Jigme Tshering said that hotel business was going through a difficult time. “We have to pay EMIs. We have the overhead costs and staff had to be also retained. Some hotels have to pay monthly rent.”
Jigme Tshering said that the hoteliers had volunteered for about three months but the duration could get extended depending on the country’s need, adding that people could also contribute in their small ways.
“Small things like bottled drinking water and toiletries would make a huge difference,” he said.
Although the health staff and officials were professional when dealing with people before quarantining them, Jigme Tshering said that hoteliers should handle people carefully. “Most of them are young students and they could be traumatised.”
With the Covid-19 positive cases confirmed in Kolkata, vigilance has heightened in Phuentsholing. As of yesterday, the response team quarantined more than 300 people.
No blanket ban on religious activities, says foreign minister
The joint parliamentary committee on March 18 recommended the government to discuss with the Zhung Dratshang on the possibility of closing monastic schools and colleges, including the private ones, as a precautionary measure against Covid-19.
The seven-member committee, which was formed to advise government on the COVID-19 crisis, stated that while all the schools remain closed throughout the country, monastic schools and colleges are still open as usual.
According to the committee, some monastic institutions have raised the need for clear directives on whether or not monastic schools should be closed and religious activities should be held.
“Monastic schools and colleges face the same risks of Covid-19 as schools and educational institutes,” chairman of the joint parliamentary committee, Dorji Wangdi, said.
However, Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji said that the Dratshang Lhentshog had assured that it would try its best to prevent the virus in their institutions.
He said that the people in monastic institutions were refraining from moving out as a precautionary measure.
The committee stated to the government that mass religious gatherings were taking place on a daily basis despite the advisories to discourage mass gatherings throughout the country.
The committee said that in absence of a clear directive, the monastic schools and colleges are not able to close down or resist from performing religious rituals (Drodoen) at the request of the public.
The committee recommended the government to discuss with the Zhung Dratsang regarding religious gatherings and come up with a clear directive.
In an earlier press briefing, Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji said that there was no blanket ban on religious activities that did not require big gatherings. He said that the public should practice precautionary measures and avoid forming crowds at religious activities.
Expressing its appreciation on the government’s efforts on Covid-19, the committee recommended the government to put in place stricter monitoring measures at all the land-border entry points.
The committee suggested that one measure could be requiring Bhutanese leaving the country for personal work and business for a short period through land-border entry points to deposit their citizenship identity cards. And the CIDs could be given back once their health status is checked.
This, according to the committee, will help segregate people who are entering into the country from abroad trying to escape the quarantining protocols and those who carry less risks of carrying the virus.
It also recommended the government to minimise the duration of stay in Bhutan to the extent possible for the non-Bhutanese from neighbouring countries.
The committee also recommended the government to make concerted efforts in the border towns to man the porous areas that can be potentially used to escape quarantining protocols, besides strictly closing the gates after 8 pm.
The committee stated that it is relatively easier to monitor people entering the country by air, but difficult to monitor those entering through overland entry points.
“If we do not have stringent monitoring systems at overland border entry points, we run the risk of rendering our whole preventive measures futile. There is a high risk of importing the virus through the land-border entry points,” it stated.
The committee applauded the decision of the government to close schools and recommended the government to explore the possibility to use the BBS2 platform to teach some of the important subjects of Classes X and XII.
“Using the platform will enable to teach the students of these two grades throughout the country with minimum human and financial resources,” it stated.
Within two days (March 21-22), Drukair would deploy five additional flights from Paro to New Delhi to accommodate and evacuate stranded students before closure across India to all foreign carriers come into force from March 22-30.
The relieve flight, which is not allowed to carry other passengers, would bring home stranded Bhutanese students studying in the United States and India. There are students who want to come back, said the head of commercial division, Drukair, Wangchuk Tshering.
On March 19, the Indian government had announced that no scheduled international commercial flights would take off from any foreign airport in India. The measure was taken to check the spread of Covid-19 in the face of escalating confirmed cases in the country.
In his national address, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “To check the spread of coronavirus, India had already suspended visas for the vast majority of foreigners seeking to enter the country.”
Drukair has rescheduled Delhi-Paro flight KB205 on March 22 and March 23.
At the press conference yesterday, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering, said the government is looking into the inconvenience faced by Bhutanese outside the country. He urged them to contact either the government or the respective embassies.
However, Wangchuk Tshering said that contacting each stranded students was difficult and is worried that they will be left behind as the flight returns at 2pm in the afternoon. “We can’t contact them and they might miss the flight.”
Each student has to pay Nu 13,102 as per yesterday’s flight fare for students.
Drukair has authorised all its sales outlets, including its agents globally, to process refunds for cancelled flights. On March 10, in line with government’s restriction on tourist, the company announced reduction in frequency of flights to mitigate the high operating cost.
In a similar move, as of March 19, Nepal had imposed arrival restrictions for passengers coming through direct flights, and having a transit in the worst affected countries. Visa on arrival for all foreign nationals have also been suspended from March 14 till April 30. “Nationals of the Bhutan and Afghanistan willing to visit Nepal for compelling reasons may contact Embassy of Nepal in Delhi during office hours.”
As of February 15, Drukair lost about Nu 20 million in revenue as 600 tickets were cancelled. This included both incoming and outgoing passengers since most tickets purchased are for return journeys.
After the first Covid-19 positive case surfaced in the country on March 5, judiciary has taken preventive measures not calling litigants from dzongkhag and dungkhag courts to Thimphu and those in Thimphu to the dzongkhag and dungkhag courts.
Supreme Court’s registrar general, Tshering Dorji, said that case registrations have also reduced by almost 75 percent.
He said that while hearings are conducted based on each case, they try to restrict calling litigants from different dzongkhags.
Supreme Court also formed a Covid-19 task force team to discuss about how to prepare for the outbreak.
In the High Court, most hearings were suspended until March 24 and hearings are conducted for important cases based on priority.
An official explained that the High Court normally receives 15 cases every day but it has now reduced to less than six cases a day.
“We don’t encourage people from the other dzongkhags to come to Thimphu,” the official said.
In dzongkhag courts, hearings are conducted for only criminal cases and hearings for civil cases are deferred.
Judges were also restricted from inter-dzongkhag tours and all judiciary trainings, meetings and conferences were cancelled.
Meanwhile, registrar general Tshering Dorji said they have plans to conduct online video conference for litigants so that they need not come all the way to Thimphu for hearings.
He said it was in plan for the last two years but they could not set it up at one go throughout the country because of financial constraints. “It will depend upon the internet connectivity in different courts.”
As a pilot phase, video conferencing system will be set up in eastern dzongkhags such as Trashigang and Mongar. In the central part, it will be started either in Bumthang, Zhemgang or Sarpang.
In the summer of 1949, there was an epidemic outbreak in Bumthang. The un- diagnosed disease killed 30 people and almost wiped out Shingyer village. With no access to western medical help, the second King quarantined the whole village for more than eight months. However, he kept open the lines of communication and food supply.
According to Lopen Zijid Drakpa, every time there was an epidemic, the King used to issue kasho for isolation.
Shingyer is one of the 10 villages in Ura gewog. “As the epidemic in Shingyer spread throughout the village, the area was isolated by restricting contact with its inhabitants.” Dasho Karma Ura wrote concerning the epidemic in his novel, The Hero with a Thousand Eyes which is based on the life of Dasho Shingkhar Lam who shares the story of Yulsung or the quarantine of a village.
According to the historical novel, there were only two access routes to the village, the Karma Koray and Shaythangla passes, both of which were closed. No one got in or out except the King’s messenger, who every day walked to the outskirts of the village. At a fixed place he would meet the village messenger. The two worked out a safe distance from one other, at which each could speak to and be heard by the other but they were sufficiently far apart to prevent any infection.
After receiving the daily report on health status and food supply in the village, the messenger would take the news back to the King. Based on the report, His Majesty would replenish the monthly food supply. Every month, the King’s men would deliver rations, leaving them 100 metres away from the village. The rations were usually placed below a bough of an old tree. The villagers would then collect the rations.
In the past, when a person was infected by rim ney or an infectious disease, they would be moved out of the village to the nearby forest. To protect one’s village or Yulsung, the villagers would build a house for the patient and the caregiver in the forest.
The caregiver, often a family member, would live next to the patient but maintain safe distance. He or she would manage the rations and cook daily meals leaving them at a safe distance for the patient to pick up.
When the patient died, it was common practise for the men from the village to bury the body in the forest. Usually after a year, once the body had decomposed, the remains are removed and a proper cremation would take place.
Shingyer in Ura is a farming village. As in most highland settlements, the staple food of the village was buckwheat. After eight months, the King sent the hero of the novel to organize the harvesting of buckwheat. In Dasho Karma Ura’s book, Dasho Shingkar Lam states, “I mobilized a man from each house in Ura and descended to the outskirts of Shingyer.”
After the harvest, “I yelled to ask each household to leave a number of bags to pack their harvest.” The epidemic had disturbed the cultivation routine. Half the fields were empty and weeds had engulfed the remainder, dwarfing the crop. After threshing the buckwheat, the Uraps filled the bags and left them out in the fields for the owners to collect.
From the novel, it can be said that around that time there was an outbreak of smallpox in Trongsa. His Majesty strictly prohibited movement of the people. There was an incident where a Trongsap jumped the quarantine. He was immediately arrested and made an example of.
When the 1949 epidemic broke out in Bumthang, Bhutan did not have any hospitals. There were only two doctors, two veterinary assistants and two compounders. Bumthang and Haa were the only dzongkhags to have dispensaries, but both were understaffed and had limited medical supplies. It is not clear what role our medics played during the epidemic outbreak.
The first western qualified doctor, Dr Phangchung, graduated in 1931 but his friend and classmate, Phub Gyeltshen did not. Dr Kabo Tshering graduated in 1942. All three studied at Campbell Medical School in Calcutta. In 1928 the first two compounders, Babu Khoe and Kurtop Tobgay, graduated from Charteris Hospital in Kalimpong. The two first veterinarians, Babu Karchung and Babu Jitshi graduated in 1929 and 1930 respectively from the Bengal Veterinary College in Calcutta.
Dr Bjorn Melgaard co-author of, “Medical History of Bhutan,” believes that the 1949 undiagnosed epidemic could likely have been ma chem or smallpox, or even the plague.
In 1974, ma chem was eradicated from Bhutan. Five years later, in 1979 it was eradicated from the world.
Over the centuries, smallpox broke out many times, claiming the lives of many Bhutanese. For example, from 1905 to 1945, there were nine such outbreaks. Six were in southern Bhutan and the remainder in western Bhutan. The First King hired vaccinators from Jalpaiguri, India to vaccinate the people on four of these occasions (1923, 1927, 1943, 1944).
In 1964 the government created 19 posts for vaccinators. The following year, there was an outbreak of 74 cases of smallpox in Wangduephodrang. According to “The Medical History of Bhutan,” the government increased the number of vaccinators to 25 and a mass vaccination campaign was conducted in 1966.
The 1965-1966 outbreak began amongst Nepalese and Indian workers and spread to the local population. At the time, Bhutan was building the highway to eastern Bhutan and had hired these workers.
To contain the outbreak, the patients were brought to Thimphu and quarantined in a hut in Mothithang. While the exact numbers are not known, 60% of the people who were isolated died.
Fortunately, it was the last major outbreak in the country. According to “The Medical History of Bhutan”, after the 1965-66 outbreak, there were only four further outbreaks close to Bhutan. Between 1966 and 1974 there were 89 cases, with the source traced to either West Bengal or Assam. The number of vaccinations between 1967 and 1975 was relatively small in relation to the estimated population. In 1974, smallpox broke out in Kalikhola linked to the outbreak in Assam. There were only three cases and all survived. Research has shown that the outbreaks were easily contained because of geography and sensibility. The fact that villages were far apart and separated by hills and gorges made it easier to contain any outbreaks. The second reason attributed was the sensible traditional practice of isolating the patient and his family at the onset of illness at some distance from the village.
The 1949 un-diagnosed epidemic of Shingyer believed to be smallpox killed 30 people. Sixty percent of the people who were isolated after contracting smallpox through the 1965-1966 outbreak died. In 1949, when Bhutan had few medics, no hospitals and limited medical supplies, the second King imposed Yulsung and enforced it strictly making no exceptions. In 1965, even with improved public health system, the third King quarantined the infected and used the 25 vaccinators to conduct mass vaccinations.
Historically, in times of the outbreak of smallpox, Bhutan relied for protection on the tradition of Yulsung and trusted the Kings to help contain the disease and tide us over the deadly epidemics.