Phub Dem | Paro
With no new cases reported and no indication of community transmission after several tests, Haa dzongkhag task force began lockdown relaxation in green zones yesterday.
The dzongkhag taskforce categorised the places into zones.
Tsilungkha and Beltso village of Uesu gewog and Karjena and Nagtsho village of Katsho gewog are considered yellow zones, as there were primary contacts of the index case in Haa.
Haa throm also falls under the yellow zone after the task force carried out a risk assessment.
All other places are considered green zones.
Haa dzongdag Kinzang Dorji said the classification would change depending on health surveillance and assessment risk.
Except for those residing in yellow zones, residents can move within their gewogs, carry out agricultural works, and construction works within self-containment zones are allowed.
As per the unlocking directives, people living in green zones can enter yellow clusters but they can return after undergoing rapid antigen tests before and after undergoing home quarantine for a week.
However, movement of vehicles will not be allowed except for utility and emergency vehicles.
Only identified shops for the supply of essential goods will operate from 9am to 6pm.
Soelkha and Rimdro will be allowed with a maximum of three choeps, but residents cannot hire lam or choeps from outside the village.
A notification from the task force states that those availing medical services and wishing to visit flu clinic should call toll free number 1008 and register.
It also states people arriving from Thimphu and Paro will be home quarantined for seven days, followed by an antigen test with at least two members of the family one is staying with to complete the compulsory home quarantine protocol.
The dzongkhag activated movement within zones in Haa throm using movement cards between 10am to 4pm.
People in the yellow zone can move within their cluster only. However, activities such as construction, rimdro, loche, sports are not allowed in yellow zones.
Kinzang Dorji said that rather than complaining about the lockdown, locals were reluctant to come outside.
He said that the dzongkhag received numerous calls stating that complete lockdown must continue as they felt that there were still some risks.
“If people follow the protocols, there was no risk. If lockdown extends, there will be lots of issues related to essential items and delay in farm works.”
According to the dzongdag, locals were sceptical about unregulated movements between dzongkhags, which might bring in new cases. “People assured that they would strictly follow the protocols but movements between dzongkhag have to be monitored.”
According to travel records with the dzongkhag administration, more than 4,700 people travelled between Haa, Paro and Thimphu two weeks before the lockdown, which is almost 35 per cent of the total population in Haa.
Nima | Gelephu
Sarpang yesterday started to unlock phase-wise and the dzongkhag would reinstate the containment measures such as mandatory seven-day quarantine for outbound travellers from today.
Without any positive cases detected from flu clinics, mass screening or contact tracing carried out during the nationwide lockdown, the dzongkhag was declared a green zone.
However, it falls under the high-risk zone for Covid-19, considering the outbreak threats from the long porous border it shares with the neighbouring State of Assam, India.
Gelephu central regional referral hospital Medical Superintendent, Dr Dorji Tshering said the outbreak risk is imminent given the movement by illegal routes easily accessible since most of the seasonal streams and rivers have dried.
“It would be challenging for the frontline responders and security officials to man those informal entry points,” he said.
He added that the mandatory quarantine is the only way to ensure that the virus doesn’t spread. “There are 90 percent chances of detecting the case if they are tested after seven days period.”
The official said the border checkpoint, which was the main risk for a possible outbreak initially, was well-secured and operates in containment mode.
More than 5,000 individuals from high-risk areas, frontliners, incoming travellers, and individuals from the villages close to borders were tested for Covid-19 in the dzongkhag during the lockdown.
Mass screening was done based on random sampling.
During the mass screening and surveillance, two or three individuals tested positive on antigen tests daily. However, all tested negative on the RT-PCR tests and repeat tests were done to confirm the results.
Dr Dorji Tshering said the antigen test is known to be highly sensitive and captures lots of cases. “It also shows some false positive cases. It is just a screening test and for the confirmatory, we have to subject to the RT-PCR test,” he said.
The contact tracing and surveillance team would be conducting another round of mass screening starting from January 10 and complete the testing before transitioning to the next phase of unlocking.
The dzongkhag taskforce allowed all government offices to open but the offices in urban areas have to work at 50 percent capacity except for financial institutions.
Private training centers, schools, saloons, entertainment centers, swimming pools, organising tournaments, and social events involving more than six people are not allowed.
Non-contact sports such as badminton, tennis, and cycling are allowed without spectators. The monastic institution would operate in self-containment mode.
Religious activities and rituals would be allowed upon prior approval from the dzongkhag administration.
Dr Dorji Tshering said it was important to unlock in a controlled manner to ensure the country doesn’t fall into the track with other countries that rushed the unlocking process.
“We’ve to be doubly sure that we don’t suffer another lockdown and everybody should play a role to make it sure. We should not allow social events that favour mixing of large crowds,” he said.
The emergency and stranded travellers from other dzongkhags would be allowed to move upon the production of negative RT-PCR test results if originating from Thimphu and Paro, and antigen test results if originating from other green zones, according to the task force.
Kelzang Wangchuk | Samdrupjongkhar
The business communities in Samdrupjongkhar thromde signed an undertaking letter with the dzongkhag’s Covid-19 task force stating they would implement Covid-19 preventive measures strictly yesterday.
The undertaking letter mandates the shopkeepers to ensure all customers use Druk Trace app before entering the shops, wear mask, wash their hands before entering and exiting the shops, maintain a metre gap and follow strict physical distancing and maintain proper visitor’s register for those without a smartphone.
Although the shops have Druk Trace app and handwashing facilities, it was not implemented strictly before. Few of the Druk Trace app QR code scanning in the shops was not functioning.
Meanwhile, the task force approved the standard operation procedure (SoP) for shopkeepers, service agencies, and individuals.
As per the SoP, the monitoring team would monitor business owners’ basic preventive measures and sales assistance whether they ask the customers to follow the safety measures as their fundamental duties.
“The monitoring team would also carry out or deploy any source for covert operation to take photos and video clips if the shopkeepers do not adhere to the procedures,” it stated.
The SoP also states that people violating the rules for first time would be summoned to the police station to provide statement and they would be issued warning. “In the second time, they would be summoned to the task force committee for warning. People violating the procedures for the third time would be asked to do community service or social contributions for Covid-19 preventive measures.”
It also stated that shopkeepers violating the procedure and not contributing community service would be charged to court for penal offences.
The eastern Covid-19 task force member(EC-19TF), Gempo, said the signing of an undertaking letter is not only confined to Samdrupjongkhar but it is also implemented in other dzongkhags since last year. “It is initiated mainly to deter the shopkeepers and public and hold them accountable for health protocols.”
He said such initiative is not to penalise the shopkeepers but to make them accountable and responsible to prevent the spread of Covid-19 by adhering to the safety protocols. “It is everyone’s fundamental duties to follow Covid-19 preventive measures and make everyone follow.”
Shopkeepers said that such initiatives are good for the shopkeepers, as it would help both the shopkeepers and customers to follow the safety protocols.
A shopkeeper, Guljari Lal Sharma, said he would never let customers enter his shop if they do not follow safety measures and preventive protocols.
Thimphu Covid-19 outbreak 10 times bigger than the last outbreak
An individual who tested positive from the flu clinic in Thimphu yesterday had visited several locations including some places away from their own zone, despite existing lockdown protocol.
Sowai Lyonpo (health minister) Dechen Wangmo said that as of last night the ministry has traced around 50 people as the individual’s close contacts. This according to the minister was unacceptable given the active transmission of the virus in the community.
She said that the threat of the outbreak this time was at a more serious level. “An entire family including elders and infants have been infected with the virus this time,” she said, adding that 44 households in Thimphu were ‘quite badly’ affected.
The outbreak in the last 18 days has infected 297 Bhutanese as compared to 144 (66 Bhutanese and 78 non-Bhutanese) positive cases during the outbreak in Phuentsholing that lasted over 93 days.
Health officials said that the data collected so far indicated the current outbreak in Thimphu to be 10 times bigger than the Phuentsholing outbreak in August. On average, the country detects about 17 positive cases daily. Majority of these cases are from Thimphu.
The current outbreak had spread quite extensively across the capital city with almost 10 individuals testing positive to the virus from the 14 high-risk clusters that were screened in Thimphu.
There are 65 buildings in Thimphu, where positive cases have been detected. The health ministry has tested residents in 53 of these buildings so far from which five individuals tested positive for the virus.
“We understand that the lockdown has caused major inconveniences and many are bored staying home,” the minister said.
“However, we urge residents in Thimphu to follow the lockdown protocol strictly. Do not visit others and also do not entertain any visitors, including relatives or close friends. Visitors will only bring in the virus.”
Lyonpo recently said that every resident in Thimphu and Paro must consider themselves as infected, until proven otherwise. Of the 297 cases detected so far, almost 27 percent of them were asymptomatic. Meaning, despite contracting the virus, these individuals did not show any symptoms but equally contributed to the spread of the disease.
Of the 21 new cases detected in the last 24 hours, an active frontline worker in Lamgong, Paro tested positive from the flu clinic. This also means that Paro, like Thimphu, still has active transmission in the community.
Lyonpo said that all frontline workers were tested for Covid-19 before they were deployed for duty. All contacts of the person have been traced.
Seventeen close contacts in Thimphu also tested positive from Changzamtog, Lungtenphu, Simtokha, Dechencholing, and Babesa areas. One resident each from Yangchenphug and Babesa tested positive from the flu clinics. One of them had come for testing at the Changlimithang flu clinic before travelling to Phuentsholing.
The minister also reminded those in the green zones to be extra careful despite the implementation of the smart unlocking protocol beginning yesterday. “We will conduct randomise testing in these places after seven to eight days. Accordingly, the next phase of unlocking would be considered.”
…But it also increased pension
Yangchen C Rinzin
The salary revision for civil servants, corporate employees, and members of armed forces increased the monthly pension contribution, according to the National Pension and Provident Fund (NPPF) annual report.
NPPF received Nu 4,033.47 million (M) as monthly pension and provident fund contribution from about 65,414 members in 2019-2020 financial year. “The total contribution received in 2018-2019 was Nu 2,702.51M.
The report also stated that NPPF, however, had to pay more as pension than the contribution they received. “NPPF paid Nu 605.63M as monthly pension in the 2019-2020 fiscal year.”
It also stated the company paid Nu 891.22M as refund of provident fund contributions and other benefits although they received Nu 1,381.97M as contribution in the fiscal year 2018-2019.
According to the 2019-2020 report, while civil servants and some of the corporate members contributed 11 percent and employers contributed 15 percent, NPPF members working with Druk Holding and Investments companies contributed 15 percent and employers contributed 15 percent.
NPPF also saw a total membership of 65,414 as of June 2019, which is 8.47 percent of the total population. “However, pensioners increased to 7,643 compared to 7,038 the previous year, which is an increase of 8.4 percent,” report stated.
The average age of the members contributing was 42 years and 60 years for pensioners.
The report also claimed that despite the Covid-19 pandemic, planned activities and the projects were executed within the budget and on time. “But NPPF had to forgo Nu 180.16M in revenue as part of the monetary measures initiated by the government and Royal Monetary Authority.”
The amount was forgone to help revive the economy during the fourth quarter of the financial year, May to June 2020.
Although NPPF targeted to achieve return rate of 8 percent, NPPF managed to achieve only 7.12 percent. “This was because of the pandemic that created limited investment avenues and adverse economic conditions,” the report stated.
NPPF also generated gross revenue of Nu 2,884.84M against the targeted revenue of Nu 3,000M. The revenue also includes notional gains and losses. But the report claimed that NPPF recorded a growth of 12.94 percent in its fund size with Nu 36,146.22M to Nu 40,822.08M.
Meanwhile, NPPF sanctioned about Nu 6,800M in loans to corporate entities in various sectors including tourism, dairy, trading, and energy production.
From the total loan approved, only Nu 5,300M was disbursed where major financing of Nu 2,692M was carried out by NPPF as a part of key financing partner with Druk Air Corporation Limited. The loan amount was used in purchasing the new Aircraft Airbus Neo A320.
NPPF also refinanced Dungsam Cement Corporation Limited with loan amount of Nu 1,560M and invested Nu 55M in T-Bank Bonds, among many.
NPPF as a major sources of fund, also provided Nu 536M as soft loan to State Trading Corporation of Bhutan Limited (STCBL). The loan was invested in stocking up essential items to be used during the pandemic.
Nima | Gelephu
Gelephu police recovered bodies of a couple from a water tank used to store water for car servicing. The bodies were recovered on January 1 and 3.
Police first recovered the body of the 28-year-old wife, who was from Samtse on January 1 after a workshop staff saw the body floating in the tank. The staff reported the matter to police.
Police sources said they started searching for the 30-year-old husband, who was working in automobile workshop. His body was found two days later from the same water tank after they drained some water out of it.
The man was from Jaigaon, India. The bodies were handed over to their family members.
The water storage tank was filled with stagnant water, as it was underused and not properly covered.
Police ruled out foul play, as there were no marks on the bodies.
A workshop staff said they were together on the new year eve and the couple was under the influence of alcohol.
Nim Dorji | Trongsa
Trongsa health officials will begin mass testing in Kela village today. The village is the only place in the dzongkhag where positive Covid-19 cases were detected and remains a yellow zone.
The dzongkhag Covid-19 taskforce following the instructions from the national taskforce will begin easing lockdown in the other areas in the dzongkhags today.
A woman in Kela, who had come to perform the annual lochoe, tested positive.
Incident commander of dzongkhag Covid-19 task force, Karma Dhendup said that the village will undergo mass testing before the relaxation of the lockdown.
“The villagers of Kela are restricted to go out of their village,” he said.
Random testing will also begin in the four villages of Taktse, Bubja, Tashidingkha and Eusa today.
These villages were declared under strict surveillance after a Covid-19 positive man had visited the village.
Meanwhile, residents in other parts of Trongsa can move around without movement cards following Covid-19 health safety protocols.
The task force decided that the villagers in other places can perform annual lochoe after informing respective gewogs. The monk or gomchens performing the ritual have to be registered. However, visitors or guests are restricted.
Cremation services will be allowed with not more than 20 people including the monks.
All the regional offices will remain closed and officials have to continue working from home except gewog offices and financial institutions. The banks will function as per the roster developed by the task force.
The construction works can resume within confined mode excluding Kela, Taktse, Tashidingkha, Eusa and Bubja which are under strict surveillance.
Contractors should submit a list of workers and seek approval from the task force office.
All shops will open at 8am and close at 5pm. The shops should have handwashing facilities. No sports will be allowed. Karaoke, Bars, snooker and drayangs will remain closed.
The gewog and project authorities should monitor roadside eateries. The health services will be delivered as per the existing plan.
All residents are urged to follow Covid-19 safety protocol and health protocols. People breaching the protocol will be dealt as per the Penal Code of Bhutan.
Meanwhile, in Bumthang, Domkhar, Chamkhar throm and Chamkhar lap are identified as yellow zones. The movement in other places will be allowed.
The offices will remain closed and the residents are asked to follow Covid-19 health safety protocols.
Neten Dorji | Trashigang
The smart lockdown relaxation in Trashigang started from 6 am today.
The phase one of unlocking is for a period of one week starting from today.
Until yesterday, a member from each household was allowed movement using movement cards in respective zones for specific time. Starting today until January 12, people will be allowed to move without movement cards within the dzongkhag.
The movement of vehicles will not be allowed, except for utility and emergency vehicles.
From today, all kinds of business such as grocery, bakery and garment shop, hardware shop, restaurants and automobile workshops will be allowed to operate from 8 am to 6pm.
However, only 50 percent of restaurants are allowed to operate.
Only 20 people will be allowed for cremation services and no mass gathering (more than six) will be allowed.
“With prior approval from the dzongkhag Covid-19 taskforce, the annual rituals like lochoes and rimdro will be allowed if choeps are from within the gewogs,” said Trashigang Dzongdag Chekey Geyeltshen.
He said that the unlocking phases were initiated in consultation with eastern region task force in Samdrupjongkhar and dzongkhag task force members.
All construction works not requiring traveling beyond the dzongkhag will be allowed and inter dzongkhag movement will be allowed in emergency cases.
Taskforce members said the routine stranded travellers would be allowed to travel with an antigen test. “All antigen facilities for routine stranded travellers will be available at flue clinic,” Chekey Geyeltshen said. Travellers can register with the control room at 1198.
In Trashiyangtse, as per the protocol of national Covid-19 taskforce and eastern Covid-19 taskforce, the dzongkhag began the unlocking activities in the early hours of morning.
Trashiyangtse Dzongdag Thuji Tshering said that except for entertainment hubs like snooker, karaoke and sports activities, all kinds of business were allowed to open. “Business are not allowed to open beyond 9 pm,” he said. Only 50 percent of restaurants are allowed to open.
He said that the security personnel and dzongkhag taskforce team would monitor the situation.
Financial institutes are allowed to open with 50 percent of staff. However, schools, dzongkhag and other regional offices will remain closed.
Emergency services at the hospital would be provided for 24 hours and people with any flu-like symptoms are encouraged to visit the nearest flu clinic.
Meanwhile, the people arriving from Thimphu and Paro will be home quarantined for seven days, followed by an antigen test. “Non-adherence to the Covid-19 protocol will be dealt as per the Penal Code of Bhutan,” the notification states.
There may not be high incidences of Covid-19 positive cases in the rural part of Paro but movement restrictions have made service delivery system challenging.
Paro has been declared red zone due to significant number of Covid-19 positive cases.
In Shaba, gewog officials are reportedly overwhelmed by public demands and queries. Eight officials trying to meet the demands of 700 households can be a formidable task.
Shaba Gup Chencho Gyeltshen said that people called the official asking them to fix drinking and irrigation water issues, chase cattle and horses away from their fields, among other reasons.
“From arranging veterinary officials to animal feeds and making television lines, we do everything,” said Chencho Gyeltshen.
Banking services, Chencho Gyeltshen, said has been one of the biggest issues during the lockdown period. “The dzongkhag taskforce has asked the bank officials to solve the issues as soon as possible.”
People are worried about seasonal works getting delayed, shortage of fodders and rising cases of domestic violence, he said.
This is the time of year when the people in Paro prepare land to grow wheat, fodder, potato and water their apple orchards. It is also the time for many annual rituals.
Naja Gup Kinley Wangdi said that there was no major problem in his gewog. He said that three days after the nationwide lockdown, the gewog stocked up all the essential goods and animal feeds.
Located away from the risk of infection, he said that residents could do their usual household and farm works.
In Sombaykha and Gakiling in Haa
Gakiling Gup Gashey said that the lessons from the first lockdown came in handy. Essential items have been stocked to last at least a month. “Movements are allowed within the gewog. There is no problem.”
“Vegetable from the lower part of Haa will soon reach the upper parts of the dzongkhag.”
With vaccination seen as the only solution to put an end to the Covid-19 pandemic, the focus is now on securing the Coronavirus vaccine.
Many countries have started vaccinating their population. Besides scepticism, neighbouring India has approved the vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca pharmaceutical company, and a locally made vaccine, Covaxin. The government and health experts, on the command of His Majesty The King, has been working on vaccine procurement for the last seven months.
Keeping in mind that the country’s access to the Covid-19 vaccine is through the COVAX Facility, which would vaccinate only about 20 percent of the population, the government is exploring other possibilities to ensure that all the people in the country, including expatriates, are vaccinated.
Vaccinating the whole population is going to be expensive. The need is about a million dosages. The Oxford vaccine at today’s price roughly costs about Nu 200 to Nu 300 a dose. This would mean that the cost of vaccinating the population would come around Nu 200 or 300 million.
The amount may not look alarming, but at a time when our health system is overburdened by the pandemic and the economic growth is at its slowest, it is a lot of money. If the vaccines are made available, the priority is to roll it as soon as possible. Given our population, our requirement is not much, but the demand for cheaper and logistically convenient vaccines is from all over the world.
The government is ready with a procurement strategy, but not with the fund. Resources will be explored to shield the people from the virus. The government will beg or borrow to ensure that no Bhutanese are left out. It is in His Majesty’s wisdom that the burden of the pandemic should not be passed down to the people. Therefore, we have people living on kidus and economic measures.
However, the positive side is that Bhutanese are willing to share the burden. The pandemic has caused people to lose income and disrupted livelihood. But all are not in the same boat. There are many not affected, if not benefited from the several fiscal and monetary policies the government initiated on the command of His Majesty The King.
From the last lockdown, we have seen how Bhutanese have come forward to help fight the pandemic and its impact. From sacks of potatoes to cash contributions, Bhutanese from all walks of lives readily contributed. Some had, without advertising, paid the quarantine charges otherwise paid for by the government.
The cost of vaccines will leave a huge dent on the government’s coffer. The people could come forward to ease this burden. What if those who can afford to pay Nu 200 or 300 pay for their own vaccine? What if the salaried group, civil servants, corporate and private sector employees contribute Nu 1,000 to a vaccine fund? What if those benefited in the millions contribute 5-10 percent of the benefits they enjoyed from loan interest waivers, for instance?
The amounts suggested are not huge at an individual level, but it would ease the burden on the government when the country is going through a rough time. Many spend at least a thousand Ngultrum buying junk food, tobacco and alcohol even during the lockdown. The cost of a packet of cigarettes could cover vaccinating two fellow Bhutanese.
Although it has been suggested, more than once, that the people be made to pay for some health services in Bhutan, it was out of compassion for the large rural majority that our monarchs insisted on free health services for the Bhutanese people.
Times have changed and we are dealing with a pandemic. Experts say that there could be Covid-20 or Covid-21 given the nature of the coronavirus. Many countries are reeling under a new wave of infection from a new variant at the end of 2020. The danger is not over.
Fighting the pandemic has been costly at all fronts. The sustenance of the health system is the most crucial during a pandemic.
The generous contribution to the Covid-19 fund comes as a fresh food for thought. Perhaps it is time that we started helping ourselves by paying for basic services. We will start valuing the services and facilities while we will be in a better position to question the quality and efficiency of health delivery systems.
The citrus mandarin (orange) export business which demands intensive labour to grade and pack has been hampered while the business is already reeling under the lockdown restrictions.
Exporters in Gelephu are struggling to clear the stocks in depots and unload oranges coming from the orchards with an acute shortage of workers. .
Exporters claim vehicles have to wait for days to unload. An exporter from Paro, Tsenda Dorji, said there are 45 Bhutanese workers in his depot involved in grading, packing, loading and unloading. “The work output was not as expected.”
He said the local workers lack experience and not so effective. “We usually deploy 30 Indian workers and they could pack two truckloads daily but this time the workers could hardly ready one truckload.”
He also said when there is delay in grading, packaging and loading as more oranges are brought from the orchard, oranges gets damaged. “In the beginning, there was less supply of oranges and workers complained of not having any work. Now they prefer to leave as the workload increased.”
More than 20 workers deployed with the help of the regional labour office left the work because of wage rate and long working hours, according to exporters and workers.
Most of the workers are paid based on the number of boxes they pack, grade, and load. More than 300 youth and women were employed for the export.
A worker, Karma Yangzom, from Sarpang said the work was heavy, as they have to work for 24 hours sometimes. “We don’t get to wash our face. The labour office told us we would be working for nine hours but it’s different here. The wage rate is not fixed yet. It’s verbally said that we would be given Nu 15 per box for packing.”
She said the labour office told them they would also be paid Nu 5,000 but they did not receive it yet.
Another worker, Rinchen Zangmo, said the owners were supportive and coordinated the work well. “We work individually and it’s often competitive. Those who left were not physically fit. Some were underage,” she said.
Exporter said many workers left after officials from RENEW informed them that underage children were not allowed to work. Most of them were employed through a labour office in Gelephu to meet the labour shortage.
Exporter Sangay from Paro said there was an agreement signed to ensure they work till the export is over. “But, we couldn’t stop, as they couldn’t work.”
Regional Secretary with Bhutan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (BCCI), Kelzang, said there would be more supply from farmers this month. “We have informed exporters to bring in experienced workers to meet the shortage.”
Officials say about 200,000 farmers, who depend on oranges, would be affected if the export doesn’t happen as planned.
Kelzang said the supplies would be diverted to other depots in Phuentsholing where there is no labour shortage to ensure farmers’ products are not damaged.
He also said exit time for vehicles from border gate was also extended from 6pm to 9pm to help the export. “Taskforce rendered all required support.”
Following the completion of the 14-day nationwide lockdown, smart-unlocking protocol begins in the green zones today.
However, Sowai Lyonpo (health minister) Dechen Wangmo cautioned the public that unlocking doesn’t mean that there was no virus in the community.
Lyonpo said that everyone, especially those in Thimphu and Paro should consider themselves like an infected person until proven otherwise. Meaning, public gathering was strictly restricted despite the unlocking and relaxation of the lockdown.
She said that despite the enforcement of lockdown, people were found violating the protocols which led to further spread of the virus in Thimphu.
Citing an example, Lyonpo said that residents in Depsi area had gathered to celebrate Nyempa Guzom, a day after lockdown began in Thimphu Thromde. Similarly, in Terma Linca area, people had visited their neighbours and had shared meals.
In Olakha some of the residents had come together to gamble and share meals. “We knew this when we started getting cases from these locations. The very purpose of lockdown is defeated if people keep on breaching the protocols.”
Lyonpo said that unlike the outbreak in August that triggered the country’s first nationwide lockdown, the outbreak this time was different — deadlier and uncertain. “Until the recent outbreak, Bhutan did not have the virus in the community. But not anymore.”
The minister said that after conducting the epidemiological assessment of the current outbreak, experts in the health ministry suspects that the source of the infection could be a returnee who had come via the Paro international airport.
Officials said that there were indications that an individual could have been exposed to the virus after arriving in the country. This was also considering the individual had stayed in quarantine for 21 days.
While the ministry’s investigation is ongoing, safety measures at the airport have been stepped up to prevent any possible future outbreaks.
Lyonpo said that following the detection of the index case on December 19, the ministry, suspecting the source to be from across the border, swept all the entry points along the border. None of the individuals tested positive.
She said that based on the investigation, most of the positive cases had contracted the infection between the end of November and the first week of December. The infected individual had travelled from Paro to Thimphu, she said, adding that in Thimphu the person had been to an archery game in Dangreyna, Dechencholing from where the disease started spreading in Thimphu and then in Paro.
“The use of safety measures such as face masks, washing hands, and maintaining social distancing, prevented a massive outbreak in the country,” she said.
The minister added that the country this time around got lucky as the outbreak was detected at an early stage when the transmission was in an acute phase. “However, next time we might not be so lucky. My fear is that in the future if there is an outbreak, it could spread like wildfire. We cannot afford that.”
Preventing the next outbreak should be a collective responsibility, Lyonpo added. “The ministry will do everything possible to make testing available for the public and treat those who are infected. This is the ministry’s responsibility.”
If all Bhutanese follow the safety measures — wearing face masks, washing hands regularly, and avoiding crowds — as their second nature, and report and get tested for every flu-like symptom, it would be a more effective way to keep the virus at bay than a vaccine. “This is every individual’s responsibility.”
Meanwhile, there were no new cases detected in the country yesterday.
PM assures vaccine procurement but says not to pin all hopes on the vaccines
Bhutan’s access to the Covid-19 vaccine may not be the COVAX Facility alone. It emerged yesterday that the government was also in discussion with the Government of India to procure the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.
Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering last evening said that amidst the global demand for the vaccines that have received the emergency use authorisation (EUA), Bhutan, like many other countries, was expecting support from neighbouring India.
India on Sunday approved the EUA for two Covid-19 vaccines — Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and Covaxin, the country’s first indigenous vaccine.
Lyonchhen said that although about four vaccines had currently received the EUA and were approved for public use, in the present scenario, it was difficult to procure the vaccines used in the US and other European countries.
He said that this was mainly because of the high demand and limited production capacity of the manufacturers. “We have communicated with all of them and they have assured their support as well.”
However, he said that given logistics aspects including the cost, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was the ideal candidate for Bhutan for now.
This was also because India locally manufactured the vaccine under the name Covishield.
The world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, Serum Institute of India, locally manufactures the Covishield vaccine and is capable of producing around 50 million doses in a month.
Lyonchhen said that India would soon start administering the vaccine among their population, and it was hoped that Bhutan too would receive some dosages as it began. For this, extensive studies and budget for the procurement were all worked out, he added.
The prime minister said that on the command of His Majesty The King, about seven months ago, health experts and the government started working on the vaccine procurement modalities. “Extensive discussions have taken place on this matter.”
He said that because the vaccines were newly developed, there were no existing procurement strategies or a regulation guide on the side effects of such vaccines, should there be any.
He said that the government has completed developing a procurement strategy and regulations to monitor the side effects of the vaccine, including a distribution strategy as and when the vaccines arrive.
“We would require at least a million dosages to vaccinate all the people in the country and not just the Bhutanese citizens,” he said. “And if we don’t get the required quantity at once, we have prioritised who would get it first.”
Health and frontline workers would be the first to receive the vaccines including security personnel and volunteers working during the pandemic. Around 80,000 people have been line-listed in this group.
The next batch of recipients would include elderlies with pre-existing medical conditions. Active population including public transportation drivers would be in the next group, before administering the vaccine to the general population.
All logistical arrangements were in place, said Lyonchhen. However, he said that pinning all hopes on the vaccine would be unwise.
“Even if we get the vaccine, the worry is on the level of protection it would provide,” he said. “The government will ensure the procurement of vaccines, but its effectiveness and the extent of protection is still a question.”
Meanwhile, experts in India have raised concerns over India’s EUA approval of the Covaxin, the country’s first indigenous vaccine against Covid-19, before the completion of trials.
Experts say that there were concerns arising from the absence of the efficacy data from Phase III trials and lack of transparency.
However, Indian authorities have assured that the vaccine was safe and “provided a robust immune response.”
Phurpa Lhamo | Gasa
The 58-year-old man in Lunana who had earlier tested positive on the rapid antigen test was discharged from the facility quarantine after he tested negative on December 31.
The man was released after six days in the facility quarantine.
The man had visited the Lunana Primary Health Centre with flu-like symptoms on December 25.
Following the positive result on the rapid antigen test, 10 close contacts of the man were also tested for the Covid-19. All contacts—four telecom staff and six family members—tested negative.
Gasa dzongkhag administration official said that RT-PCR tests were also conducted on the family members in Punakha. All tested negative.
Lunana Gup Kaka said that while the people in Lunana were alarmed by the news, situation calmed as soon as it was confirmed that it was a false positive case.
Rajesh Rai| Phuentsholing
Supply of vegetables in Phuentsholing during this lockdown has been better than the distribution in the first lockdown, which left many frustrated.
Food Corporation of Bhutan Ltd (FCBL) changed its distribution technique.
Rather than distributing to individual households like in the first lockdown in August last year, FCBL distributed vegetables to retail outlets covering all the zones from Toorsa settlement to Pasakha.
There are 105 retail outlets that buy from FCBL and cater the people.
A retailer, Sonam Chenzom said the supply of vegetables from FCBL was enough this time.
“Both local vegetables and imported ones are available,” she said.
Although the profit margin was slimmer, supply was plenty and the price had also dropped.
Sonam Chenzom said she purchased watermelon at Nu 30.99 a kg from FCBL and sold at Nu 40. Potatoes bought at Nu 32.97 per kg are sold at 40.
Retailers are also given the choice to either pick up the vegetables from FCBL auction yard or have it delivered to their shops.
Sonam Chenzom said the only problem was that some vegetables come spoiled.
“But we can immediately return the rotten vegetables and fruits,” she said.
Another, retailer, Dorji Khandu also said that damaged vegetables came mixed with the good ones.
“The good thing is the price has decreased,” he said. “We go to the FCBL auction yard to get the vegetables every one to two days.”
Just before the lockdown, potato was sold at Nu 70-80, today it is Nu 40 a kg.
Dorji Khandu said the supplier across the border kept the rates high, which had caused the price to go higher in Phuentsholing. Suppliers were selling the potato from the cold storage, at a time when Bhutanese potatoes exhausted in the market, he added.
To cater to the needs of the people residing at the temporary settlement area in Toorsa, FCBL also opened grocery and vegetable shops within the settlement.
A resident Tendrel Zangmo said it got so much easier now to fetch vegetables.
FCBL’s director of corporate services, Lhakpa Sherpa said, “The organisation has close contacts with the suppliers across the border.”
He said the earlier rate by the vendors were high because the purchasing price vendors paid was higher than the current retail price and profit put together.
“Should the lockdown continue, we are still trying to bring down the price,” Lhakpa Sherpa said.
Between December 23, when lockdown began, and January 3, FCBL distributed 82.7 metric tonnes (MT) of vegetables, 18.5MT fruits, and 442.5kgs of livestock products, including meat. FCBL also distributed about 2.5MT of vegetables and dairy products that were purchased from the domestic market.
Chimi Dema| Tsirang
With the demand for oranges dropping by almost eighty percent compared to past years, local exporters are worried.
According to Tsirang-based exporter, Dina Nath Adhikari, who exports oranges to Bangladesh, importers place order only for a truckload of orange in two days.
“With this trend, it would be difficult to complete the export even by May.”
He said that exporters receive orders for only three truckloads for a letter of credit (LC). “In the past, we receive orders for at least 15 trucks in an LC.”
Dina Nath Adhikari also said delay in providing LC is also affecting the business. “I could only export 30 percent of oranges since the export began on December 15.”
In absence of smooth export, he said that he had to throw away perished goods worth Nu 200,000. “If things don’t improve within a week, I am planning to close my depot as I am running into loss now.”
Another exporter who supplies oranges from Tsirang and Dagana said that the shortage of labour for grading and packing at the depot is impeding export. “Reduced price of oranges is also disappointing.”
As per the LC, each box of small orange earned about Nu 875 (USD 12) and a box of big orange earned Nu 1,094 (USD 15).
In addition to the impact of the current pandemic on the export market, exporters assume that the drop of orange demand could also have been caused by absence of importers from Bangladesh inspecting the products.
A group of importers are in facility quarantine.
The exporters also said that it would benefit farmers if local food processing industries buy the oranges.
This winter, it is not the water pipes blocked by ice that are leaking. Important information during pandemic times when people are glued to the television, the only source of first-hand information, are leaking too.
On Sunday night, a detailed lockdown unlocking strategy and activities that would be allowed from the National Covid-19 Taskforce went viral. Many were convinced that the three-page document, with the government seal, was final. Before it could be confirmed as to whether it was only a document work in progress, the document had reached almost every Bhutanese with a social media app.
The government stopped mainstream media from publishing it on the grounds that they should not be party to informal sources. The media could wait. Changes in the final strategy could confuse people, some of whom are eagerly waiting for relaxation.
If the leak was deliberate to test the mood or the reaction of the people, there was not much hue and cry even with the movement in the capital city and Paro strictly restricted. The two dzongkhags are in the red zone. People know the severity of the pandemic this time and are ready to bear the inconveniences.
The first lockdown was for 21 days. Many expected that dzongkhags with full-blown community transmission, Thimphu and Paro, would not open at least before 21 days. The government extended the lockdown until after Nyilo, January 2. It said that the strategy would be announced after the festivities of New Year and Nyilo.
The gap or lack of clear information made people, locked inside homes and eagerly waiting for the prime minister or the health minister on the national television for information, impatient. The information that got leaked by some excited officials privy to the document didn’t help.
Meanwhile, social media has become the preferred platform for information sharing, even crucial information. Not many differentiate real or false information. The risk is when leak happens, especially if it is half-cooked information. Perhaps it could be a lesson for all of us in our dependence on social media.
The information leaked didn’t have any repercussion this time. The ice thawed and the flow of information is now clear. The Prime Minister last evening announced a detailed unlocking strategy starting with the dzongkhags without any positive cases, green zones.
The request is to cooperate with the strategies the government worked out with medical and other experts. Knowing the risk, the people had been cooperative so far. Like the Prime Minister said, if we are to succeed in this fight against the virus, it is the responsibility of all of us to stay in the fight together.
The worst days are gone, but the battle is not over yet. A few more days of staying together could achieve the purpose of the lockdown and controlling the disease. Everybody wants this to end. We can end this together.
Thimphu police recorded 13 cases of breaching Covid-19 zone protocol in the ongoing lockdown.
According to police sources, of the 13 people who breached the zone protocol, eight were sent on surety agreement and five, who are repeated offenders were detained.
“They would be charged for breaching public order and tranquillity after the lockdown,” Thimphu’s officer-in-command, Gembo Penjor said.
Police and DeSuup patrolling team apprehended three people who crossed zones on new year eve.
Police also recorded seven cases of domestic violence and four cases of larceny and burglary.
All people involved in the cases were sent on surety agreement.
OC Gembo Penjor said that the crime branch and DeSuup patrolling team were conducting patrolling round the clock through the zones to ensure people did not breach lockdown protocols.
It was learnt that the patrolling team also came across eight homeless people, who were handed over to relevant authorities and are staying in shelter at Rinchen Kuenphen Primary School.
During the first lockdown at least six people were detained for a night.
In the first lockdown, 102 crimes were reported in the first 16 days.
According to the OC, people were aware of lockdown protocols during the second lockdown. “We have terms and conditions for calling suspects to the police station. There is a designated vehicle to ferry the suspects to and from the police station.”
He said that both police personnel and suspect have to undergo Covid-19 test and only after testing negative, police would bring him to the police station. “The vehicle is disinfected once it enters police station.”
Gembo Penjor also explained about suspects who should be detained would be first detained in temporary detention and would spent seven days in isolation room before moving to the detention centre. “He or she should test negative for Covid-19.”
He said there are 270 police personnel with Thimphu police station. “We do not entertain walk-in cases, as we have to ensure everyone is safe and are not infected with the virus.”
Neten Dorji | Trashigang
As the second nationwide lockdown continues, farmers in Mongar are busy harvesting vegetables, packing, and transporting them to dzongkhags such as Thimphu, Bumthang, Pemagatshel, Trashigang, and Trashiyantse.
Mongar has supplied more than 19 metric tonnes (MT) of vegetables to Thimphu, 6.3MT to Nganglam, about 7MT to Bumthang and 2.3MT to Trashigang and Trashiyangtse.
Sangay Dorji of Chali has been growing vegetables for two decades. This week alone, he made around Nu 80,000 from vegetables.
Another villager, Sither Wangmo, has been growing vegetables on her 20-decimal land. She made about Nu 30,000 this week.
“Understanding the situation in the country, we sell the vegetables at reasonable prices,” she said.
Dzongkhag Agriculture Officer, Kinzang Tshering, said all kinds of varieties of vegetables were available in Mongar, except onion and tomato. “We collected vegetables from all the gewogs and transported them to other dzongkhags.”
He said that the dzongkhag’s aim was to produce vegetables from the lower region during the lean season.
“We have identified collection points and allowed only one person to drop and register their produce,” said Dorji Tshering, a senior agriculture supervisor of Drametse.
He said that two vegetable groups – the Gope Gomen’s Group and Waichur Phunssum Chigthuen in Drametse supply vegetables mostly to Trashigang town.
Since the second nationwide lockdown began last month, Bhutan Livestock Development Corporation Limited (BLDCL) has aggregated and supplied 4,420 kilograms (kgs) of cheese, 1,912kg of butter, 4,226 cartons of eggs, 6,586kg of chicken, and 1,302kg of rainbow trout in Thimphu Thromde.
The products were domestically produced and replenished periodically according to market needs.
Chief Executive Officer of BLDCL, Jigme Wangchuk, said that the corporation did not have to supply in the other dzongkhags. “The products are supplied by other dzongkhags and it will be sufficient during the entire lockdown period.”
Livestock products were procured from Bumthang, Chukha, Haa, Paro, Dagana, Samtse, Sarpang, Tsirang, and Wangdue. Tsirang livestock sector supplied 384 cartons of eggs, 2,500 balls of cheese, and 50kg butter on December 25.
Tsirang produces an average of 900 cartons of egg a week.
More than 6,000kg of beef, 1,371kg of pork, and 1,524kg fish were imported and supplied within the thromde.
Owing to high demand for meat, 13 meat shops were allowed to open towards the end of last month.
Jigme Wangchuk said that BLDCL had distributed to identified shops in different zones within the thromde which eased the process unlike the first lockdown.
During the first lockdown, BLDCL had to make home delivery in super zones and peripheral zones. “It was a daunting task,” he said.
“This time, we identified our frontline responders as per the zones and these responders continually supplied to the same zone,” he added.
He said that the corporation now has enough portable freezers and refrigerators to store the products. Due to shortage of cold storage and problems in transportation, 13,000kg of chicken were damaged during the first lockdown.
“There won’t be issues now with the storage since the temperature is low, although livestock products have a shorter shelf life,” he said.
BLDCL is yet to complete a 10 metric tonnes cold store at Serbithang.