Yangchen C Rinzin
March 23, 2020, will probably be remembered in the history of tourism in Bhutan as the day when there was only one tourist in the country.
Since the day Covid-19 was first detected in the country, all tourists gradually left Bhutan after the government banned the entry of tourists. The last four tourists left Bhutan on Monday.
The only tourist left in the country is the woman who tested Covid-19 on March 20. The tourist is in isolation at the national referral hospital.
The usually busy tourist hotspots like the Memorial Choeten, Kuenselphodrang (Buddha Point), or the Craft Bazaar along the Norzin Lam in Thimphu today wear a deserted look.
The first case of Covid-19 was detected in the country on the same day when Bhutan received an award for the “Best Destination: Happy Tourism” by the Pacific Asia Travel Writers Association.
Bhutan technically has zero tourists in the country for the first time since tourism opened its door in 1974.
There were more than 1,000 tourists in the country at the time when the first Covid-19 case was reported.
Tourism began in Bhutan in 1974. The travel to the east was opened first in 1989.
The number of tourists visiting Bhutan increased to almost 2,000 by 1981 and it kept increasing every year. By 2019, the country began receiving more than 200,000 tourists.
With only single tourist remaining and the government’s indefinite ban on tourism, TCB’s director general, Dorji Dhradhul, said that this was unprecedented and had mixed feelings of loss and opportunity.
“I say loss because the number of tourists has reduced to one and impact on tourism is vivid,” he said. “However, we’re taking it as an opportunity to begin tourism with a new face.”
The ban has resulted in a national revenue loss of USD 4.4 million based on a total of 2,550 international tourist cancellations due to Covid-19 between January 15 and March 23. This is excluding cancellations from regional tourists.
Dorji Dhradhul said that Bhutan was taking intense measures to contain the Covid-19 outbreak. The government, he added, was also working to keep those in the tourism and other affected sectors gainfully employed.
“We’re also working on a tourism recovery plan and even looking beyond like domestic tourism and wellness and wellbeing tourism,” he said.
He explained that in domestic tourism, which is yet to take off, it could popularise pilgrimages and other forms of spiritual tourism in the country, including adventure-based tourism.
Coming to wellness and wellbeing tourism, he said that Bhutan had been until now promoted as a destination with a unique culture and pristine nature but had much more to offer.
Dorji Dhradhul said that with Bhutan being known as the land of medicinal herbs in its olden days, peaceful surroundings, and with GNH, Bhutan makes a great potential destination for these travellers to reflect, relax and rest.
“We would work to expand on that new initiative and take Brand Bhutan to the next level,” he said. “For now, we can only wish the lone tourist speedy recovery,” Dorji Dhradhul said.
There are speculations surrounding the incubation period of the novel coronavirus. Many are convinced that two weeks is not enough, as new studies indicate that it takes some people much longer to develop symptoms after they are exposed to the disease.
At home, the second person to test positive was confirmed 28 days after coming into contact with her 76-year-old partner. This caused more doubts about the duration of the mandatory quarantine. What if the woman was allowed to leave after 14 days?
The doubts heightened after the guide and the driver, both first contacts, were immediately called back for mandatory quarantine. Both tested negative after the fourth test.
The joint committee of the Parliament is recommending the government to increase the quarantine period. There are people calling for the same.
The incubation period is a critical factor in controlling the spread of the disease. Although the World Health Organisation estimated the incubation period of Covid-19 to be up to 14 days, the upper limit was based on observation of a small number of SARS cases. With the outbreak now going beyond control, many, based on research and analysis, are recommending extension of the quarantine period, especially for adults to 21 days.
The partner maybe an outliner, but scientists have found that nearly 1 in 8 patients had incubation times longer than 14 days, leading them to question whether current quarantine recommendations are optimal.
Another key factor, experts are considering, is the time between the infection and becoming infectious or positive. This was found to be happening shorter or longer than the incubation period, implying that an asymptomatic person, like the partner of the American tourist, may be able to transmit the virus even if not tested positive.
Experts are still exploring the transmission dynamics of the Covid-19. Considering the doubts, many suggest effective quarantine management – top on the list is increasing the quarantine period.
Much remains unknown about how the virus is transmitted. Given our shortage of expertise both in research and resources, it is wise to consider the findings of new studies and recommendations. Our focus today is still on preventive care. We are fortunate that not a single Bhutanese tested positive. All this while we believed that prevention is our best treatment.
It may cause inconvenience to those quarantined. But words coming from the quarantine facilities are encouraging. Many are convinced that quarantining is a preventive measure and not a detention centre to punish people.
They care for their family, relatives, parents, the community and the nation. There are cooperating and appreciating the measure the government, with His Majesty The King’s guidance, has taken in safeguarding the country and its people.
We are also fortunate that most quarantined are in facilities that are better than many facilities around the world. The mental stress and the loneliness can be understood, but given the risks of the pandemic, it is a small sacrifice. And most understand it.
There are ways to make those in quarantine feel at home. One common complaint is on the free meals served. We could improve the quality for the big sacrifices they make.
Neten Dorji | Samdrupjongkhar
With most of the automobile workshops and shops in Samdrupjongkhar closed after the border was sealed on March 23, local truckers have assumed the role of mechanics.
A trucker, Sangay is busy with his new responsibility. He and his friends are replacing spare parts to their trucks.
“With the closure of Indo-Bhutan border gate, mechanics are restricted to come as day workers,” he said.
Eastern Automobile workshop manager, Sonam Choden said that the workshop has to close down until the situation of pandemic coronavirus disease improves. “It is difficult to get Bhutanese mechanics. Even when they join, they don’t stay long.”
She said her automobile workshop has 10 Indian labourers working as day workers.
The workshops don’t have other alternatives besides relying on Indian labourers as local workers quickly move to other firms.
Another workshop owner, Jamyang Wangyel said that most of the workshops depend on day workers from across the border.
“Maximum of 10 and at least seven labourers are day workers in all seven workshops,” he said.
With the business down, he is worried about paying the monthly salary and annual income taxes next month. “Though we are affected by Gyalpoizhing-Nganglam highway, it is the worst this time,” he said. “I was forced by the dealer in India to clear my dues.”
According to automobile workshop owners, 90 percent of local businessmen in Samdrupjongkhar depend on day workers.
Sonam Dorji, another workshop owner said, “It was good business before Covid-19.” He said the monthly income was sufficient to pay taxes and salaries for labourers. “But now I don’t know.”
He said until the Covid-19 issue is over, there are no alternatives for him. “I don’t think we would reopen the workshop if the disease continues,” he said.
Workshop owners said that sometimes they could earn around Nu 80,000 per month from his workshop.
Some said most of the income goes into paying the labourers from outside. “It is time to realised and work towards economic growth of our own country,” a workshop operator said.
He said that all citizens have to think before depending on everything on the outsiders.
A hotel owner in town said that Covid-19 has given them a lesson. “We realised that depending on the outsiders too much is not good.”
She said that most of the Bhutanese don’t want to work in hotels and that has forced all hoteliers to have a minimum of two Indian day workers. “We don’t have other options other than employing Indian workers.”
One of the residents said that the coronavirus crisis has caused a huge human and economic loss in the locality. But it has also united as human beings, as all family members are together.
Meanwhile, after closing down all entry points across the country, the Samdrupjongkhar town became silent and empty. Not many travellers are seen around the town.
About 700 tour guides, mostly freelancers, have registered with the Guides Association of Bhutan (GAB) to take up jobs in various sectors in Covid-19’s wake.
The registered guides are currently undergoing orientation programme on the nature of the jobs, conducted for half an hour for seven to eight individuals to avoid mass gathering.
GAB expects to deploy the laid-off guides and start the work by next month. GAB’s executive director, Sonam Tashi said: “About 70 percent of the freelancers would be involved in these jobs.” He added that the jobs were in the unskilled sector and to avoid future complaints, GAB was familiarising them with the nature of the jobs and the pay scale.
Depending on the severity of the guides’ economic condition and source of income, the jobs would be given to those with immediate need. Most of the jobs are within the Thimphu thromde areas.
Tourism Council of Bhutan is expected to involve 260 guides in the tourism-related activities such as building roadside amenities and maintaining trekking trails.
As of now, two contractors have approached GAB asking to deploy about 30 guides to work in the construction sector.
“GAB is in the process of drafting proposals to involve guides in income generating activities,” Sonam Tashi said.
There are more than 4,000 tour guides in the country.
The Hotel and Restaurant Association of Bhutan has also developed an action plan to engage laid-off workers in the hospitality sector. The plan is being reviewed by the executive authorities.
A few days ago, labour ministry announced that the employer paring down employee must comply with the Section 91 clause (a), (b) and (c) of the Labour and the Employment Act of Bhutan 2007. The employers should submit a written notification to the ministry.
In an earlier announcement, the ministry asked the affected employers and employees to register on the labour ministry’s website.
However, according to an official, the registration is currently on hold as there is need for clarity on the clauses.
Wangduephodrang police detained a 45- year-old man on March 23 for voluntary manslaughter of a 50- year old man.
According to police, the suspect stabbed the victim outside the Nyisho gewog office. “At that time they came to the gewog office to settle an extramarital affair case,” a source said.
The incident took place on the afternoon of March 23.
The victim was confirmed dead on reaching the nearby Nyisho basic health unit (BHU) due to excessive bleeding.
Both the suspect and the victim were from the same gewog.
Nyisho Gup Dorji Dorji said that the suspect lodged a complaint to the gewog office against the deceased saying that he had an extramarital affair with his wife. “The suspect doesn’t have proof when we verified it.”
“Since there was no proof, the gewog administration requested them for a compromise. Both of them agreed and departed for lunch. We informed them that by the time they return from lunch break, the agreement letter will be signed,” said the gup.
However, gup said that the incident took place during lunch break which was outside the gewog office boundary. “It was shocking. The suspect might have hidden the weapon outside.”
Five to six cases related to extramarital affairs occur in the gewog every year, according to gup.
“If the Covid-19 situation becomes better, gewog is planning to sensitise the people more on the issue.”
Wangdue police said that they have been advising people not to carry weapons while visiting offices.
The case is still under investigation.
What is it like to be in quarantine?
A knock comes on the door. One gets used to a health official with a digital thermometer waiting outside. This happened at least thrice a day.
I am among the 34 Bhutanese quarantined in Tsherim Resort, Paro. Most are students who had to return home after schools and colleges abroad closed due to covid-19 scare. I had to leave my college and return home immediately after the state government of Tamil Nadu asked all educational institutions in the state to close down.
Coming home this time was a different experience. Airports looked more like a hospital. Onboard Drukair from Kolkata everyone was wearing a facemask. After landing in Paro, we were taken to the resort. I was reading reports about quarantine and self-isolation, about people in Wuhan and in Milan singing from balconies while in quarantine.
When one is shut-in for two weeks, I find myself doing the same. I read. I look out the window. There is not much else to do anyway. This is my 5th day of my quarantine. All I do or am allowed to do is open the door for meals and routine health services. If any of us developed Covid-19 symptoms, we are to call health official immediately.
Television and the Internet help. I keep myself informed about the situation in the country. But then, I have also come to realise that too much information can be dangerous. Because I flew home from Chennai via Kolkata, I sometimes feel I might have contracted the disease. Worries can make a person weak. One begins to feel unwell.
The more I think about all these things, I do not want to even cough. I am all right but I feel like my breathing fast and short. Battling and winning over panic is important, I know. It ain’t, though. The moment I realise I am thinking too much, I try to read to distract myself. Physical exercises I found the most useful.
I also get frequent calls from home. My mother makes it a point to call me daily. She is in Radhi, Trashigang. Worried, she enquires if I have developed some symptoms. It is comforting to know that she is well informed about the pandemic. I wonder what would happen if those under quarantine were not even able to keep in touch with their family and loved ones. I must thank my government for such arrangements.
It is raining outside. The weather has been like this for some time now.
“The disease is spreading fast. Please keep yourself strong and healthy.” That was my mother on the phone just a while ago.
… says Bhutanese need not panic
Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering yesterday night said that Bhutanese need not panic with neighbouring going for a complete lockdown.
“This was bound to happen and Bhutan wishes India all the luck as this is the only way to come out of it sooner and cleaner,” he said, adding that it was a clever move.
For Bhutanese in India, he said that if they maintain physical distance and other etiquettes then the safety is the same anywhere. “We would like to request all Bhutanese in India to remain calm, indoors and maintain social distance,” he said. “It’s not going to go on forever.”
Lyonchhen said that should any Bhutanese have any problems then they should contact the government or the Embassy in Delhi and the Consulate Office.
“As soon the restriction is lifted, we will be back in action to get them back,” he said.
For those at home, he said that the government has enough stock to feed the population for ‘a couple of months’.
“So there are absolutely no worries,” Lyonchhen said.
On March 18, Lyonchhen had said that in its effort to ensure continuous food supply in case of a complete lockdown, the government was stocking fuel and essential food items to last for at least 12 days or until the movement of vehicles across the border was restored.
He said that the public should not worry since the Indian government has assured a continuous supply of essential food items, fuel and medicines even in the worst-case scenario.
To contain the spread of the Covid-19, the Indian government has declared complete lockdown beginning today for 21 days.
With growing speculations and doubts surrounding how the novel coronavirus spreads, health minister Dechen Wangmo insisted that the disease, for now, is spread through droplets.
Lyonpo during a press conference yesterday said that as per the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guidelines, the disease can spread from an infected person to another through small droplets from the nose or mouth when the person with the disease coughs, sneezes or exhales.
Following some viral notifications circulating online, which suggested the mode of transmission of Covid-19 was airborne, meaning it could be spread through air, Lyonpo said the ministry has not received any definite instruction on this from the WHO.
“We have a group of epidemiologists who are scanning medical literatures in consultation with the WHO. Should there be any new development on this, we’ll make it available to the public.”
Foreign minister Dr Tandi Dorji said that the information being circulated in various social media platforms stating that the Covid-19 virus can last in the open air for eight hours is incorrect.
Lyonpo explained that for a healthy person to be infected, droplets from an infected person has to touch his or her body part. If a person touches their eyes, nose or mouth immediately after coming in contact with the infected droplets, without washing their hands, then the person can catch the disease.
He said that the reason why public are asked to regularly wash their hand and maintain a physical distance of at least 1.5m is to avoid the droplets from the other person when they cough out or exhale droplets.
According to WHO, studies so far suggest that the virus that causes Covid-19 is mainly transmitted through contact with respiratory droplets rather than through the air.
The WHO is assessing ongoing research on the ways Covid-19 is spread.
WHO also states that the risk of catching the virus from someone with no symptoms at all is ‘very’ minimal. However, it states that many people with Covid-19 experience only mild symptoms.
“This is particularly true at the early stages of the disease. It is therefore possible to catch Covid-19 from someone who has, for example, just a mild cough and does not feel ill.”
The second positive patient
The partner of the index case who is currently under isolation at the national referral hospital is still asymptomatic to the infection.
Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo said that the 57-year-old American woman is in stable condition and has no other complications for now. “I’m in constant touch with her sister and we are regularly updating her on the status.”
Lyonpo said that all the 29 primary contacts of the American woman are quarantined and none of them, including the guide and driver, tested positive so far.
She said that while the patient could have visited many other places and gatherings during the initial days, her exposure time to other Bhutanese would be comparatively less including the probability of spreading the disease.
Lyonpo Dr Tandi Dorji explained that the fact the guide and driver who have had the most exposure time with the positive patient still testing negative to the virus shows minimal likelihood of infecting others she had come in contact with.
However, Lyonpo said that any Bhutanese showing flu-like symptoms should visit the flu clinics set up across the country for timely intervention.
Meanwhile, the health ministry is also calling back all the doctors pursuing higher studies abroad, should things become worse in the country.
There are about 48 doctors who are currently studying outside. The health minister said that many of them are returning with a few already arriving in the country and under quarantine.
The ministry is also considering calling in private physicians in the country including technicians from other departments and ministry in preparation of a worst-case scenario.
Mini dry port in Phuentsholing seen as a risk area
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
With the border sealed, the government is tasked with ensuring the continuous supply of essential goods through Phuentsholing and avoiding the risk of Covid-19 from transporters entering the country.
Essentials arrive in Indian trucks to the mini dry port in Phuentsholing. The Indian drivers who drive the containers and trailers, clearing agent staffs and customs officials are the primary people involved at the mini dry port. The drivers are seen as potential carriers.
As a prevention measure, officials are working on safety measures at the mini dry port to prevent Covid-19 enter from the port.
During his three-day visit to Phuentsholing, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said that a system that will ensure no physical contacts (touch) between those people involved in transferring essential goods at the port should be established.
Lyonchhen visited the dry port twice during his visit.
On his first visit on March 22, the customs team was asked to barricade the area from where the drivers would not be allowed to cross further. One of the resting places at the port was converted to a distribution centre where the Indian truckers would be allowed to keep documents in the respective clearing agent’s unit. Clearing agents would take up the documents from the respective trays and do the necessary works at the customs office.
However, after the Prime Minister’s second visit yesterday, it was suggested that there should be a counter before the distribution centre and a customs official would receive all the documents from the drivers at the counter maintaining a distance and take it to the distribution centre. The customs official will also brief all the drivers about Covid-19 and safety measures.
Custom officials were busy constructing the counter yesterday evening. The clearing agents, functioning from two clustered rooms were provided five rooms with each agent maintaining a metre’s gap.
Meanwhile, with the gate sealed at the border town, there were confusions among many businessmen if it was just the essential goods allowed. Foreign minister Dr Tandi Dorji announced that shopkeepers could continue to import goods as usual from their suppliers across the border as there is no restriction on movement of goods.
Some trailers with edible items had entered the commercial town yesterday. A bolero pickup had also come into the port with health ministry’s consignment of hand gloves, hand sanitisers, and face masks.
Yesterday, the drivers were not allowed to move from their trucks and mix with other people.
Meanwhile, until 4pm yesterday, Phuentsholing has quarantined 628 people in different quarantine centres. Three buses were also sent to Bagdogra to pick up 116 Bhutanese. About 676 labourers also exited Phuentsholing.
The government has announced that almost all the Bhutanese living across the border moved to Phuentsholing. The government assured support to those who still want to shift.
Bhutanese come forward to help government financially
With Nu 1,000 per person per day, incurred on food alone, while in mandatory quarantine, the cost, which adds up to Nu 14,000 for two weeks is going to dig a big hole in the government’s coffer.
There are around 1,917 people undergoing the two-week long quarantine. Most of them are in hotels, some in three-star rated hotels in Paro, Thimphu, Phuentsholing and Punakha.
To ease the pressure on the government there is a momentum, although not gaining pace as fast as the virus or fake news, to lift the burden from the government. While some are paying the bill for their children or relatives, some are contributing to the Covid-19 response fund.
One of the earliest to do so, Chimi, popularly known as Prostration Man, said that he was worried to see government paying bills for people who were quarantined. Prostration Man deposited Nu 14,000 in the Covid-19 relief fund and shared it on Facebook to encourage fellow citizen to share the burden.
“My country gave me so much, it is time to think as a responsible citizen and contribute,” he said. He is also suggesting the Royal University of Bhutan to divert student’s stipend to the fund until the situation improved.
Another parent who has a son in quarantine said that it was his son’s idea to pay the bill. “My son said the government has given them free education and it was time to help. We decided to pay our bills,” said the father Sangay Dorji, a businessman in Thimphu. “I am hopeful that this encourage many more people to do the same. I feel that this will lift the burden on the government.”
There is no official record of people who volunteered to pay their bill. There is a standing rule not to share the account number unless someone asked for it.
However, those who shared their stories on social media said the intention was to encourage people to contribute in their small ways to the government’s fight against Covid-19. “Most of the people quarantined at Hotel Olathang belong to the elite class,” said a parent. “Many can afford to pay for a dozen people quarantined.”
Calling it a drop in the ocean, the chief executive officer of Tbank, Pema Tshering contributed Nu 50,000 “to the noble cause of fighting Covid-19.” “Let us not just be mere spectators while the government is tasked with insurmountable challenges,” he wrote urging fellow Bhutanese to come forward and make “small humble” contributions. His daughter is quarantined in a hotel in Paro.
The message is clear. Many are encouraging each other to rise to the occasion. A tour operator who contributed about Nu 2 million to the government’s relief and Covid-19 fund said that the tourism sector despite being the hardest hit should come forward. “We have all made money during peaceful times. There is no better time to giveback to the government,” he said.
“The government is re-appropriating the 12th Plan budget because of Covid-19. The most affected will be the people rural Bhutan as the fund meant for development is directed for emergencies,” he said.
The government deserves commendations for doing away with home quarantine.
Bhutan temporarily shut down all its international borders from 6am yesterday. Covid-19 has not only entered the region but some of the neighbouring countries are reporting positive cases at an alarming rate.
The government’s decision to close the borders, therefore, comes at the right time. The scare is growing and there will be small disruptions and inconveniences. But there is no reason to panic. What this short-term closedown gives us is the critically needed focus.
Bhutan’s biggest challenge since the first Covid-19 positive case in the country has been people breaching home quarantine protocols. Many countries, in the region and beyond, are battling the same problem. When education and awareness do not seem to help, better measures and more effective protocols must be adopted. More important, our response ought to be swift.
Facility quarantine is the best option we have to reduce the risk of Covid-19 spreading like wildfire.
Globally, 186 countries have been affected by Covid-19. That means the decease has reached almost all the countries in the world. With people ignoring health advisories and protocols, the danger of the disease spreading further remains. And this could be devastating.
Bhutan has so far tested close to 500 samples. Close to 2,000 people have been placed on facility quarantine and 299 on home quarantine. The problem is that home quarantine, in the context of our society, can be counterproductive to our battle against the pandemic. The arrangements made by the government and health professionals reportedly are being taken worryingly lightly.
The decision to make facility quarantine mandatory for all Bhutanese returning home is, therefore, highly appreciated. This means all individuals, irrespective of age, except perhaps in special medical cases, will now be placed on facility quarantine.
What we need to understand is that facility quarantine is not detention. It is about safety. In some of the severely affected countries, such strict restrictions have resulted in a dramatic decline in Covid-19 incidences. In Hubei in China, for example, the number of new cases fell from 1,600 each day to 36 within a month after social distancing measures.
At a time when the whole nation is faced with one of the biggest challenges in recent memory, honesty, integrity, and sincerity are vitally important. There is exceptional care being taken by the government and the limited health professionals. Adequate care alone, it has been observed, can reduce the threat of the disease by almost 85 percent.
But we have a unique case to deal with. In many countries, it is the poverty and crowdedness that is the problem. Here, in Bhutan, the rich and the powerful could be helping defeat the government’s efforts to keep Covid-19 at bay. Why and how is this happening?
Implementation of rules has been our biggest weakness. We cannot afford such laxity today. The laws are clear. Individuals failing to comply with the national emergency of this magnitude are liable for criminal nuisance. That the government is ready to bring the full weight of Penal Code of Bhutan 2004 to bear on them is reassuring.
Otherwise, the entire national effort, resource strapped as we are, could go in vain. This is the real danger facing the nation today.
The government should consider increasing the quarantine period from the existing 14 days, the joint parliamentary committee on novel coronavirus (Covid-19) preparedness and response recommended yesterday.
The recommendation was made in view of the existing epidemiological evidence about the Covid-19 having shown that it is difficult to confirm within two weeks if a person was infected with the virus.
The committee, which comprises members from both houses of Parliament, also recommended the government to extend the quarantine period by enhancing the clarity of the quarantine protocols. The committee stated that home quarantine could also be extended.
The recommended has been submitted to the prime minister.
Speaker Wangchuk Namgyel and the National Council Chairperson Tashi Dorji attended the sixth meeting held yesterday in the National Assembly conference hall.
The joint committee chair Dorji Wangdi said that the quarantine period of 14 days prescribed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) was minimum.
According to health advisories, symptoms appear within two to 14 days after contracting the virus.
However, the country’s second Covid-19 case was detected days after the patient, an American tourist had completed the 14-day quarantine period. The patient had come into contact with her infected partner before she was taken to the quarantine.
According to the WHO’s recommendation, contacts of laboratory-confirmed cases should be quarantined for 14 days from the last time they were exposed to a Covid-19 patient.
The WHO states that staying in the same close environment of a Covid-19 patient, including workplace, classroom, household, gatherings, travelling together in close proximity of one metre with a Covid-19 patient in any kind of conveyance makes a person exposed to the virus.
The meeting also recommended the government to consider online teaching initiatives only for engagement and learning for students, not for summative assessment for now with appropriate awareness.
The committee meeting noted that even though there is a restriction on the movement of monks to their own premises instead of closing down, the incidents of some being compelled to go out to perform rituals on the demands of public and outsiders visiting some institutions were reported.
“We are appreciative of the government’s efforts in minimising the disruption in the learning of our students through online teaching initiatives. However, there seems to be confusion among parents and students whether online teaching would lead to summative assessments,” the committee said.
It recommended the government to ensure uniform and strict implementation of preventive measures.
The committee also recommended the government to explore the possibility of providing counselling services by both health and spiritual professionals through appropriate means. The committee said that it is possible that some people, especially youth under quarantine, could go through mental health issues.
The committee recommended the government to ensure uniform implementation of preventive measures strictly.
Participants said that although monastic institutions have agreed to restrict the movement of monks, there are reports that some have been compelled to go out to perform rituals on the demands of public and that there are also cases of outsiders visiting some institutions.
Neten Dorji | Samdrupjongkhar
With most hotels in Samdrupjongkhar family-owned and family members residing in the same building, hoteliers are making way to turn their hotels into quarantine facilities.
Some families are accommodating with their relatives, while some are returning to their villages.
The owner of Druk Mountain Hotel, Lhedrup Namgyel, said sent his family to Trashiyangtse. “This is the time to serve the nation in whatever ways we could,” he said.
He provided his 31-bedded hotel and other facilities as quarantine facility, but it has not been occupied as of yesterday.
Sixteen tourist-standard hotels in Samdrupjongkhar offer quarantine facilities. The owners are members of Hotel and Restaurant Association of Eastern Bhutan.
The manager of Menjung Hotel, Sherub Jamtsho, said they decided to provide the hotels after they met with home secretary. “We provided free accommodation and charged minimal rates for meals as per the health ministry’s menu.”
The proprietor of Hotel Phuntshok Yangkhor, Karma Tshering, said they did not cater to customers since March 18, but provided the 14 rooms with 22 beds for quarantine. All the rooms in his hotel were occupied by yesterday afternoon.
Meanwhile, hoteliers said they were affected by the Gyalpoishing-Nganglam highway but are ready to help the government in whatever situation they are.
They have also provided free Wifi in the quarantined rooms.
The owner of TD guesthouse, Karma Tenzin, said Hotel and Restaurant Association in the east would provide service until Covid-19 is contained. “We are not able to do much, but we are contributing in our own capacity.”
He said his staff were sceptical on Covid-19 at first but after he explained, they are now positive and helping. “We committed to continue and give our best to contain Covid-19.”
Meanwhile, with Covid-19 positive cases increasing in India, Samdrupjongkhar residents are vigilant.
One of the most common prayers Bhutanese chant, particularly at the end of rituals is the powerful prayer, which was composed by Thangtong Gyalpo to avert an epidemic. As the colophon shows, the prayers are said to have overcome the epidemic in Sakya in the 14th century. While sanitation, hygiene, and physical distancing are crucial to help us in difficult times as now, moenlam (སྨོན་ལམ་) and soldeb (གསོལ་འདེབས་), through the spiritual power vested in them, are also said to have the efficacy to avoid and cure ailments and other problems. Spiritually potent prayers composed by enlightened beings are said to be especially effective in overcoming problems caused by many kinds of invisible beings, often categorized as don (གདོན་), jungpo (འབྱུང་པོ་) and geg (བགེགས་).
A Prayer for Pacifying the Fear of Disease
May all the diseases that disturb the minds of sentient beings,
And which result from karma and incidental conditions,
Such as the harms of demons, illness, and elemental spirits,
Never occur throughout the realms of this world.
May the suffering due to life-threatening diseases,
Which, like a butcher leading an animal to the slaughter,
Severs the body from the mind in a mere instant,
Never occur throughout the realms of this world.
May all embodied beings remain unharmed
By acute and chronic infectious diseases,
The mere names of which can inspire the same terror
As would be felt in the jaws of Yama, Lord of Death.
May the 80,000 classes of obstructing spirits,
The 360 evil spirits that cause sudden harm,
The 424 types of disease, and so forth
Never cause harm to any embodied being!
May whatever sufferings arise due to disturbances in the four elements,
Depriving the body and mind of every pleasure,
Be totally pacified, and may the body and mind have radiance and power,
And be endowed with long life, good health, and well-being.
By the compassion of the gurus and the Three Jewels,
The power of the ḍākinīs, dharma protectors and guardians,
And the power of truth of the infallibility of karma and its results,
May these many dedications and prayers be fulfilled.
ཅེས་པ་འདི་ནི་གདན་ས་ཆེན་པོ་དཔལ་ལྡན་ས་སྐྱར་ནད་རིམས་མི་གཅིག་པ་སྣ་ཚོགས་བྱུང་བར། སྔགས་བོན་རྣམས་ཀྱིས་མདོས་གཏོར་སྨན་སྔགས་སྲུང་བ་སོགས་གང་བསྒྲུབས་ཀྱང་མ་ཕན་པར་གདན་ས་སྟོངས་ལ་ཐུག་པའི་སྐབས། རྗེ་གྲུབ་ཐོབ་ཆེན་པོས་མ་ནམ་མཁའ་མའི་སྐྱབས་འགྲོ་གྱིས། མ་ཎི་སྒྲོངས། སྨོན་ལམ་འདི་ཐོབ་ཅེས་བཀའ་སྩལ་པ་བཞིན་བགྱིས་པ་ལ་བརྟེན་ནད་ཡམས་ཐམས་ཅད་འཕྲལ་དུ་ཆད་པས་ས་སྐྱ་ནད་གྲོལ་མའི་སྨོན་ལམ་ཞེས་རྡོ་རྗེའི་གསུང་བྱིན་རླབས་ཀྱི་སྤྲིན་ཕུང་འཕྲོ་བར་གྲགས་སོ།། །།
When various epidemics spread at the great monastery of the Glorious Sakya, whatever the mantric masters and Bon priests tried – effigies, tormas, medicines, mantras, protection-amulets, and so on – had no effect, and the monastery was at the point of desertion. The master mahāsiddha Thangtong Gyalpo advised: “Say the refuge prayer which begins, ‘Sentient beings in number as vast as space’, then recited the Maṇi mantra, and chant this prayer. The entire epidemic immediately ceased upon following his advice. Thereby, it became renowned as the vajra speech radiating cloud-like blessings entitled ‘The Prayer that Saved Sakya from Disease.’
Translation by Tenzin Jamchen and Lotsawa House, with improvements from Karma Phuntsho.
Tshering Namgyal | Minjey
Karma Wanchuk of Tongling village in Minjey gewog, Lhuentse is a lone shadzop in the dzongkhag.
Originally from Toedtsho gewog in Trashiyangtse, the 48-year-old came to his second wife’s village some 15 years ago.
Along with him, he bought his shadzo skills. He is the fourth generation shadzop.
Raw materials are usually collected from 11th to 1st month of the Buddhist calendar. Then after hamrup (immediate initial scarving) it’s soaked in water for one and a half month. After that the finishing works are carried out for around four months between the third and the seven month. Finally, the polish called sey is done on the eighth Bhutanese month and the end products are dried.
Like any other shadzop, he makes traditional dapa (bowl), three types of cups, plates, thokey, and tsamder, among others, in his small workplace above his house. He said he had not been able to work actively for the last three years because his wife was unwell.
His annual income is around Nu 200,000.
Tongling community is immensely benefitted after he established the business. “Their livelihood has drastically improved by selling raw materials and their status is much better now,” a villager from the gewog said.
Karma said three villagers had come to learn the skills from him.
He said the unavailability of raw materials was a challenge. “There are only five dzongkhags in the country with raw materials and if they don’t give what is the use of doing this business and paying tax?” he asked.
Although community forests are exceptional, he said there was a requirement to get a letter from the tshogpa in the particular community and the gewog in order to get the pass. “To get the pass, it takes months after the territorial division office further prolongs. I think the immediate power should be with the government in the government reserved forest,” Karma Wangchuk said.
He said only two trees in a year was not enough. Finding a better wood called zabshi is impossible.
Because of those challenges, he said the production had gone down by more than 30 percent. “If not from the place where those materials are available, from where can we bring them?
Nim Dorji | Trongsa
Local leaders in Trongsa are accusing that the farm shops established in gewogs, popularly known as ‘sanam tshongkhangs’ of inflating prices of commodities.
The issue was raised during the seventh dzongkhag tshogdu (DT), which concluded recently.
Tangsibji gup Gyembo Dorji said that Food Corporation of Bhutan (FCBL) opened ‘sanam tshongkhangs’ in gewogs to provide efficient and better service to the public. “But the price of some commodities are expensive compared to other shops.”
He said that if there is no improvement in the service, it would be better to close the shops.
Some of the local leaders said that if shops are to remain open, it should sell other essentials like spare parts of farm machinery and farm-related equipment.
Some of the local leaders said that a bag of rice, which cost about Nu 725 in shops cost Nu 790 in the farm shops.
A representative from FCBL explained that the price difference is due to transportation fee and the salary of the employee.
He said that FCBL did not receive any written complaints but requested people to ask for digital generated money receipt while buying from farm shops and asked to report if they see any difference in the amount.
She, however, said they are aware of the issues related to ‘sanam tshongkhangs’ and that FCBL is also suffering huge loss from the shops.
She said that with many places connected with road and many shops in the locality, only a few customers buy from the farm shops. “People prefer buying from the market and FCBL outlets in the town.”
It was learnt that FCBL discussed that ‘sanam tshonkhang’ would be opened only in remote gewogs in its annual meeting. They are also discussing what to do with the existing ‘sanam tshongkhangs’.
Meanwhile, FCBL official also explained they started franchises system, where the rent and goods are delivered by FCBL, and the employees could keep the profit but would not be paid salary.
The DT asked FCBL management to discuss and verify the issue related to the farm shops and report during the next DT session.
Chimi Dema | Tsirang
The regional and sector heads as well as local leaders in Tsirang will meet tomorrow to discuss the agenda for upcoming annual tshechu and distribute roles and responsibilities among them.
Despite Covid-19 fear, the preparation for the Tsirang tshechu is in full swing.
Tsirang’s senior Culture Officer Kelzang Jamtsho said that there was no plan to postpone or cancel the festival as of now. “The preparation is going on.”
The annual three-day tshechu is held from April 1 to 3.
Tsirang Dzongdag Pema said that the tshechu would take place as scheduled like other religious activities such as kurim (cleansing ritual). “There was also no specific directive from the government,” he said.
But unlike in the previous years, he said there would be no business stalls or fair to keep the gathering as small as possible. This was in compliance with the order issued by the Home and Cultural Affairs ministry.
“A flu clinic would be set up near the tshechu venue,” he said.
Besides providing screening services, dzongkhag’s senior Health Officer Kinley said that the people would also be advised on maintaining good personal hygiene and other precautions.
Except for seriously ill patients returning from treatment, the government will place all those arriving in the country in quarantine centres.
The health minister issued a public notification yesterday which comes into effect immediately. Mothers returning after childbirth overseas would also be exempted.
Health Minister Dechen Wangmo said that despite repeated pleas from the government, a few on home quarantine have violated the strict agreed conditions of home quarantine.
“This is not at all acceptable,” she said, so for the safety of those in quarantine and the society we are compelled to resort to deploying police to enforce those conditions.
There are 1,917 Bhutanese in 81 quarantine centres in Thimphu, Phuentsholing and Paro as of yesterday.
Should any person on home quarantine be found outside their designated room, then they would be charged with the provisions of the Penal Code of Bhutan.
The notification also restricts the individual from mixing with family members and going to public gatherings or work.
If they develop cough, fever, shortness of breath, respiratory or any other illness, call 2121 immediately. They will be monitored by a policeman and a health worker every day.
Children will also be not exempted and would be quarantined with a parent at the centres.
As of yesterday, there were 299 Bhutanese in home-quarantine.
Those who violate these conditions would be charged with criminal nuisance as per section 410, failure to assist lawful authority as per section 428, and the breach of public order and tranquillity as per section 448 of the Penal Code of Bhutan.
Section 410 states that a person would be guilty of a criminal nuisance, if the person knowingly or recklessly creates or maintains a condition including spreading of dangerous diseases that cause injury or endangers the safety or health of an individual or the public. The offence is a misdemeanour.
Section 428 states that a defendant would be guilty of the offence of failure to assist lawful authority, if he/she could aid the lawful authority without risk of bodily injury or property to the defendant and fails to aid the lawful authority in the prevention or suppression of a breach of peace in this case, among others. The offence is graded as a petty misdemeanour.
An individual would be charged for the breach of Public Order and tranquillity, under section 448 of the Penal Code, if the defendant purposely fails to abide by the orders of the Royal Government issued in the interest of public safety, public order and tranquillity. The offence is a petty misdemeanour.
Shopkeepers can continue to import goods as usual from their suppliers across the border as there is no restriction on movement of goods: foreign minister.
— Kuensel (@KuenselOnline) March 23, 2020
3:24:Economic affairs ministry keeping watch but has not yet observed panic buying in the market and there is no reason to stock up: foreign minister.
3:20:The govt will continue to help those Bhutanese living in Jaigaon to return to Phuentsholing: foreign minister.
3:17:Movement of goods into Bhutan will continue. Indian trucks would reach them to identified areas at the border towns inside Bhutan: Foreign Minister.
3:08:Foreign minister says economic stimulus plan is ready and will cover all sectors including boosting agriculture production.
The plan would be announced once the Prime Minister returns from his visit to Phuentsholing.
3:02:Only Bangkok airport remains open for travellers but one need USD 100,000 insurance and health certificate saying one is Covid-19 negative: foreign minister.
All Bhutanese outside Bhutan are asked to remain put for at least one week and not plan any travels since all neighbouring airports are closed.
Beginning this afternoon police will visit all those under home quarantine to ensure strict compliance: health minister.
— Kuensel (@KuenselOnline) March 23, 2020
2:46:Those under home quarantine must remain absolutely within the home: health minister.
For those who violate home quarantine rules the govt. will not hesitate to evoke the provision s of the Penal Code, the minister said.
2:38: Health minister is in touch with the sister of the COVID-19 patient and the patient is stable.
Difficult to trace all those who had contact with the partner of the American tourist but health ministry asks people who have flu-like symptoms to visit flu-like clinics: health minister.
— Kuensel (@KuenselOnline) March 23, 2020
2:33: Health ministry will discontinue with home quarantine with effect from today except for patients.
2:30:No visitors allowed at homes of those placed under home quarantine: health minister.
2:29: Health minister said 489 tested including 57 done yesterday which tested negative.
From today, the govt. will place police at homes for quarantine since most of those placed under home quarantine not adhering to the quarantine standards.
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
From 6am today, all the border gates across the country will remain closed Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said.
Lyonchhen, who is in Phuentsholing announced this after His Majesty The King’s national address on television yesterday.
People and vehicles will not be allowed to travel across the border or enter into Bhutan except for authorised vehicles. Bhutanese who enter into Bhutan from these border areas will be allowed but will be quarantined.
In an interview, Lyonchhen Dr Lotay Tshering, said that he was able to understand, from the national telecast, how much concerns His Majesty The King had for the people.
As per His Majesty The King’s command, the Prime Minister said the government will implement the contingency plans.
“From small items such as toothbrushes to baby foods, the government has everything ready in terms of necessary supplies,” he said. “There is no need to panic.”
As per His Majesty The King’s command, Lyonchhen said the government’s efforts are geared towards avoiding any casualties due to Covid-19.
“Our target is zero death,” he said. “We must work together.”
He said that people need to take precautions while caring for elder people.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister had a series of meetings and discussions with relevant agencies and authorities in Phuentsholing after he arrived in Phuentsholing on the evening of March 21.
Talking to various workers’ groups and business communities, Lyonchhen said the government was going all out to prevent the virus, as it is the only way out. Phuentsholing being small and densely populated is a “hotspot,” he said.
Meeting the Phuentsholing business community, Lyonchhen said the closing of the border gates would definitely hamper the businesses and country’s overall economy. At this moment, he said there is a fine line to draw between prevention of the disease and impact on the economy.
“But our mandate and priority are to prevent the Covid-19 right now,” he said, adding that the business would revive once the pandemic subsides.
To counter the economic slowdown, there are also various fiscal and monetary measures that are being discussed, the Prime Minister said, explaining that it would be in the public domain once it is finalised. It is one of the best packages and would benefit the overall economy and the losses will be minimised at an individual level.
Although the 12th Plan activities and budgeting were already put in place, the government, with the need to spend because of the emergency, has asked the Gross National Happiness Commission to rework on the budget so that a certain budget is made available for the contingency programmes. Authorities are also exploring means to relax the corporate income tax, business income tax, and bank interest rates on loans, Lyonchhen said.
Lyonchhen also met hoteliers in Phuentsholing who have voluntarily offered their facilities as quarantine centres.
Although the hoteliers had offered free rooms and services and charged just a minimal fee of Nu 600 (for an individual) for three meals per day, Lyonchhen said the government is ready to top-up on this fee.
“But the condition is that you keep all of your staff, which is our mandate,” he said.
Lyonchhen said that the hotels would not make any profit and that it would even be difficult to break-even despite the government top-up on the charges. “It is being done to minimise the loss and stress,” he said, adding that with the number of people getting quarantined expected to increase, eventually, hotels would suffer in the long run if they continue with the minimal fees.
After the discussion, it has been decided that a budget hotel will be offered Nu 1,000 per head (bed) and Nu 1,500 for two beds or more, which is inclusive of all charges. Three-star hotels will be offered Nu 1,200 per bed and Nu 2,000 for two beds or more.