Between a BHU and the Pangna primary school
Chimi Dema | Dagana
The education ministry will send a consultation team to Drujyegang gewog in Dagana to study the possibility of swapping campus of Pangna primary school with the Grade II Basic Health Unit.
The possibility is being explored to upgrade the BHU to a 10-bedded hospital.
Although a research team was ready for the study, the ministry halted it in the wake of the new coronavirus issue, which restricted movements of officials.
The decision to exchange campus came following the health ministry’s decision to the construct the hospital included in the 12th Plan flagship programme.
In the recent Dzongkhag Tshogdu (DT), Drujyegang Gup Karma Tshering said that although the exchange of locations between the school and BHU has been proposed, the education ministry issued an order to keep the Pangna School as it is.
“This halted the decision to start the hospital construction and to shift the students,” he said.
While the community doesn’t have problem with the construction of a hospital and school on either location, the main concern, gup Karma Tshering said was the budget- it would be diverted if no work could be initiated soon.
He therefore urged the DT to help resolve the issue.
Local leaders first proposed campus exchange for convenience of students during the DT in September, 2017.
In 2016, after Drujyegang Middle Secondary School was upgraded to a Central School, it was merged with the nearby Pangna Primary School.
While the Pangna Primary School’s two structures (12 units) were converted into hostels to cater to students from class PP and VI, the hostel in the central school campus was used as classrooms. The school had no option but to function from two locations, two kilometres apart.
Considering the inconvenience facing the school then, the dzongkhag proposed to the health and education ministries to exchange locations, Dagana Dzongdag Phintsho Choeden said. “However, the health ministry did not approve stating that they were good with the present location”, she said.
But now with the ministry coming up with a 10-bedded hospital as included in the 12th Plan flagship programme, they have been proposing for the location exchange. However, education ministry refused now, the dzongdag said.
Chief dzongkhag education officer, Tshewang Penjor said that without approval for campus exchange from the health ministry when the initial proposal was submitted, the education ministry then issued a directive on segregating the lower classes from preprimary to class VI from Central school and coming up with fully fledged boarding primary school in Pangna.
“The segregation plan is ready and the budget of Nu 33.474 million has been secured for constructing additional structures in school,” he said.
But the segregation plan is withheld, currently on the orders of the ministry, Tshewang Penjor said.
He assured that the decision, however hasn’t affected in catering educational facilities to the students.
Dzongdag Phintsho Choeden said there is nothing the DT could do now as the decision has to be taken by the ministries.
She said that the recent email from the education ministry indicates some conversations between the ministries. “It was stated the team would be sent and the students would also be shuffled accordingly if the locations are to be exchanged.”
Meanwhile, dzongkhag health officer, Dorji Wangchuk said that the health sector would be convenient with either location.
The sector, he said would go by any decision that the ministries would come up with.
The DT came to consensus that both the gewog and dzongkhag administration would go by the decision from the ministries.
Tshering Namgyal | Lhuentse
The recent debates in the Parliament on Shingkhar-Gorgan bypass highway construction have not been fruitful but residents of Lhuentse still remain hopeful.
There is an 11km farm road from Gorgan to Silabi and it is in poor condition.
Except for trucks and four-wheel drive vehicles the road is unfit for smaller vehicles. From Silabi the road splits to Maedtsho gewog centre road and to Zangkhar school in Jarey gewog. The proposed highway was to pass via Pelphu village, which is another four kilometres from Silabi.
Local residents believe the restoration of the road is on hold because of the plan to connect Shingkhar-Gorgan highway.
“Gewogs maintain and blacktop their gewog centre road and other farm roads except for this. As a result, our vehicles are getting damaged. We are forced to drive due to lack of transportation facilities,” a civil servant in Maedtsho gewog said.
Villagers of Lhuentse say the new highway would bring prosperity and economic growth.
“We are saddened by the recent news on pushing this plan out of the priority list, yet we are still hopeful,” a bus owner and the driver from Tangmachhu in Maenbi gewog, Wangchuk, said.
Wangchuk said many rural pockets are now coming up with mass vegetable plantations as part of the government’s initiative for socio-economic development and achieving self-reliance, and the highway would greatly help in access to the market.
“If the highway is through, Bumthang is just over a hundred kilometres away and we can sell our products in Bumthang and Trongsa, which is a huge market.”
He added that the impact on the environment is a concern and a priority. “So should the benefits of the people be indispensable and be considered equally.”
He said roads are cleared from both Shingkhar and Gorgan. “There is a road covering almost half of the 65 kilometres between Gorgan and Ura and to construct a road to cover the remaining distance won’t cost much. The impact on the environment shouldn’t be that bad.”
Sonam from Minjey gewog said the highway would also benefit the people of Trashi Yangtse if the Minjey-Trashi Yangtse highway comes through.
He said that Lhuentse is known for sacred sites and the highway could boost tourism.
Similarly, the residents of Gorgan town also believe that they would benefit if the highway passes by the town. At present, the town is struggling with a shortage of customers as shops open in most villages with farm roads.
“During the election campaign, all political parties and candidates pledged the road to make us happy but they tend to forget it soon. We are literally losing our hope now,” Wangmo from Maedtsho gewog said.
The highway pledge has been made by all three elected governments.
The issue was also raised in the recently concluded Parliamentary session by the Maenbi-Tsaenkhar MP Choeki Gyeltshen who asked the MoWHS minister about the status of the highway. The minister informed the National Assembly of dropping the plan from the priority list.
The current distance between Lhuentse to Ura in Bumthang is about 207 kilometres, and the proposed highway is expected to reduce the distance by around 100 kilometres.
If hand washing is the best and the cheapest way of staying clean and keep at bay the new coronavirus, there are initiatives to make people understand and give access to hand washing.
The Centenary Farmer Market (CFM) management has installed four hand washing stations along with soap at the CFM area on March 13.
CMF’s Assistant Manager, Neten, said that with the notification from the health ministry to wash our hands to protect from the COVID-19, his team had arranged the facility to help vendors and customers.
Vegetable vendors were glad with the initiative.
A 26-year-old vegetables vendor, Sonam Yangden, said that it helped them a lot. “Unlike before, we are now washing our hands frequently. Our customers are also using it and it will reduce the risk.”
“Earlier we have to wash our hands from the public toilet and we have to pay every time,” said Sonam Yangden.
Hawkers at the CFM are also happy.
Durga Ghalley, 38, from Samtse had been selling momo and tea around the CFM and town area for last three years.
He said that the initiative is cost effective. “Till now I managed tissue paper for the customers to clean their hands. I don’t take it now. Customers wash their hands directly from the tap after eating.”
The CFM team fetches water from nearby Wangchu and it is not drinkable.
People are not allowed to wash their utensils. A close-circuit camera surveillance is also placed to monitor how people are using it.
A teacher of Jigme Losel Primary School, Tshering Lham, also set up portable water containers behind the CFM on March 7 for the public to use.
“At our school, we already adopted such practice for our students and we called it tippy tap. I brought this idea to the public place amidst growing tensions of COVID-19,” said Tshering Lham.
She said that she fetched water for the first two days. “Now the residents and taxi drivers are taking their personal initiative to fill up the containers. To bring changes in the society, one must set example. People will naturally follow.”
Meanwhile, the Mawongpa Water Solution Private Limited has also installed drinking and hand washing stations around the town.
His Majesty The King visited Phuentsholing, Nganglam, and Mongar to inspect the preparedness and response measures in place against the spread of the global pandemic COVID-19.
His Majesty granted Audience to the officials of the four eastern dzongkhags of Mongar, Trashiyangtse, Trashigang and Lhuentse, in Mongar yesterday, and held discussions on the preparations in place in eastern Bhutan.
Before arriving in the East, in this second round of Royal tours along the southern belt, His Majesty held discussions with officials from Zhemgang and Pemagatshel in Nganglam, and visited various hospitals and health facilities and spoke with the frontline officials serving at border checkpoints in Phuentsholing.
“His Majesty The King has most graciously granted Kidu and waived off the interest on the loan for those who went to Japan on the Learn and Earn programme(LEP),” Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said.
The government will be paying the interest on the loans to BDBL and RICBL on behalf of the youth under the LEP in Japan.
His Majesty has also granted special Kidu to 3 youth (2 who expired and 1 who is under life support) and waived off their entire loans including interest. The loan accounts of the 3 youth will be considered closed as of March 15, 2020.
Those traveling from Phuentsholing to Samdrupjongkhar or vice versa via India need not be quarantined: Health minister.
WHO guidelines require home quarantine but we are taking stricter measures and quarantining everyone in the government quarantine centres and not taking any chances: health minister. “That is my goal as the health minister and I’m not even worried about the costs.”
Bhutan has been very proactive and cautious so we have already conducted two rounds of tests which is unprecedented and much better than the measures in place across the world: health minister.
Other countries are not testing people quarantined for COVID-19 unless they are symptomatic. Here, as a preventive measure, we test people: Health Minister.
The ministry spends Nu 1,000 a day for food of each quarantined person in the quarantine centres. The govt has provided enough budget for the centres and it is also seeking foreign support to sustain the centres: health minister.
There is no COVID-19 positive case in the country except for the American tourist who has left the country: Health minister.
Enhancing testing to ensure early detection. The health ministry has set up a testing center in Phuentsholing and another centre would soon be opened in Mongar: Health minister.
SOP to counter this disease is being changed regularly to keep up with the developments around the world so that the measures are effective: health minister.
Preventing this virus from entering Bhutan is the responsibility of each Bhutanese: Health Minister.
If those entering Bhutan are not honest with their travel history then they risk spreading the virus to their loved ones and the communities around them which may even cost lives: health minister.
Groups of doctors leaving soon to districts to assess preparedness and a pool of five doctors identified who are equipped with latest developments in treatment of the disease: health minister.
Mongar regional hospital and JDWNRH will provide intensive care to those vulnerable to COVID-19 infection: Health minister.
“Quarantine made mandatory as most of those asked to remain in quarantine did not strictly adhere to the requirements. So it is made compulsory from today and all those under quarantine will be placed in quarantine centres and monitored by health ministry. Exceptions will be made to minors”, health minister said.
85 currently in quarantine facilities and 244 quarantined at home: Health Minister.
250 tested so far and of that 6 tested yesterday.
Prayers from Bhutanese kept family going, says daughter
“The prayers, the people of Bhutan offered for my father kept my family and me going during this very difficult time.”
In an apperception letter to Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering, the daughter of the first COVID-19 patient in Bhutan, the 76-year-old American tourist, Catherine Miller, said that she was impressed by the “top notch” care her father received in Bhutan.
In an e-mail written to Lyonchhen, the daughter stated that her father arrived at the hospital at 3:30pm on March 14. “He is doing very well. He is stable and breathing over the vent, good blood pressure and heart rate. He looks great,” she wrote.
The daughter had also written to the medical staff who attended to the American tourist thanking them for the service they offered to her father when he was hospitalised from March 6 to 13.
Concerned with the patient who was evacuated in a special air ambulance on March 13, Lyonchhen Dr Lotay Tshering called the relatives of the tourist to find out the patient’s condition around midnight on Saturday.
Lyonchhen said that he received an email around 2AM yesterday from his daughter, stating that her father was in a stable condition and was doing very well.
“It was a huge relief,” Lyonchhen said. “Knowing all the travels and complications involved to transport a patient from one end of the globe to the other, around this time, I was unsettled until the flight touched base.”
“It is even more gratifying to learn that our dear friend of Bhutan, who came all the way to visit us, is with his family and personal physicians. There cannot be a better treatment than this,” Dr Lotay Tshering stated in the PMO official Facebook.
In her email Catherine Miller, stated that she has been reading all the prayers the people in your country have been posting on Facebook. “Please thank them for me,” she stated. “My friends are all so amazed that I’ve spoken to the Prime Minister of Bhutan and that even the King has been helping my dad. What an absolutely amazing country.”
“I am constantly thinking of the healthcare staff who worked so hard and put themselves at risk. They will remain in my prayers until I hear that they are well,” she stated in her email.
In relaying her message, Lyonchhen thanked all the health staff and friends for coming together to show solidarity and support in such times. “Genuine, collective prayers always work and it did this time as well,” he said.
The prime minister expressed his heartfelt gratitude to the team who relentlessly worked around the patient. He said that he would closely follow up on the health condition of Bhutan’s friend in the US and keep the public informed.
The 76-year-old American tourist left Bhutan for the US on March 13 for further medical treatment following request from his family members and in close coordination with the US government through its mission in Delhi.
Meanwhile, a fake imaginary letter of appreciation had gone viral on social media since the patient was evacuated. Many believed that the letter was written by the daughter of the patient.
Bhutanese have been found lying without filling the declaration form
Yangchen C Rinzin
The one positive COVID-19 patient, who was evacuated on March 13, arrived his state in the USA yesterday.
This brings to zero COVID-19 cases in Bhutan after the first case was detected on March 5.
However, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said that Bhutan would still remain in the “orange zone” or with moderate disruption.
Lyonchhen added that although the patient was no more in Bhutan, there was still the threat of bringing in the virus, especially through Bhutanese travellers returning home.
“Since there are no more tourists coming in, there is no risk of bringing in virus through tourists,” Lyonchhen said. “However, there is a high risk of bringing in virus through Bhutanese students studying abroad or business people who are still travelling despite requesting to minimise the travel.”
Lyonchhen said that all incoming Bhutanese should declare their entire travel history honestly at the entry points.
Bhutanese have been found lying without filling the declaration form.
Two Bhutanese businesspersons were found to have not declared their travel history on March 13. One of them had returned from USA and, at the border, they told the police that they had just gone out for shopping near the border town.
“Henceforth, whoever is found to have declared false travel history could face legal consequences,” Lyonchhen said. “The travellers depending on the situation would be either home-quarantined or put in designated quarantine centres, especially those returning from high risk countries.”
Apart from requesting people to be honest with their travel history, Lyonchhen urged people to self-quarantine at home for 14 days if they are not put in designated quarantine after returning to Bhutan.
Sixteen doctors, nurses, and health personnel who treated and attended to the American tourist are being quarantined.
The schools in five dzongkhags will reopen from March 19.
“We can only ask them [parents] to ensure that children wash their hands frequently. If any children show any kind of symptoms or fall sick, they should be kept at home,” Lyonchhen said.
Should there be any positive case, Prime Minister said that there were enough testing kits and medical equipment to tackle up to 40 positive cases.
“We don’t have enough equipment if the cases are more than 100 but it is unlikely given the precautionary measures put in place,” Lyonchhen said. “We’ve enough testing kits to test almost 5,000.”
Lyonchhen also said there were enough ventilators as of now and the health ministry has placed orders for additional ventilators and equipment.
On the command of His Majesty The King, the health ministry established the laboratory facility (RT-PCR) in Phuentsholing yesterday.
The Royal Centre for Disease Control tested samples from 238 suspects as of last Friday.
There are 62 first contacts cases in the quarantine centres; 330 secondary contacts are in self-quarantine as of now.
Lyonchhen said that after completing the 14-day quarantine, which will end on March 18, another test would be conducted and if cases prove negative, they [the cases] would be sent home.
A total of six tourists left Bhutan and there were 49 tourists in the country as of yesterday.
Tshering Namgyal | Mongar
After successful completion of the previous contract term, Yagpogang community forest (CF) management and Mongar water user groups renewed their agreement on payment for environment services (PES) in principle last week.
The parties agreed to extend the contract term to 10 from five years and also revise the payment from Nu 30 to 50 per unit on the water meter a month for the town. The rate remains the same for the Mongar regional referral hospital.
The parties came to a consensus last week in the negotiation meeting the watershed management division facilitated.
The contract term was also extended from five to 10 years.
The protected area with a buffer zone in the watershed was identified as a recharge zone with the area of 538 acres surrounding the water source, which covers more than half of the total CF area.
The first PES agreement was signed between the Yagpogang CF and water user groups in 2011 for the period of three years. This was renewed in 2015 with a new term of five years that exhausted in December 2019.
The catchment area in Yagpogang CF is the main water source that caters to the residents in Mongar town and the regional referral hospital staff. The CFM has 103 members from Yagpogang and upper Kidheykhar village. The CF covers an area of 650 acres.
Apart from protecting the recharge zone, the CFM members have to carry out certain regular activities like cleaning the stream, afforestation, guarding CF against illegal extraction of forest resources, limiting the number of cattle members can rear to five, and maintaining sanitation and hygiene, among others.
The PES scheme incentivises the CF members to protect the forest from excessive grazing and over-harvesting.
The CF members benefit with around Nu 142,000 a year from the 267 water meters at homes and business units.
Forestry officials said the payment is usually made towards the end of the year after the water committee inspection.
While the revision of the rate will add to their income, forest officials said numbers of water meters have also increased over the years and they would update the list soon.
With water becoming increasingly scarce and precious, the parties came to a quick consensus.
“All we want is the continued supply of water and payment is not an issue at all,” a resident said.
How serious are the Bhutanese when it comes to tackling COVID-19? The government has put together the country’s precious little resources together to combat the disease but the people seem to be taking it rather very lightly.
This will not help the nation keep the citizens safe.
The first (and that too, an imported case) of COVID-19 in the country flying back to the USA does not make us less vulnerable or more sheltered. The disease has come to the region and it could have a devastating impact if the neighbouring countries fail to deal effectively with it.
This has been and will continue to be Bhutan’s main concern.
Yesterday, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, held a videoconference among the heads of the SAARC governments. The leaders shared their concerns and experiences. More important, they looked at the future challenges and opportunities.
The main takeaway from the videoconference, among others, was this: the nations in the region should work together to avoid the cross-border spread of the disease. And that will require, as health advisor to the prime minister of Pakistan said, sagacity, vision and synergy of action in the region.
The regional leaders should lend full support to India’s proposal to create COVID-19 emergency fund where member countries of the SAARC can make voluntary contributions. India has already committed 10 million USD to the fund.
What is reassuring is that in the future the region could benefit immensely from a common research platform to control epidemics and other challenges.
At home, fuelled by disinformation and wanton users of social media, which is quite natural at this age and times, the Bhutanese are panicking and many have begun stocking essential items. There is really no need to hoard and stock.
Indian Ambassador to Bhutan, Ruchira Kamboj, yesterday said that even as COVID-19 concerns were spreading, there would be uninterrupted supply of goods from Indian to Bhutan.
And, no, there will never be a shutdown. Bhutanese nationals travelling and transiting to and from India can travel and transit without any trouble. India has even offered to evacuate third-country nationals stuck in Bhutan at this time through India.
However, even as the nations in the region recognise and deal with the dangers of COVID-19, success can easily be eclipsed by the failure of the citizens to look beyond self. This is the biggest danger facing the nations in the region in their fight against this novel and deadly disease.
Recently, two Bhutanese were found to have not declared, intentionally or otherwise, their travel history at an entry point. The police detained them. At such a time the country is going through, ignorance is no excuse.
Such reckless and selfish acts should be marked and dealt according to the laws of the nation because the real danger facing Bhutan today is the irresponsibility of her people.
Phub Dem | Paro
As a gateway to the country, Paro dzongkhag is still struggling to finalise standard signboards and billboards.
Four years ago, the dzongkhag tshogdu (DT), the highest decision making body in the dzongkhag discussed the issue of signboards and resolved to write to the Ministry of Work and Human Settlement.
However, the issue remained the same.
The DT recently resolved to communicate with relevant stakeholders to implement a system that will ensure appropriate use of the national language for signboards in the dzongkhag.
Local government representatives were of the view that Dzongkha spellings and grammar on signboards, including the commercial ones, were not consistent.
District culture officer of Paro, Sangay Dorji, said that there were notable spellings and grammar errors on the signboards. With major errors, he said people were coining new words.
Although there were some English titles that could be easily translated, he said that many do not do that. “If we ignore this problem and do not rectify it at the earliest, it could be a bigger problem later,” he said.
A member said that titles such as ‘Dhaba’ (local eateries in Hindi) were borrowed. He said that there were other decent local titles that could replace the word.
Shaba gup Chencho Gyeltshen said that while many commercial units have roughly translated Dzongkha titles, some do not have Dzongkha titles.
He said that Dzongkha Development Commission (DDC) should play a vital role in rectifying such errors.
Besides, some members pointed out that signboard blunders were one of the key reasons for declining national language.
The discussion called on agencies such as the department of trade (DOT) and DDC to ensure the use of uniform national language on billboards, roadside signs, and commercial advertisements.
Members said that DOT while issuing trade licenses could ensure correct spellings and appropriate words. Similarly, DDC can guide translations and spellings for the signboards.
The DT will also write to the National Assembly among other agencies.
Mangmi of Dogar gewog, Kinley Penjor said that there were no proper guidelines to regulate the use of standard appellations.
Citing the example of the Road Safety and Transport Authority, he said the vehicle registration rule demands a uniform standard in terms of size and colour for a vehicle registration plates. “Such concept should apply for signboards of commercial units,” he said. He added that standard signboards could be easily monitored considering a mandatory inspection during the renewal of trade licenses annually.
The resolution to write to the relevant stakeholders was in line with the Local Government Act. The Act states that the DT in line with its regulatory powers and functions shall regulate posting of billboards, roadside signs, posters, banners and other commercial advertisements to ensure preservation and enhancement of scenic and aesthetic beauty.
Nim Dorji | Trongsa
Come June, people of Drakteng gewog would have a three-storey one-stop service centre that would provide all gewog services.
With all the service providers scattered at present, villagers face difficulties in availing services on time.
The gewog administration, branch offices of the Renewable Natural Resources(RNR), gewog community centre are located in a different location.
Drakteng gup Kingzang Dorji said, “For example, if the people need to photocopy, they have to go to the community centre which is located in another location. After that, they have to come back to the gewog office to get the signature. They lose a lot of time.”
The gup said that once the building is completed all the service providers will be in the same building and it will be very convenient for the public.
The one-stop service centre is the first in the whole of 205 gewogs, gewog officials said.
“It will be an example for the other gewogs to follow for the benefit of the public.”
The new building will have gewog administration, RNR offices, community centre, and also offices for tshogpas.
Gup Kingzang Dorji said that if any of the financial institutions and other service providers want to open offices, gewog would provide space.
The gewog administration also plans to open ATM service in the same building after consultation with the financial institutions.
The current gewog administration office will be used as a guest house.
The construction which started in June 2019 is being constructed at the cost Nu 7.8 million from the gewog fund.
Tshering Namgyal | Lhuentse
Gorgan was once a bustling town. The town on the Mongar-Lhuentse highway was a business centre for the people from three gewogs of Tsenkhar, Jarey, and Maedtsho a decade ago.
Hundreds of villagers from these gewogs would come to Gorgan with horses and mules laden with goods to trade. Many came to collect school ration for schools in their gewogs, the world food programme (WFP) supplies from the FCB godown just below the mini-town.
Shopkeepers said the town is almost dead. Of the eight shops a decade ago, bad business has compelled to shut down at least five.
Except for a few passersby, shops and restaurants have run out of customers. Most of the shops remain mostly closed while some have explored alternatives to survive.
A shopkeeper, Norbu, said the business is down by almost 90 percent because of new gewog center and farm roads. Today, there are shops in almost every village.
“We’re forced to look for alternatives,” Norbu said.
“It’s pretty difficult to survive with the business alone, otherwise and I also have hazelnut plantation in my village as an alternative source of income.”
He grows maize and paddy cultivation and moves around to religious functions and public gatherings to sell goods.
The town tshogpa and a grocery shopkeeper, Kelzang Tobgay, said with no customers and further worsened by stiff competition from the FCB store in the locality, business had deteriorated over the years.
“Only a few old customers and some travellers turn up to buy. It’s no longer sustainable now.”
Kelzang Tobgay added that since 2009 after the farm road construction began, they began to lose business.
Norbu Rinchen who has been running a restaurant for the past six years is planning to quit. “Sometimes even paying the monthly house rent of Nu 3,000 is difficult,” Norbu Rinchen said.
Works and Human Settlement ministry allotted eight plots to the business license holders in 1984, following which they came up with two-storeyed traditional Bhutanese houses with a similar design in 2007 after the town was approved as a satellite town. Gorgan town is 35km from Lhuentse towards Mongar.
India proposes COVID-19 Emergency Fund
MB Subba & Younten Tshedup
Leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) welcomed India’s proposal to set up a COVID-19 emergency fund when they came together through a video conference yesterday to chalk out a common strategy for the region to fight the pandemic.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to contribute USD 10 million to start the fund. Any of the eight SAARC countries would be able to use the fund to meet the cost of immediate action on COVID-19.
“The fund could be based on voluntary contributions from all of us,” PM Modi said. Most of the leaders supported the proposal, saying that they would soon join the fund.
He said that foreign secretaries of the member countries through their embassies could coordinate quickly to finalise the proposed COVID-19 emergency fund.
It was the first time in five years that heads of state and government from the SAARC had come together on a single platform. SAARC leaders had last met in November 2014 at the 18th SAARC summit in Kathmandu.
Lyonchhen Dr Lotay Tshering commended the proposal and assured Bhutan’s support.
Sharing how Bhutan with His Majesty The King at the helm, successfully managed to deal with its lone COVID-19 patient who was evacuated to his home country America on the request of his family on March 13, Lyonchhen said that it is now essential that all the SAARC countries came together to fight the common enemy that know no boundaries.
He emphasised on sharing the limited resources and technology among member countries. “This would be an uphill task, which is why it’s important for all of us to be on the same page,” he said, adding that a plan should also be in place to look after the vulnerable economies in the region.
What leaders said
Thanking PM Modi for the initiative to combat COVID-19, President of the Maldives, Ibrahim Solih, said that COVID-19 had impacted the economy of his country. He supported the coordinated approach to deal with COVID-19.
“I welcome Modi’s proposal, especially on preparation of a longer term recovery plan and to form the COVID-19 emergency fund,” he said.
He said that the bilateral cooperation should be extended to benefit countries in situations like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nepal’s Prime Minister, KP Sharma Oli, said that Indian PM’s initiative was timely. He said that the region needed to ensure the continued and smooth supply of essential medicines.
“I welcome Modiji’s proposal to establish the COVID-19 emergency fund and India’s contribution in it. The pandemic is going to cost all of us dearly if it is prolonged,” he said.
He suggested that the way of greeting people with Namaste rather than shaking hands could avoid potential threat of human-to-human transmission of the disease.
Pakistan’s state minister of health, Dr Zafar Mirza, said that a calculated and deliberate response was needed to contain COVID-19. He said that COVID-19 was “deemed controllable”.
He proposed a SAARC health ministers’ conference to discuss issues related to COVID-19. He said that a regional mechanism needed to be developed to exchange disease surveillance data in real time to stop the spread of not only COVID-19, but also other diseases.
Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said SAARC countries should formulate a mechanism for the regional economy to mitigate the problems posed by coronavirus.
He emphasised the need for SAARC countries to work together not only on COVID-19, but also on similar situations in the future. He said that it was important for the countries to control the border to contain the disease.
Afghanistan President, Ashraf Ghani, proposed a common framework for telemedicine to combat the new coronavirus pandemic. He said that since India is a part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), India could help SAARC countries in learning best practices from China.
Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, expressed her hope that the SAARC countries would be able to combat the situation together. “We need to cooperate and collaborate closely to fight the pandemic. Bangladesh is ready to share its resources including human capacity and expertise.”
PM Modi said, “We all agree that we are facing a serious challenge. We can respond best by coming together. Collaboration, not confusion; preparation, not panic.”
He added that India has made special efforts to reach out to groups vulnerable to the spread of coronavirus and worked to quickly ramp up capacity in the system including through training of medical staff.
This is neither the first nor the last, that such a pandemic would affect the region, he added. For this, experts in India are brainstorming on a long-term economic plan to insulate the trade and business from possible COVID-19 impact.
A press release from the SAARC secretariat stated that the SAARC leaders recognised the unprecedented threat posed by the outbreak of COVID-19 and the urgency with which the member states needed to work together to prevent and contain the spread of the virus. They also recognised the need to analyze and address the long-term economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic in the region.
Among the proposals shared by leaders included continuing the consultation process through meetings at the ministerial and experts’ level; identifying the nodal experts to take further action on the proposals discussed during the conference; and formulating a comprehensive regional strategy against COVID-19 through the SAARC process and other appropriate mechanisms.
In his closing remark, Prime Minister Modi said that the regional cooperation and the common strategy should be a model for other countries. The videoconference concluded with a “Namaste” from PM Modi, a greeting that is becoming popular across the world as the popular handshake is seen as unsafe in the wake of the new coronavirus.