Tshering Namgyal | Mongar
The local leaders and the rabdey dratshang of Lhuentse have written to the dzongkhag Covid-19 taskforce to discontinue distribution of tobacco products in the dzongkhag, last week.
The proposal cited religious, cultural, and health reasons discontinue tobacco product distribution.
“We’re not interfering in government policy but our proposal is if there is possibility to stop,” the dzongkhag tshogdu (DT) Thrizin and the Jarey gup, Kinzang Minjur, said.
He said unlike the border towns and dzongkhags, the risk of bringing in the virus by the tobacco users was slim. So the distribution was deemed not necessary.
“Moreover, there are hardly around 40 users from among around 1000 people in my gewog. They are again not addicts,” he said.
“I am not blaming the government. We are only concerned about the impact of distributing cheap tobacco to the doorstep when the users have almost adapted to the situation,” he said.
According to the gup, some users have quit while others have cut down consumption drastically owing to the scarcity.
The thrizin said that the distribution would encourage even non-abusers particularly the youth to use the products if they were readily available.
Lhuentse Lam Neten, Ngawang Sithub, said while the government policy is respected Lhuentse should be spared given the sanctity of the place.
“It’s also against both religion and health. We thought if we could jointly stop the distribution for the greater common good,” he said.
Gups also questioned the distribution model and the price. Some accused the identified shopkeepers of charging higher rates.
“We’re not even aware that the products have reached the dzongkhag or who sell them at what rate?” Maenbi gup, Tshelthrimla said.
Gups said there were also issues of some buying using citizenship identity card of non-consumers and selling them to others at higher prices in the villages.
“This is discouraging those who already decided to quit,” a gup said.
A shopkeeper each from Phaling town and Autsho town has been identified to sell the products. Initially, tobacco products were distributed to consumers in the gewogs.
Lhuentse thromde thuemi, Sonam Wangdi, said, “I didn’t follow up since I was not consulted although I heard that some buy a larger quantity using others’ ID card number.”
“We don’t want it to promote it.”
Lhuentse dzongkhag Covid-19 taskforce is yet to discuss the issue.
Lhuentse dzongdag, Jambay Wangchuk said the letters have been received and the task force members would be able to discuss only after the disbursement of the second consignment for which the requisition had been already processed and sent to Bhutan Duty-Free Limited in line with the government directive.
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
Residents were allowed to move without movement permits across zones in Samtse and Gomtu towns beginning 5am on September 9.
The first phase of easing the lockdown in Samtse will conclude today.
However, during this phase, only walking is allowed.
Further, inter-gewog movement within the dzongkhag is not allowed except for emergencies and essential services, the dzongkhag Covid-19 Task Force announced.
Shops catering to essentials like grocery and pharmaceuticals were also allowed to open.
Meanwhile, residents from buffer zones are not allowed to move into the towns nor the town residents are allowed to go to the buffer zones. Buffer zones are villages under the gewogs that surround the towns.
Samtse dzongdag Sonam Wangyel said there are three buffer zones in Samtse.
“However, two such zones, Tamang Dara and Aleypakha, are relevant to Samtse town,” he said.
For movement, residents in the buffer zones have also been issued with movement permits. Should they get permission during the second phase, which starts tomorrow, people from the buffer zones and towns can move across zones.
“Then, people in the buffer zone can also come to gewogs,” Sonam Wangyel said, adding that there could be more relaxation after three days.
Prior to this relaxation, each family in Samtse town was issued a movement permit with only one member allowed to move.
Nima | Gelephu
Over two weeks since Gelephu last detected a Covid-19 positive case from a frontline worker, the task force is readying to lift the lockdown phase-wise from Saturday.
The dzongkhag Covid-19 task force has readied the proposal for the relaxation of the lockdown and submitted the plan to the southern region Covid-19 taskforce.
Sarpang dzongdag, Karma Galay, said that the task force had accepted the proposed unlocking plan. “Medically and technically, we qualify for unlocking from September 10. But, we want to discuss whether we are ready to unlock, hear it from the technical advisory group (TAG),” he said.
He added that the lifting of lockdown could differ from other dzongkhags because the town shares a long porous border with the Indian state of Assam where the Covid-19 case is on the rise.
The shops for essential items, restaurants with delivery service, and bars would be allowed to open but must adhere to specific timing.
Task force officials and the technical advisory group said people should take safety protocols seriously as part of new normal.
“This would decide whether we would have to face another lockdown…We seek high cooperation from the people,” said Karma Galay.
TAG recommends safety measures at containment centres
The TAG had been studying the risk of community transmission and the source of infection since Gelephu reported a positive case from a frontline worker last month.
Chief programme officer with the communicable diseases division, Rinxin Jamtsho, said the positive case detected in a frontline worker did not cause local transmission. “There have not been positive cases for almost 14 days and all primary contacts tested negative.”
He, however, highlighted the need to strictly follow safety measures and necessary precautions while loading and unloading consignments at the point of entry.
Inspection of the vehicles and monitoring is the most important task as the town plans to lift the lockdown.
The official said the recommended time to start lifting lockdown was after two weeks of detecting the positive case. If exposed to the infection, about 10 to 12 percent starts to show symptoms after 14 days and some after 21 days.
TAG will be doing another round of inspection, mostly in the places where frontline workers are stationed today. The team earlier observed the need to strengthen safety measures in the various workplaces of the frontline workers.
Lack of containment centres for the frontline workers at critical areas, emergency health focal person among the frontline workers in the field, and handwashing stations, among others, were some of the gaps the team found in the past two weeks.
The team inspected over 19 different workplaces during the lockdown.
Rinxin Jamtsho said some grocery shops were opened but monitoring was not so effective initially. “Now it’s improved,” he said.
To ensure efficient surveillance along the border and to reduce the incidents of illegal activities, the official also recommended the need to involve communities along the border.
It’s been over 30 days since Gelephu went under complete lockdown.
Classes for X and XII to re-open from Monday
Yangchen C Rinzin
The education ministry will relocate 1,580 Class X and XII students and teachers of both public and private schools in Phuentsholing to other schools beginning today.
Education Minister Jai Bir Rai said the public school students will be relocated to Punakha and Wangdue while students of Norbu Acadamy will be moved to Dorokha Central School in Samtse.
Lyonpo said that students would be shifted to Shengana Lower Secondary School (LSS), Thinleygang Primary School (PS), and Kuruthang Middle Secondary School (MSS) in Punakha. Some of the students will be relocated to Tencholing PS in Wangdue.
“We’re shifting to these schools since the academic session for lower classes is closed. But Chimithangka MSS in Pasakha will not be relocated and will continue in a quarantine mode.”
Lyonpo said that there was no risk since the school is outside Phuentsholing town and there was enough space for teachers to stay in schools like a contained cohort.
The classes are expected to start on September 15. However, another private school, Yonten Kuenjung Academy will not be relocated, as it is located outside Phuentsholing town but must follow safety protocol.
Lyonpo said that this relocation model will apply to any school hereafter if the area is declared a red zone.
The board exams for Classes X and XII are also postponed to March 2021, as proposed by the education ministry. Exams for Classes IX and XI are expected to be a month before board exams.
Meanwhile, the government yesterday announced that Classes X and XII will resume from September 14 after it had remained closed following nationwide lockdown. On-campus learning for Classes IX and XI will resume from September 21. The schools have remained close since March.
However, schools in the south will have to wait until the unlocking procedures are complete to begin classes.
The government also allowed technical and vocational training institutes, including private driving and tailoring courses to resume. Colleges will also reopen but the Royal University of Bhutan would announce the details separately.
Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji said that ensuring proper spacing and other Covid-19 etiquettes, all kinds of business entities would be allowed to open from today.
Eateries and restaurants can allow sit-in customers but must not exceed 50 percent of the capacity. “But we would advise people to opt for delivery and take-away services.”
Barbershops and salons can also operate ensuring only 50 percent of capacity considering the heightened risk including video game parlours and snooker will also be allowed to operate.
“Informal businesses and street vendors can also operate,” Lyonpo said. “But they must wear facemasks and follow food safety procedures.”
The businesses have to close at 9pm.
Lyonpo said that sports facilities like gym, yoga, dance studios and rubber tracks can also operate and likewise non-contact sports of athletics and golf, and partial contact sports of badminton, tennis and table tennis.
“Other games like futsal, football turfs and basketball courts can also operate, but without spectators. Archery can be played with only 15 participants.”
Parks and public places will also remain open. But all social events will be still restricted unless limited to family members. Cremation and funeral rites and other rituals at home will be permitted but without gathering.
However, all the official meetings, seminars, workshops and travels will be restricted.
“Those events or activities that are not mentioned are still being reviewed including the opening of ECCDs,” Lyonpo said.
Additional RT-PCR laboratory to be set up in Dewathang
Most Covid-19 positive cases detected after the nationwide lockdown was linked to earlier patients, but not all.
The recent positive case in Samdrupjongkhar is one such exception.
The 18-year-old woman tested positive on September 7 after she visited a flu clinic. She had no recent travel history to an affected place owing to the 21-day lockdown.
As of September 8, all her primary contacts (23) including family members and neighbours, tested negative to the virus.
With no likely source of infection established, for now, speculations are rife.
Health Minister Dechen Wangmo said that epidemiologically there was not much of a confusion.
She said that people must not associate not having the disease with lockdowns. “Lockdown is only a means of preventing the spread of transmission. But it does not guarantee a person from not getting infected.”
Lyonpo said that there is no guarantee that people would not get infected during lockdowns. “Can I ensure that 100 percent of the population would have stayed home and not gone outside during the lockdown? Not really.”
She said residents could have gone out and mingled during the 21-day nationwide lockdown.
On the confusion regarding her contacts testing negative, Lyonpo said that the negative results were for now.
She said that generally, the RT-PCR test picks up the virus after four to five days post-infection.
“We have to consider the exposure duration. Probably the test has not picked up the virus because it was too early.”
Are all identified contacts, actual contacts?
The minister said that there could be possibilities where positive individuals were not declaring their real contacts. “Whoever we are testing right now is based on the interviews of the patients,” she said. “How honest and fair are our people in sharing this vital information is subjective. People might not be telling us the entire truth.”
This, according to the minister, was the biggest concern in contact tracing.
She said that when people are not honest with their contacts, it delays and hampers the entire containment efforts.
“Anyone diagnosed with Covid-19, we request you all to be honest with your contacts as it would help us pick up the cases faster and help control the spread.”
Lyonpo said that all the contacts of the Samdrupjongkhar case were quarantined and under observation.
“We have already devised a plan for active surveillance in the thromde should the need arise. We’ve also done all the line listing of the vulnerable population, and if there is a local transmission in Samdrupjongkhar, we will adopt a similar strategy as we did in Phuentsholing.”
An additional testing lab in Samdrupjongkhar
The health minister said that an additional testing lab (RT-PCR) would be set up in Dewathang, Samdrupjongkhar.
She said that for the ministry to respond to the epidemic at the earliest, information was essential. With issues like roadblocks and other challenges in ferrying samples from one place to another, precious time was lost.
“For this, we realised that it was only appropriate that we have an RT-PCR testing laboratory in Dewathang.”
A team left for Dewathang yesterday with the equipment. They would set it up in a few days.
Lyonpo said that it would also enhance access to reliable testing and to test people moving from higher risk areas (southern parts of the country) towards the lower risk areas.
“We want to create another layer of barrier. The idea is containment, as much as possible, so that we don’t have to do a nationwide lockdown again.”
Visit flu clinic
The minister appealed that anyone with flu-like symptoms must visit the flu clinics.
Lyonpo said that the ministry had learned that people with symptoms had failed to visit the flu clinics before.
“If the disease is detected early, you don’t spread it to your family, community and the entire nation. It is in the greater interest of everyone to get yourself tested if you are symptomatic.”
There are 54 flu clinics in the country equipped with rapid antigen testing facilities. With the Dewathang laboratory set up, the country would have five RT-PCR testing laboratories and one of the highest per capita testing rates in the world.
“If we can pick up symptoms early, then we can contain the further spread of the diseases. It is when people become symptomatic (start shedding the virus) that they are the most infectious.”
Adjusting to the new normal
Lyonpo said that the ministry was taking the most professional and targeted strategies to contain the spread of the virus. “Things have become much systematic now, and our team has now gained more efficiency. Within 24 to 48 hours, we exactly know what to do.”
However, heading into the new normal, the minister said that individuals must take responsibility. “There are countries imposing fines for not wearing face masks. We don’t want to resort to those things,” she said.
“We are a society that has its values rooted in the belief of beyond oneself. We think collectively for others, and this is what would guide us through this pandemic.”
Days after easing the nationwide lockdown, Thimphu received its first load of onion and tomatoes on September 8.
The Department of Agriculture and Marketing Cooperatives (DAMC) distributed 8 metric tonnes (MT) of onions and 1.7 MT of tomatoes to wholesale vendors in the capital.
Twelve wholesale vendors at the Centenary Farmers’ Market bought the products who will then distribute it to retailers across various zones. About 20 MT of onion and 3 MT of tomatoes are expected to reach Thimphu today.
The government has suspended the import of vegetables since the nationwide lockdown, therefore shortage of onion and tomatoes in the market across the country.
Food Corporation of Bhutan Limited (FCBL) imported the products from Samtse and Gelephu since Phuentsholing is in the red zone.
The products from Samtse are distributed in the western part of the country. In the last few days, demand for 22 MT of onion and 4 MT of tomatoes are placed with the auction yard.
Gelephu FCBL auction yard supplies the products in the central part with its first consignment—3MT of tomatoes and 10 MT onion—delivered to Wangdue yesterday. The products are imported from Siliguri in India.
Procuring products from Samtse and Gelephu was, however, challenging, said the director of FCBL, Dorji Tashi. He said that there was a shortage of workforce in Samtse auction yard and the officials from Phuentsholing couldn’t travel to Samtse due to lockdown protocols.
Recently, FCBL has hired four extra labourers on top of two FCBL officials at the auction yard. “They are inexperienced and take time for transshipment and import therefore increasing the cost.”
According to the cost of transportation, handling losses, loading, and unloading, Dorji Tashi said that the price fluctuates although the supply from India was reliable and had no issues.
In the future, in collaboration with the dzongkhag, FCBL expects to import daily. Currently, the import is three times a week.
Chief Marketing Officer with DAMC, Yonten Jamtsho, said that the ministry was working on measures to import the products from Phuentsholing to reduce cost. “The ministry is not in position to determine and prescribe prices but it should be within the market price.”
Meanwhile, vegetable vendors are waiting for the highly-demanded products to reach them. Yesterday, the vegetable shops along Norzin Lam did not have a single tomato or onion for sale. It is yet to be distributed to them.
Owner of Bhutan Smart Shop, Sangay Ngedup, said that he placed an order for 2,000 kgs of onion and 1,000kgs of tomatoes but did not receive it yet. Daily, the shop receives 20- 40 calls asking for onion and tomatoes. It is excluding inquiries on the shop’s social media pages and website.
The Agriculture Minister Yeshey Penjor said that the ministry was promoting elevated production of all commodities except for the banned items. “While production is expected to increase for import substitution, import will continue till we are self-sufficient.”
Phurpa Lhamo | Punakha
Farmers of Goemkha-Mendrelgang chiwog in Punakha have resorted to making seep (beaten maize) out of surplus maize in hopes of fetching income as the lockdown eases and businesses resume.
In August, just when maize and cucumber season reached its peak, farmers lost their market following the announcement of the nationwide lockdown on August 11.
According to a farmer, Tshering Norbu from Goenmkha village, roasted maize was sold abundantly to commuters along the Punakha-Thimphu highway. “Tourists and travellers visiting Punakha were the main customers.”
A roasted corn ear is sold at Nu 50. Every year, farmers in Punakha make a minimum of Nu 50,000 selling roasted maize along the highway.
For farmers like Pema Thinley, selling maize earns him more than Nu 200,000 every year. This year, he barely made Nu 20,000.
Pema Thinley said that he grew around four acres of maize. “I sell ears of corn to vendors along the highway at a cheaper price. An ear of corn sold along the highway is Nu 50 and I would sell them in bulk for Nu 20.”
Today, Pema Thinley is drying his matured corn. He plans to make kharang.
While many in Punakha have resorted to making seep and kharang from the maize, they continue to worry about the lack of market. A kilogram of seep sells for at least Nu 300. “Because seeps can be stored, we hope to have more demands during the Blessed Rainy Day,” said Tshering Norbu.
According to Goenmkha-Mendrelgang Tshogpa, Chimi, some of the farmers could sell seeps in Thimphu and make some income. “We talked with the famers and advised them to make seeps and kharang instead of having the maize damaged.”
Pema Thinley has also begun plantation of winter crops replacing maize. He has planted beans, radish, cauliflower and cabbage in his fields.
However, there was no alternative for the cucumber, a majority of which has to be disposed of today.
According to Toebisa gup, Namgyel Tshering, the gewog donated cucumbers and maize to schools, monastic institutions in the dzongkhag and to the frontline workers.
Today, in Goenmkha-Mendrelgang chiwog farmers are making a living with the income they made prior to the lockdown.
Much to the relief of the civil servants, the government is not going to do away with allowances or slash salaries even if the economy is hit hard and the government is trying to revive it.
There were talks and even fear that worst come to worst, the government will, in trying to be prudent with expenditure, slash allowances and even downsize. All this fear is put to rest with the finance minister putting on record that cutting salaries and allowances or laying off people would be the last solution.
Salaries and allowances comprise a major portion of the government’s recurrent expenditure. It has to be met from domestic revenue. Domestic revenue is already at an all time low. This is obvious. Apart from the export of electricity, almost every business is hit. The tourism and hospitality industry, which contributes significant revenue, is in a sorry state. Many in the industry are surviving on Royal Kidu. Where will we adjust the money to keep the 26,000 or so civil servants unaffected and encourage them to spend?
Some pressure is on the state-owned enterprises (SOEs). There is a directive from the finance ministry to create investment avenues, cut cost, substitute import and create employment. If SOEs can do this, it will help solve a lot of the government’s problems. The reality is some of the SOEs are entering into austerity measures. Even as they prepare to respond to the finance ministry’s order, they are simultaneously working on slashing salaries, allowances and even downsizing.
Meanwhile, the private sector is in a confused state. They cannot blame anyone because it is Covid-19 and not the government that brought the economy to a standstill. They are waiting, watching and wishing what is in for them. The country’s GDP has shrunk to negative 6.7 in the last month.
Many say the government is well prepared and qualified in handling an epidemic or a pandemic, but the economic pandemic caught them off guard. The Gross National Happiness Commission, it was learnt, is in the middle of a big exercise to reprioritise the 12th Plan budget. The joke is that planning officers are given sharp sickles to cut the allocated budget as most planned activities are hampered.
This makes sense. There is no point in, for instance, expanding an airport when flights are grounded or capacity building, when there is no capacity to fund the training. The re-prioritisation exercise, we can surmise, taught us a good lesson in our planning process. The most common complaint among those who hold the purse string, a flat purse in our case, is that agencies and ministries send a shopping list, not a reasoned plan on a viable budget.
What we need today is a clear economic vision. Covid-19 and its impact, the government recognised will stay for a long time. It is time to clear the vision blurred by the face shields and present a picture of what we should expect now and at the end of 2023.
Thimphu dromchoe and tshechu this year will be held indoors.
This is according to the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs’ notification, issued March, which says that festivals and other activities in the dzongkhags this year will have to be conducted behind closed door due to Covid-19 pandemic.
““Rituals and mask dances are allowed, but baychham, cultural items and gathering of people are prohibited,” says the notification.
Zhung Dratshang’s General-Secretary, Lam Yeshi, said that there was no change in this notification so far. “Same mandates could be applied hereafter until the Covid-19 situation subsides.”
As per the notification, while conducting tshechu and regular offerings in the dzongs and temples, it has to be held closed door with safety measures in place.
The Thimphu’s 310th annual Lhamoi Dromchoe falls on September 22. The 333rd Thimphu tshechu starts from September 26, which was introduced in 1687 by Gyalsey Tenzin Rabgye (1638–16960), the fourth Desi of Bhutan.
The Dorji Lopon of the Central Monastic body graced the chhamju for dromchoe at Tashichhodzong on September 8. Around 300 monks started performing drubchen yesterday. The Thimphu dromchoe was initiated in 1710 by Gyalsey Kunga Gyaltshen (1689 – 1713). He had a clear vision of Shri Mahakali at Chagri monastery while in retreat.
“Based upon his vision of Lhamo Dudsolma and her retinue, he introduced a sacred dance for the public in 1710. The dark deep blue mask of Lhamo Dudsolma and her main attendant Lhamo Remati, along with masks of her entourage, were designed and crafted to his precise instructions according to his vision,” said Lam Yeshi.
During the drubchen, monks perform the intensive practice of Mahakali ( Pelden Lhamo) as the main deity for eleven days in the dubkhang.
Lam Yeshi said that the deity was invoked for the protection, to receive blessing and to make an extensive offering during dromchoe. “Dromchoe is supposed to bring peace and harmony in the country with a bountiful harvest, while averting diseases, conflicts and famine. We all should give more importance and pray to Palden Lhamo this year as she is the guardian mother who keeps away all pandemic diseases at bay.”
Lam Yeshi said that the tshechu would be performed without any interruptions and the mask dances would also be performed as usual. “Only Lham Tsom dances will be broadcast on television during dromchoe and tshechu. Lham Tsom dances are those dances which are dedicated to our guardian deity Palden Lhamo.”
Lam Yeshi said that no jinlab (spiritual blessings) would be compromised just by resorting to live telecast if we have faith. “His Holiness the Je Khenpo directed us during the live telecast on the practice of Sangye Menla to the public a few months back.”
The mask dances practice by the monks is in full swing at present.
Major religious festivals in other Dzongkhags also start in September.
Wangduephodrang tshechu, Gangteng tshechu, Tamzhing Phala Choepa and Thangbi Mani in Bumthang happens this month. Jakar tsechu, Chukha tshechu, Dechenphug tshechu and Jambay Lhakhang drup begins next month.
Phub Dem | Paro
If there is a perfect word to describe the National Post Harvest Centre (NPHC) in Paro, it is ‘science experiment class’.
The other day the centre was experimenting with fresh cabbage and chili. Yesterday, it was fermented cheese.
The stench smell of cabbages and rotten cheese is unbearable even when you are covered with a facemask.
After lockdown, the staff of NPHC got busy like never before. If it weren’t for the NPHC, the surplus produce would have ended up in dumping yards.
The centre has initiated vegetable preservation in cold warehouses and preserved it in the form of diverse products.
With the restriction in exports and limited domestic market, tonnes of cabbages rot in the field.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Forests in coordination with the centre has explored ways to process the perishables.
Although the centre tried diversification of the cabbage earlier, it gained momentum only recently due to the pandemic.
NPHC’s programme director, Dechen Tshering, said that there was no issue with product development but was sceptical about how the consumers would respond to the new products. “Dried cabbage will be the first new product in the market, for example. If the trial is successful, we will encourage the enterprises to take up the venture.”
The picture of what can cabbage become in times of the pandemic—dried cabbage, powdered cabbage for soups, kimchi, and sauerkraut pickles.
While the centre is engaged in small-scale production, which includes cold storage of about 60 metric tonnes (MT), the whole affair is labour intensive.
He said that the post-harvest venture was capital intensive and required investment in machines and technology.
Dechen Tshering said that the plan was to build and transfer the machines to big processing plants and encourage private individuals to take up the processing work.
The centre, established in 1997, has a variety of products ranging from frozen food, flour, dried and powdered products, spices, jam, juice and jelly, among others.
NPHC serves as a training and research centre. It is mandated to conduct feasibility studies, recommend appropriate technical measures and support the establishment of post-production infrastructure such as packhouse equipped with handling, grading, packaging, equipment and food processing plant, among others, through public-private partnership.
It also promotes cheap household post-production infrastructure to minimise food loss. Annually, the centre trains about a thousand farmers to value-add various products.
Although the centre has been focusing on vegetables, it has begun preserving livestock products such as cheese.
The centre received 200 kilograms of surplus cheese from Bhutan Livestock Development Corporation two days ago.
NPHC has been helping preserve surplus cheese. “The centre had been trying every possible way to help reduce loss to the farmers and the government,” Dechen Tshering said.
Paro’s dzongkhag agriculture officer, Tandin, said that with limited demand for vegetables, especially cabbages from the Food Corporation of Bhutan and Centenary Farmers Market, selling cabbage was a major challenge.
In consultation with the agriculture ministry and NPHC, tonnes of cabbage from Paro were sent for cold storage and preservation.
Tandin said that FCB and the dzongkhag agriculture office dumped truckloads of rotten cabbage. “We even tried preparing manure from the rotten cabbage.”
The Paro dzongkhag agriculture office recorded cabbage buyback worth Nu 20M.
Yangchen C Rinzin
Students anxious about school reopening, difficulty with online lessons, and examinations made up more than half the callers seeking counselling in the past six months.
693 people (305 males and 351 females) reached out to counsellors on the Sherig Counselling Service, a Facebook page between March and August 28. About 37 of the clients who sought counselling preferred to be counselled through text without sharing their gender details.
More than half (451) of them were students followed by teachers, parents and others, who did not want to disclose their details.
The career education and counselling division created Sherig Counselling Service page to cater to students and as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Five additional counsellors from the career education and counselling division also attend to the students from Thimphu.
A total of 147 certified school guidance counsellors across the country provide counselling to students. However, apart from the students, counsellors also help others.
Cases have increased over the months as the pandemic prolonged and with the recent lockdown. Many shared their academic concerns, financial challenges, and career counselling owing to a pandemic, according to an official from career education and counselling division.
The official said that most of the students shared that they were unable to cope up with the online teaching and that they wished to return to school.
“Even if they have access to smartphone and internet the students are still finding it difficult while some are worried about their performance because they lack access to online education,” the official, who is also a counsellor, said.
“Some students share that they were already poor in studies, and online study has affected their performance further.”
Some of the issues shared were emotional distress, anxiety, stress, family-related issues and depression.
Students who used to top in the class were concerned to lose their position if everyone was given a general pass.
“Some have also prepared for various awards like the Golden Youth Award and other youth awards. They shared their unhappiness as there is no chance for them to aspire for such an award.”
Some students from lower-income families said that online education was expensive.
After Phuentsholing was declared a red zone, students from the town sought counselling to learn about the situation and asked if the government would relocate them to continue their education.
“We try to respond to students as soon as possible with accurate data and information without panicking since the clients usually panic when they seek counselling,” an official said.
If the case is severe and beyond counsellor’s capacity to handle, they refer the client to the relevant agency.
“Sometimes, students even panic and call when the nation’s situation on the Covid-19 cases are updated. But we explain the situation and convince them the government is working on the school reopening.”
An increasing number of people seeking counselling could be an indication that now a lot of people are feeling the impact of the pandemic, including the recent 21-day lockdown, the official said.
“Some could have been resilient in the beginning but are now feeling the brunt, so they seek counselling.”
Although some of the callers are teachers seeking counselling, one of the counsellors said that it was not due to work pressure. Their issues were personal, and some are in a panic because of the pandemic.
“It has become almost a taboo to talk about teachers seeking counselling during such times, but people must understand that teachers are also human,” an official said.
Some parents (including few civil servants) seek counselling on how to deal with children at home, especially those who have more than two.
If anyone needs counselling or support on any issues, the Sherig Counselling Service Facebook page has the phone numbers of counsellors across the country.
Says laying off staff and cutting salaries not a solution for now
The economy is bad, but all hope is not lost, according to Finance Minister Namgay Tshering.
“We are experiencing an economic slowdown, but it (economy) has not crashed. If our economy collapsed, there would be no hope,” Lyonpo said. “This is the time when we need to give hope to our private sectors. Hope to the people and help build their confidence that we still have adequate energy and power to rescue our economy.”
Amidst speculations that the government would start austerity measures with salary cuts and laying off of people, the government, the finance minister said, would be triggering an economic deflation.
The minister said that drastic measures, if at all needs to be taken, have to be taken only to explore every possible opportunity on a positive note. “Drastic measures don’t necessarily mean laying off employees or cutting down on their allowances and salaries.”
He said that when the country was going through trying times, the objective to sustain and revive the economy was through boosting the consumption capacity. “Instead we have to focus on building the purchasing capacity of individuals and to do this people need to have disposable income with them.”
Lyonpo said that by cutting the income of people in small economies like Bhutan, would trigger an economic deflation. He said that a situation where there are no disruptions in the supply chain but people don’t have the purchasing power would result in a more serious threat for the economy.
“For Bhutan, at this point of time, laying off staff and cutting salaries is not at all a solution. And as a finance minister, it is totally against my principle.”
Hopes on SOEs
Instead, he said that the ministry has asked the state owned enterprises (SOE) to review its mandates and tune it to the current needs, which are appropriate in the ‘new normal’. “We have also asked them to explore additional investment opportunities whereby job creation and employment should be their primary objective.”
He said that one of the biggest impacts of the pandemic would be on employment and the government was aggressively working to ensure everyone gets a job, to keep people engaged and have disposable income.
Besides considering its sustenance, the minister said that the new mandates of the SOEs must be resilient and adaptive to any changes in the future.
However, he said that there was no harm for organisations in preparing for a worse case scenario. “We should have a plan in place to guide us if in case the worst happens,” Lyonpo said. “If we have a plan, we would be more prepared. Otherwise we would land up making irrational decisions.”
He added that it was not necessary that all the contingency plans needed to be executed. “I’m hopeful that our economy will not perform that bad. As a finance minister I can assure we will bring back our economy on track at the earliest possible.”
Covid-19 and the economy
Lyonpo Namgay Tshering said Bhutan cannot escape the impact of the pandemic when the entire global economy was under pressure.
Unlike some complex global economies, Lyonpo said that for Bhutan the idea was simple. The government largely depended on hydropower, tourism and tax for its revenue.
He said that ever since the onset of the pandemic, tourism has zero contribution to the revenue thus far. “The tax revenue will also suffer a significant blow because all businesses are impacted by the pandemic.”
Lyonpo said that the service sector was the largest contributor to the economic slowdown. “The industry sector is also suffering because all the manufacturing and construction works could not pick up because of the Covid-19 containment measures.”
The economy today is at its worst. The country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) dropped to its lowest in August registering a growth of negative 6.7 percent. Also in the last five months, the country inflicted economic loss of about Nu 5 billion.
Meanwhile, Lyonpo said that while the government was doing everything possible to revive the economy, it was the responsibility of every individual and organisations to help in bringing back the economy on track.
He said that the government has asked agencies including SOEs to look into optimising the recurrent expenditure and rationalise their spending.
“We are wrecking our brains, consulting with different stakeholders to see how best and at the earliest we can bring our economy back on track. For now, I’m very optimistic.”
A total of 276 people have donated blood to the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital (JDWNRH) during the nationwide lockdown.
Now there is “enough” blood at the hospital’s bank.
The donors were De-Suups, trainees of the Faculty of Nursing and Public Health, volunteers from Health Help Centre, and staff of JDWNRH and Ministry of Health, among others.
JDWNRH coordinated the blood donation camp within Thimphu to address the concerns for blood availability, as the donors were restricted to visit the hospital during the lockdown.
JDWNRH’s blood bank in-charge and laboratory officer, Tshering Yangdon, said that due to the donors, there were no shortages of the blood at present. “We extract the 450ml of blood from each donor. The extracted blood is then converted to three by-products—packed red cells, platelets and plasma.”
Of the 450ml, approximately 230ml is used for packed red cells, 220ml for plasma and 50ml for platelets.
As of yesterday, the blood bank had 251 units of packed red cells, 28 units of platelets and 500 units of plasma. Plasma has the maximum expiry days with one year followed by the packed red cells with 35 days and platelets with five days.
Tshering Yangdon said that the blood bank team was worried about the continuity of platelets for the patients amid lockdown. “Around 21 patients received platelets during the lockdown. Of the 21 patients, 12 of them individually used more than 10 units of platelets. Normally, one patient requires six units of platelets.”
The growing demand for the platelets during lockdown was due to the more patients in the pediatric unit and ICU, adult ICU and medical ward, who were battling cancer and thrombocytopenia (low platelets count).
“The demand for platelets has increased because patient referrals to other countries are restricted. Moreover, platelets have minimum expiry days,” said Tshering Yangdon.
In the normal days, the platelets usage is 200 units on an average in a month, but it has increased to 225 units during the lockdown. At the same time, the use of packed red cells has increased from 300 units to 348 units.
Usually, the demand for plasma is less.
“With the lifting of the lockdown, donors are coming forward. Moreover, social media is playing a major role for this noble cause by disseminating information,” said Tshering Yangdon.
JDWNRH will soon conduct the blood donation camp at Royal Thimphu College, National Institute of Zorig Chusum and Royal Institute of Management upon their request.
Within August 7 to 8, 165 people have donated the blood during the donation camp at folk heritage under Tarayana Foundation and Sangchen Choekhor monastery in Paro.
The blood safety programme under the health ministry also organise the blood donors’ campaign. There is also an online platform (www.bloodsafety.gov.bt) to encourage donors. This platform maintains a profile of the individual donor and total times the person donated the blood. It also has other features such as registration process, appointment date for the donation, enquiries and other relevant information.
Gewogs have not returned tobacco products
The Bhutan Duty Free Limited (BDFL) in Thimphu is bearing the brunt of angry or frustrated tobacco users in Dagana after the local government heads, gups, decided not to distribute tobacco products.
Officials at BDFL told Kuensel that they are flooded with calls from desperate or angry tobacco consumers, some begging and some threatening of blaming them for the domestic violence that could happen over tobacco.
“We don’t understand why Dagana people were making desperate calls when their gups claimed that there are no tobacco users in their gewogs,” said an official. The gewog have not returned the consignment dispatched for the people. BDFL will find out what happened to the tobacco. “Local leaders should return the tobacco products if they didn’t distribute it,” said a BDFL staff member.
BDFL supplied tobacco products as per the demand letter from respective dzongkhags, gewogs or organizations. The official said that if the main reason for not distributing the tobacco in Dagana was because of insufficient quantity, the local leaders could have put up requisition letter after collecting a list of tobacco consumers. Paro Dzongkhag received tobacco for the fourth time so far.
The corporation didn’t have enough stock, but sent whatever they had to the dzongkhags. “We have stocked up the tobacco products and we would send it to the consumers if their local leaders take an initiative.”
Meanwhile, tobacco consumers in Dagana are suspecting if the local leaders are giving their share to illicit tobacco sellers since they received none. An anguished smoker from Drukjegang tried smoking tealeaves. “We are suffering. I called up the duty-free staff and requested them to send me a bundle of bidi through a friend who will be visiting Dagana soon.”
Some said they paid Nu 1,000 for a packet cigarette which would have cost them Nu 180 if bought from the duty-free outlet. “The prices of tobacco are ridiculously high but we can’t help consuming it,” said a consumer.
Dzongkhag officials said they had not received any official complaints from the tobacco users so far. The Program Officer, Sonam Jamtsho said that BDFL sent tobacco products although the dzongkhag didn’t ask for tobacco. He said, “There was a shortage in the number of products supplied by BDFL when we checked the list they sent us. So, we couldn’t supply it immediately.”
BDFL sent 180 packets of cigarettes, 129 packets of chewing tobacco (Baba) and 258 packets of Bidi to Dagana. Nine packets of baba and 58 packets of Bidis went missing.
The distribution guideline highlighted that the tobacco should be only delivered to chronic consumers and to collect a copy of the citizenship identity card (CID) from the buyers. “There has been no study conducted to determine who the chronic users are. It made the distribution of tobacco difficult,” said Sonam Jamtsho.
The gups didn’t want to entertain one or two complaints they received from tobacco consumers as the majority of the citizens supported their decision.
Tsendagang Gup, Bal Bahadur Rana, said people were reluctant to give the copy of their CID card. “People want tobacco but they are too scared that they will be traced and arrested in future if they share their identity card.”
Goshi gup, Tandin, who once delivered tobacco at the consumers’ doorstep said that people were still unhappy. He doesn’t want to distribute it next time. He said, “It’s not gup’s responsibility to distribute tobacco products. It’s difficult to be the middle man.” He suggested BDFL to open a tobacco outlet in the dzongkhag.
Tashiding gup, Namgay Peldon also distributed tobacco to her people. However, she couldn’t clarify the consumers if the gewog will receive tobacco products again.
Some quit the habit, some cut down on consumption
Neten Dorji | Trashigang
Many smokers in Trashigang are thanking the Covid-19 pandemic. If it allowed tobacco outlets to sell or distribute tobacco, it has also influenced many to quit the bad habit or cut down on consumption.
A civil servant recalls smoking 20 sticks a day before the borders were sealed in March. He picked up the habit in college and had since tried many times to kick the habit. “Covid-19 made smoking a very expensive habit,” he said. “It helped me quit after 14 years.”
The civil servant is not alone. Many in the town said Covid-19 and the lockdown came as an opportunity to quit smoking or chewing tobacco. A mother in Trashigang town said she cut down heavily on smoking. “From a packet a day before, it is now three sticks a day,” she said. “I think I can quit. Thanks to the lockdown!”
Another civil servant said that every stick lighted up was like burning Nu 30 or 40. With a packet costing from Nu 250 to 800 in the black market, it left a big hole in the pocket. “I have not smoked for three months, which is good progress, as I always wanted to quit,” he said.
Tashi was particular about the brand of tobacco. After not finding his brand even in the black market, he managed to quit. “The pandemic did help me in the sense I couldn’t get my tobacco or it was too expensive,” he said.
Meanwhile, there is a mixed reaction on the government’s decision to distribute tobacco. While some said it hampered those trying to quit by tobacco available at a cheaper rate, others said it was a wise decision.
A taxi driver said it helped the low income group who are hooked to tobacco, especially chewing tobacco.
Looking for tobacco in the town, a villager said, he couldn’t concentrate on his work. “In the absence of tobacco, we don’t feel like working in the field,” he said. “I even chewed the paper cover of the chewing tobacco (Baba) during the lockdown.”
A businessman based in Trashigang said the pandemic and high prices was an opportunity to give up smoking. “The government distributing tobacco made it available and cheaper,” he said. “Everybody says you need the will to quit, but market and price factors play an equally important role.”
The threat of Covid-19 is always present. This has been the stand of this newspaper since the first day the Covid-19 virus case in the country.
Health experts say that Covid-19 is not going to go away easily. Face masks and the many health protocols, why really not, could become apart of our daily lives henceforth.
The warning, though, doesn’t seem to be enough. How we let the virus in taught us a lesson. Lockdown happened overnight and we have had to confront the many challenges.
The worse is coming, sooner than later, the way people are taking things—lightly. Walk around the towns and you will see many a young individual without face mask. Ask them why they are not wearing face masks and they will tell you that the face masks are suffocating.
Seen from their point of view, it is understandable. Getting used to face masks will take time. The main problem is that the moment we think we can get out of lockdown everything can be forgotten, warts and all!
This is the danger facing the nation today.
There are already rumours that even health professionals and quite a number of frontliners have tested Covid-19 positive. In the coming days, we will hear more such stories. The worse is that we will never know who got tested positive and how many are at the risk.
The very definition of “sensitivity” ought to be questioned. How much good can be achieved by hiding the name and person who the virus has got it, is, sometimes frustratingly constricting. The logic is that if the media can bring the name of the person who has contracted the disease, tracing can be by much more efficient.
As sensitivity is with Bhutan and Bhutanese, though, this can be difficult and self-defeating.
Thimphu is the biggest city in the country. Community transmission can be dangerous. Yet one can see young people without face masks loitering around the towns. There are police and De-Suups around, thank goodness, but everyone seems to be in a relaxed mood because lockdown has been eased.
But the positive cases are shooting up from the south of the country. Our only defence is to secure our people and the communities from local transmission that could be devastating. As we speak, this is the real danger.
Are we taking Covid-19 threats very lightly? Very likely, yes. And this can be very expensive for the nation.
There is the need to tighten the rules and inspections. Frontliners have more to do now than ever before and we have to support them. Give them not just the mandate but also power. This is where we have come to.
We seem to stick to some truly needless dos and don’ts. We can do a lot better as a nation. We need to be more sensible and proactive.
How are we thinking to do it?
Dental department of Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital (JDWNRH) was overwhelmed with continuous appointment calls from 10 a.m until 1 p.m after the hospital resumed its regular services on September 7.
Receptionist at dental clinic, Phurpa Wangdi, said that the department saw more than 250 patients. Normally, not more than 200 visit the department.
The patients availed “simple” dental procedures, as complex dental procedure like root canal treatment once started would not be able to continue if there happened to be another lockdown.
About 1,100 patients visit JDWNRH every day.
On the first day, the hospital’s ten departments out of 20 departments recorded 1,197 patients.
The general outpatient department (OPD) and Community Health Centre recorded the highest number of patients—226 and 343. The psychiatric department recorded 36 patients.
Medical Superintendent of JDWNRH, Dr Gosar Pemba, said that the number would increase for next few more days. “People were waiting to avail the health services.”
Dr Gosar Pemba said that the hospital would provide regular health services but it would pose challenges to health staff if numbers increased.
He said. “When movement of people and vehicle is allowed, hospital cannot disallow people from visiting hospital.”
During the lockdown, emergency cases were referred to hospital. Tele-consultation services were provided to general public and patients requiring treatments, for example, cancer treatment and dialysis were continued.
He said that the country could go back to normal but the people must adapt to new normal and the people would be advised to follow “new normal” rules and regulation of the hospital.
“Apart from health protocols for Covid-19, people should, for example, come to hospital only when necessary, come alone, do not loiter around with friends and gather in canteens. One should immediately go home after availing the services from the hospital, and should not bring children if they are not sick,” Dr Gonsar Pemba said.
Records from March until July
Health attendance record with JDWNRH between March and July recorded that on an average over 1,100 patients visited daily; around 30,000 monthly visited the hospital.
Most patients visited community health, general outpatient and dental departments. The community health department provides primary health care services to pregnant women, maternal health related services, and children below age of five. The psychiatric department was the least visited.
However, after March 8, the country saw the highest number of patients at the flu clinics—5,694. The number of patients visiting the flu clinics decreased gradually over months—April (1,294), May (921), June (755), which increased in July (1,459).
With the outbreak of Covid-19, people were sceptical to visit hospital fearing that they would contract the virus. The health record showed that number of patients decreased in April (28,935) from March (33,495), but from May the number of patients returned as in normal times until July.
From March to July, more than 176,000 patients visited JDWNRH.
Between September 17 and 19, movement of private vehicles will be allowed and all government offices will be allowed to open
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
Lockdown relaxation in the red zone town of Phuentsholing started from eight in the morning yesterday.
The lockdown will be relaxed in five phases.
Starting yesterday, until tomorrow, a resident from each household has been allowed movement using the movement permit, in the respective zones in the specific given time, according to the Southern Covid-19 Task Force (SC19TF) in Phuentsholing.
Between September 11 and September 13, families will be allowed to move, without movement permit across the zones. Designated shops and restaurants (for takeaways only) will also be allowed during this time. Hardware shops and automobile workshops, including the earlier identified essential shops will also be opened.
However, movement of public transport will become possible between September 14 and September 16.
People will be allowed to move within the thromde and public transports such as buses and taxis will be allowed to operate at half the carrying capacity. Movements are limited to essential ones.
However, no public gatherings or outdoor activities like picnics, hiking, or visiting spiritual sites are allowed.
Meanwhile, during the third phase, shops that cater to electronics services, printing and furniture will also be allowed to operate. Those with higher risks such as barber shops and salons, non-essential shops such as garments and footwear shops will not be allowed.
During the fourth phase, which starts from September 17 until September 19, movement of private vehicles will be allowed. All government offices will also be opened during this time.
From September 20, all inter-district movements will be allowed with prior registration. Registration portals, which have been created will be announced soon.
It will include online registration, help-line calls and physical registration at identified offices or nearest check posts as people travel.
Meanwhile, several people moved out with permits yesterday, the first day of easing the lockdown.
A resident in the town, Kelzang Thinley said it was entirely a different experience to see the town and around after a month.
“I feel refreshed and healthy. Everything looks green, clean and fresh,” he said.
Although he was nervous to go out, Kelzang Thinley said that the transmission of virus could be avoided with proper measures. Using the facemask, sanitisers and physical distancing is the need of the hour, he added.
Another resident, Uraj Gurung, 30 said that lockdown had completely changed his life.
“At first I panicked thinking about food supplies but eventually the government arranged ways to deliver food at our doorsteps,” he said.
“I am enjoying my lockdown in relaxation. But people cannot stay home for too long.”
Now that lockdown will be eased and people allowed to move, Uraj Gurung said it was time to seriously follow the safety protocols.
“It is also time to get back to work keeping in mind proper protocols. If people followed the protocol, there will never be another transmission,” he said.
In its letter to the SC19TF in Phuentsholing, the National Covid-19 Task Force (NC19TF) has also highlighted that some of the DANTAK officials were in the quarantine for more than 30 days and should be allowed to travel as per the quarantine and testing protocol.
“This will apply as a general rule to all people completing quarantine,” the letter stated.
Tshering Namgyal | Mongar
Pema Dema’s family had a long day yesterday – from selling the accumulated dairy products to weeding and cutting grasses in the paddy fields.
The nationwide lockdown was eased as the third phase of unlocking began on September 7.
Pema Dema and her daughter rushed to her paddy fields at Khalangzi on the Mongar-Kurizampa highway, far from her village in Chali gewog, Mongar.
Her son rushed to Gyalpoizhing town to sell eggs and bananas.
The fields have been left untouched for more than a month as the lockdown restricted movement and confined the farmers to their homes. As a result, grass and weeds have overgrown.
“I’ve requested the guards at Gangola, Mongar-Lhuentse junction permission to resume weeding after the lockdown was relaxed in the gewogs but they declined,” Pema Dema said.
“It’s almost late to weed now and I’m wondering if it would give proper yield like before,” the 54-year old from Wamakhar village, said.
Khalangzi is about 15km away from Chali and most of the villagers from Chali gewog own paddy fields.
Pema Dema said other villagers were also waiting for the lockdown to relax and could resume field work soon.
Jamyang Choden, a vegetable vendor at Gyalpoizhing vegetable market, bought a DCM truckload of vegetables worth Nu 130,000 from Tsakaling gewog a day before the lockdown. She suffered a loss of around Nu 50,000 as the vegetables got damaged.
“Only a few customers turned up today and I’m worried if the loss would be recovered,” she said.
The restaurants opened since September 6 in Gyalpoizhing town but not many turned up.
“We used to have at least 20 customers before but I had none on the first day and only three today,” a hotelier Yeshi Dema said yesterday.
With the movement of vehicle allowed, some villagers also brought their agriculture and livestock products in their private boleros and sold in Mongar and Gyalpoizhing town yesterday.
In Mongar town, the government and corporate offices resumed. Many came out on the streets. Electronics shop and photo studios also opened.
While the shopkeepers were happy to resume businesses they expressed concerns about the rent.
“I don’t have money to pay rent. I’ve requested the owner and got an extension until September 10. If business continues to be this bad, I’m afraid I won’t make it,” a shopkeeper who runs a photo studio, said.
Meanwhile, some stranded in Mongar and those with business in other dzongkhags are waiting for the fourth phase of the unlocking of the lockdown.
The story continues
Bhutanese were startled out of sleep in the early hours of March 6, when the Prime minister’s Office announced on social media the first novel coronavirus case in the country.
Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering announced the details over live television from the courtyard of the Parliament building, which was to host the conclusion of the third session of the third Parliament. Members of Parliament, senior government officials and media attended the briefing as the Lyonchhen and the health minister took turns to disclose every detail of what transpired the previous night.
A 76-year-old American tourist tested positive. The ministry traced all those who have come in contact with him and they all tested negative to the virus. 34 health personnel including two specialists and 16 clinical nurses looked after the patient. The country is marked an orange zone.
The government immediately banned tourists, closed schools and institutes in Thimphu, Paro and Punakha, where the tourist visited, for two weeks. On March 18, all schools closed indefinitely. The government reopened classes X and XII on July 1. Lessons were broadcast on television and self-learning materials distributed to rural schools and those who don’t have access to online learning.
Medical shops ran out of hand sanitisers. The health ministry improvised and distributed free sanitiser, made of spirit and glycerin for the first few days.
Hundreds queued to collect free sanitisers. De-Suups drove around the town distributing sanitisers from large barrels. It was also distributed in Paro, Punakha, and Wangdue.
More than 56 flu clinics were set up across the country to step up surveillance.
Meanwhile, the country’s index case left for home on March 13. A few days later, his 59-year-old partner tested positive. The government announced a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all entering the country at the points of entry and closed the gates on March 23. The quarantine period was later extended to 21 days.
The first Bhutanese to test positive for the virus was a female student who returned from Europe. She tested positive while in the quarantine centre on March 25. So far, 233 Bhutanese tested positive to Covid-19.
The preparations the country made with guidance from His Majesty The King, received much international acclaim for handling the threat and cases of Covid-19.
Before Covid-19 hit Bhutan
On January 15, a day after the WHO announced the first confirmed case in Thailand, the health ministry issued the first public cautionary notice regarding the outbreak of pneumonia caused by the new coronavirus in Wuhan, Hubei Province in China. As a precaution, the ministry stationed thermal scanners and began surveillance of respiratory symptoms at the Paro International Airport. There was no travel or import ban from the affected places yet.
In coordination with the immigration department, collection of local contact addresses and health screening of passengers arriving from China at the Paro airport began January 22. Travellers were educated on the infection with the in-flight announcement in both the national airlines from January 17.
On January 21, health officials held an internal coordination meeting to discuss preparedness and way forward. All health centres including the national referral hospital in Thimphu were notified to strengthen and step-up surveillance and report to the Royal Centre for Disease Control (RCDC). An interim guideline and case investigation forms were also circulated to all health facilities.
By the end of January, the WHO declared coronavirus as a global emergency as it infected 7,816 and claimed 170 lives. WHO reported that as of January 7,818 total confirmed cases worldwide, with the majority of these in China, and 82 cases reported in 18 countries outside China. WHO gave a risk assessment of very high for China, and high at the global level.
By then the health ministry instituted measures at various entry points, identified health facilities and response teams in case of an outbreak in the country. A system was in place and the ministry equipped itself to deal with an outbreak. It issued cautionary notification and travel advisories to the public and health centres.
JDWNRH was identified as patient isolation rooms and critical units. The old Mother and Child Health unit with the hospital was converted into the isolation unit. Teams consisting of management staff, and health personnel were formed to ensure quick response in case of an outbreak. Paro, JDWNRH and Phuentsholing hospitals were prioritised given the risks to infection.
With numerous claims of a cure going viral on social media, the health minister had to denounce them publicly.
“We are worried because in the social media people are claiming that herbal bills (ribs) and talisman (sungkey) could prevent one from the infection and advertising them for sale. That could be well and good but to us, that is the wrong information that is going to the public,” Lyonpo said.
As a precautionary measure, numerous international and regional meetings to be hosted in the country were cancelled.
Between January 1 and February 7, of the 2,890 tourists who visited Bhutan 629 were Chinese. Of the 358 cancellations till February 7, 197 gave coronavirus as the reason for cancellation and of that 52 were Chinese. The royalty that the government collected were refunded. Airlines were refunding airfare.
By the first week of February, posters on prevention of the virus went in the capital and mainly the southern border areas. Health ministry officials toured the entry points to inspect screening measures.
The country was preparing for the worst situation of the Covid-19 outbreak as WHO placed the region at a high risk of getting infected while China was at very high risk.
The monastic community spearheaded by the Central Monastic Body began prayers and rituals to abate the risks of the disease. His Holiness the Je Khenpo administered the Sangay Menlha initiation and blessing virtually and urged all Bhutanese to obey health advice.
The country had its first suspected case, a Chinese tourist in Bumthang. She was suspected of the infection and was immediately airlifted to Thimphu where it turned out negative.
A German couple suspected of contracting the virus tested negative in Phuentsholing on March 5, a day before the country report the first case. The country’s major industries, mainly those in the tourism sector, suffered adverse impacts.
April was all about kidu and helping those affected by the pandemic.
Druk Gyalpo’s Relief Kidu came to the rescue of those who lost their livelihoods and jobs. Kidu recipients received their first monthly allowance on April 30. The government announced relief measures amounting to Nu 3.37 billion. It also altered the 2020-21 fiscal budget and saved about Nu 3B to meet the cost of Covid-19.
The government also announced a tourism stimulus package to benefit 2,436 people. The Royal Monetary Authority announced more than Nu 500 million in short term loans to import raw materials.
Farmers sent free vegetables, rice, and dairy products to the quarantine centres and house owners waived rents. Banks deferred loans installments for three months and interest was waived as a kidu from His Majesty. In a show of gratitude and solidarity, companies and individuals contributed to the Covid-19 relief funds set up with His Majesty’s secretariat and the finance ministry. Some travel companies and hotels continued to pay their employees for the initial few months.
International donor agencies deposited their bit and committed more.
Tour guides out of work took to growing vegetables, some joined the thromde’s workforce and a few others returned to their villages. Some drayang dancers became parking fee collectors.
While the first three Bhutanese Covid-19 patients recovered on April 10, more Bhutanese continued to return from abroad which needed more quarantine centres.
To prevent further risks, all shops and business centres were closed by 7pm from April 14. In May, more than 5,000 families living in Jaigaon moved into free kidu shelters along the Toorsa bank in Phuentsholing.
Digitisation took a major leap in various fields such as agriculture and education. Students were provided cheap data packages and farmers were encouraged to auction their farm produce through the online platforms. Online banking increased and shopping sites cashed in – RMA declared that more than Nu 1 billion were transacted online until August.
May ended with a first Covid-19 positive case in Phuentsholing, an imported in a woman who returned from India. There were 31 positive cases – all imported.
By the end of June, the government had declared that local transmission was imminent and that it was only a matter of time. All efforts were made towards enhancing testing, tracing and treatment.
On the command of His Majesty The King, the second phase of relief measures, including loan interest waivers, benefiting more than 112,024 across the country was announced on June 27.
The health ministry was giving the final touches to the lockdown protocol and Jaigaon was under lockdown at the beginning of August. The country had recorded 110 Covid-19 positive cases. The capital’s lockdown protocol was put to test when a rumour of three Covid-19 positive individuals went viral.
On August 11, a woman in Gelephu tested positive for Covid-19 following which the government declared the 21-day nationwide lockdown. Two days later, 12 positive cases were reported from the mini-dry port in Phuentsholing.
Bhutan learnt many lessons from the first-ever lockdown. Communication lines were critical in times of such emergencies. The authorities gave private mobile numbers. Some officials were not even at their workplace.
There was an increasing number of complaints about the numbers either not responding or remaining engaged all the time. The other issue was that the numbers kept revising and finally a large number of toll-free numbers were opened.
The health ministry was extremely cautious in releasing details of the patients citing privacy and ethical concerns. But at the end of the lockdown came out with a host of details on the cases.
The new zoning system exposed the terrible state of the country’s address system. Surveillance teams had to seek help from taxi drivers to get to the homes of those who had come in contact with the index cases.
The country had the best of SoPs on paper but experienced teething problems in implementing on numerous accounts. “With no proper system or data in place coordination became a nightmare,” an official said.
The agencies today have improved on all these fronts to help authorities take strategic and timely decisions.
All these lessons would be critical for future lockdowns, as the Health Minister Dechen Wangmo said, “There is no end to coronavirus, we should live with it.”