Much to the relief of the people, the Prime Minister last night announced a phase-wise relaxation of the nationwide lockdown. The relaxation is a calculative approach considering the risk while understanding the inconvenience caused for the last 21 days.
Should everything go according to plan, there will be some normality restored by next Monday as offices open and restrictions on movement of people and vehicles are lifted. To start with there will be more shops and restaurants opening, selected sports and restricted construction allowed.
However, the message, even as the lockdown eases, is having to be cautious and not getting relaxed. The relaxation, like the Lyonchhen said, was the result of the solidarity and support from the people during the lockdown. It was long, but a successful measure in breaking the chain. About 50,000 people were tested since the lockdown and besides Phuentsholing where the Red Zone status still stands, not many tested positive for the virus including in dzongkhags and towns that had people who visited Phuentsholing.
The Prime Minister thanked every individual for being with the government and frontline workers in the fight against the pandemic. By late night yesterday, people were thanking His Majesty The King and the government for relaxing the lockdown and the efforts put in to save the country from a full-blown community transmission.
However, let us remind ourselves that the fight is not over. The Prime Minister is urging the people to be mindful and still follow the Covid-19 protocols at all times. Following the norms is not difficult. We are talking about simple, yet important habits like wearing face masks, maintaining physical distance or not gathering.
The relaxation should not be misunderstood. It should not make people complacent again. Further relaxation depends on how the situation unfolds. The situation will depend on how each one of us cooperate or behave during the relaxed lockdown. There are important plans, for instance, to open schools so children could continue their education. The risk is not gone and failing to follow norms could jeopardize all the efforts put in so far and the plans ahead.
We have witnessed that lockdowns will be an on and off feature until a solution, a vaccine, is found. The frequency and duration depend on how the people join the fight against the pandemic. We have successfully managed 21 days under lockdown. We can do better when the restrictions are relaxed.
The Covid-19 Mental Health Response Team, the team that provides psychosocial support to the affected, has received more than 300 telephone calls since the lockdown.
On the first day of the lockdown, people called the team to seek help as they were stranded away from home. The following day and the day after calls received were related to alcohol, drugs and tobacco withdrawal syndrome.
Psychiatrist Dr Chencho Dorji, the response team leader, said, “By the end of the week, a lot of the calls were related to individuals feeling suffocated at home, feeling anxious, restless and agitated.”
He said that as the lockdown progressed into the second week, people called complaining of insomnia and the relapse of previous anxiety and depressive symptoms.
“A few had suicidal ideation and relationship conflicts,” he said.
Dr Chencho Dorji said that the two important elements of this pandemic were the fear of catching the virus and the restrictions imposed on human freedom.
He said that humans responded to stress with fight or flight reaction, experiencing increased heart rate, fast breathing and tensed muscles. If the stress is prolonged over a length of time, people become fatigued and overwhelmed by the fear.
“Many people can cope with stress. But, some will suffer severe stress reactions like anxiety, panic attacks and depression,” he said.
The response team received calls from people aged from 20 to 30-years-old.
Dr Chencho Dorji said that women experienced insomnia, anxiety and depression whereas men called the team regarding withdrawal syndrome.
The team provide telephone and online counselling services. There are five dedicated mobile phone numbers (17123237, 17123238, 17123239, 17123240 and 17123241 which have been open round the clock since April 2020.
The counselling helplines are assigned in each dzongkhag, thromde and some communities as well. There are 30 helplines for counselling in different parts of the country.
Moreover, since the lockdown, the psychiatry department of Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital has two outpatient clinics (17841103 and 77858806) operating from 9 am to 5 pm except on Sunday.
An official from the department said that they were receiving an average of 20 calls a day. Most of the cases since the lockdown were people suffering anxiety, panic attack and withdrawals the official said.
“Physical exercises will release feel-good hormone like endorphins and keep the body in shape—practice yoga, mindfulness, bodyweight exercise, push-ups, dancing, aerobics and prostrations,” Dr Chencho said.
He advised people to stay connected with loved ones, family and friends through online platforms or engage in acquiring new skills such as playing guitar, writing blog, listening to music or watching movies.
He emphasised that repeatedly watching the news and social media could over-stimulate the brain.
“Overexposure and stimulation can increase anxiety and stress, and that is one of the causes of insomnia. So, switch off everything—light, TV, Radio, social media and sleep or take rest,” Dr Chencho said.
Activity stopped, says dzongdag
Lingzhi is remote, isolated and sparsely populated. But residents are equally concerned of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, reaching the drungkhag. They risk, residents say, could be from transporting essentials and construction materials from Shana, Tsento gewog in Paro.
A resident, Norbu, said that the construction work on two staff quarters at the Lingzhi Primary School was ongoing and materials are still being brought from Shana in Paro. “Recently, cement was transported twice to the site using horses. Wood for paneling was also brought while transporting essential food items,” he said.
Norbu said that residents are worried as they see people going around during the lockdown and Paro reported Covid-19 positive cases. “When we question people moving around, they say that they have permission from the dzongdag,” said Norbu.
Five Covid-19 positive cases were detected at Bonday and Woochu in Paro recently, which is outside the quarantine centres. These areas are identified as high alert zones and closely monitored by De-Suups and police.
However, Thimphu dzongdag, Dorji Tshering said that understanding the urgency, the dzongkhag administration has recently allowed people of Soe and Lingzhi to lift essential items and cement from Shana. He further added that there was no cement at Shana at present and movement of people transporting materials would not continue. Essential items to Naro gewog, are being transported from Thimphu.
With the approval from the dzongkhag administration, people of Lingzhi have transported essential commodities using 160 horses and vegetables using 150 horses from Shana besides lifting cement.
Lingzhi Gup Wangdi said that people of Lingzhi hardly visit Shana without approval from the authorities. “We get stone, timber and other materials from our locality for the ongoing construction at Lingzhi Primary School. The cement that we once brought from Shana was collected before the lockdown.”
Shana is located at around 56km from the Paro town.
Millions of gods put together can’t beat the mind, says Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche who recently launched a worldwide project to “touch base” with the mind and stem the pandemic
SIDDHARTHA Gautama was becoming more and more emaciated by the day. His backbone protruded like a line of spindle. His buttocks had become like the hoofs of a camel. His ribs “corroded and collapsed like the rafters of an old and rotten shed”. And he was growing restless.
Six years had passed since he left the palace and wandered across the basin of the river Ganges and through the hot plains of Rajgir and Bodhgaya (present day Indian state of Bihar) seeking wisdom and teachers, and learning whatever there was to learn and then growing restless.
He led the life of an ascetic that, as his search wore on, grew into a severe penance. He lived alone and naked in the forest. He slept in cemeteries. He ate once in seven days, an occasional fruit or some wild plant soup.
But he still hadn’t found what he was looking for.
The knowledge and insight into the reality of samsara and the suffering of sentient beings— the cycle of birth, sickness, old age, death and re-birth with its attendant emotions of pain, frustration and sorrow— to which he had sought to find a solution and had given up his princely life for, eluded him.
So one day, breaking the vows he had kept for six years, he ate porridge of milk and rice offered by a local Bodhgaya woman called Sujata. He then massaged his body with oil and took a warm bath. Alone in the forest, but physically much stronger than before now, he seated himself under a pipal tree one night, vowed not to move until he had found the answers, and began to meditate.
In the course of his meditations, the prince-turned-ascetic Siddhartha Gautama finally found the answers he was looking for. He learnt the four noble truths of human experience: suffering, its cause, the possibility of curing it, and its remedy. Knowing this, he was liberated from ordinary human condition and attained enlightenment. He became the Buddha, which means the enlightened, or the awakened, one.
This story took place in the sixth and fifth centuries BC, more than 2500 years ago, in India.
The Buddha was one of the great men, if not the greatest man, ever born and lived in India. That Buddha was not God, or His emissary on earth, but an actual individual, who had managed to liberate himself from ordinary human suffering, and then, out of compassion, had shared his insights with the world, inspired nations and generations of intellectuals and artists throughout the ages.
His ideas and teachings have travelled to China, Korea, Japan and Sri Lanka and many other Asian countries including, at one time, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the latter of which is the birthplace of the legendary 8th century tantric master and follower of the Buddha, Guru Padmasambhava. In the nineteenth century, Buddha’s ideas and teachings made its way to Europe and the Americas. As it happened, it was the Europeans who invented the word ‘Buddhism’.
The celebrated German philosophers— Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche— spoke and wrote frequently and admiringly of the Buddha. The American poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau translated a French version of the Lotus Sutra into English, one of the most important and influential collections of the words of the Buddha. The famous scientist Albert Einstein called Buddhism the religion of the future because it was compatible with modern science.
When China invented the printing press more than one thousand years ago, the very first publication they worked on and printed was The Diamond Sutra, one of the most celebrated collections of the words of the Buddha and which was translated from Indian Sanskrit to Chinese.
It was precisely to remember and celebrate an extraordinary individual like the Buddha and his teachings that Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, the Bhutanese lama, writer, thinker and filmmaker recently launched the global healing project called the ‘Bhumisparsha: Touching the Earth’.
The name is taken from the symbolic pose of an iconic Buddha image— with his left hand palm upright in his lap and his right hand touching the earth. The gesture represents the moment of the Buddha’s awakening as he claims the earth as the witness to his enlightenment.
The project aims to recite the Buddha mantra ‘Tayatha Om mune mune mahāmunaye svāhā’ 100 million times by January next year.
Siddhartha’s Intent India, the project organizer, says the global mantra accumulation is for the benefit of “the Earth, for humanity, for animals, and for all sentient beings”. Importantly, it’s done to help stem the tide of the pandemic. International celebrities such as Hong Kong actor Tony Leung and Bollywood actress Juhi Chawla have lent in their support as participants and influencers.
Already, the mantra accumulation has passed 50 million recitals, achieving half the target in just under one month of what is a five-month project. Many of the Buddha mantra chanters are from Asia, but also from Australia, Europe, North and South America. Youths are in the forefront of the project drumming up enthusiasm and support and coordinating the mantra counts from their respective countries.
According to Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, just as an individual has his or her own karma, causes and conditions that dictate their lives, so does a group or a population of a country, or earth. The phenomenon is called group karma.
For instance, the group karma of the citizens of a nation can determine the kind of leader they’ll have or cause volatile situations like what’s happening with the pandemic today to erupt.
But just as an individual possess various methods in her power to offset her negative karma, so too does a group.
The global group Buddha mantra chant is aimed to counterbalance the collective negative karma of the inhabitants of the earth and help bring about an end to the pandemic. This would, for instance, help speed up the search for an effective vaccine, or cause fewer deaths, or both. And more.
There are other benefits of chanting the Buddha mantra. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche says that the act of reciting the Buddha mantra leads one to “touch base” with one’s mind, with one’s “sanity”. In a world where there is distraction of every kind imaginable, being in touch with one’s sanity is all that stands between you losing your mind and you in control of your mind (and thus your life).
Sitting outdoor on a khaat, a woven traditional Indian bed, one recent hot and rainy morning in Bir, India, a sweaty Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche talked to the participants about the Bhumisparsha project via Zoom.
“Gods don’t make us sane,” he said as he waved away airborne pests from his face. “In fact, gods have made us more insane sometimes. Gods can’t give us sanity. Actually no one can give you sanity. No one needs to give you sanity. You have it in you all the time. You just need to use it. You need to discover it. You need to give chance to this sanity to bloom.”
The Buddha said the key to wisdom is experience. And that the qualities of all human experiences depend on the mind. It’s the mind that controls the way we experience the world, the way in which we make it our world. The mind is the window onto a person’s reality. The mind is what gives you sanity.
“This mind is just so powerful,” Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche said. “…The most powerful thing, machine… Even if millions and millions of gods are put together they can’t beat this mind… this mind is just so incredibly powerful.”
The 8th century Indian monk Shantideva, a follower of the Buddha, wrote: “By the mind the world is led… The mind swings like a firebrand, the mind rears up like a wave, the mind burns like a forest fire, like a great flood the mind bears away…”
So to ensure that you don’t lose your mind down the rabbit hole of desire, attachment, pride, jealousy and hatred, which are bound to bring you pain and suffering, it’s crucial that you stay in touch with the mind every so often, if not all the time, says Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche.
One of the millions of techniques developed and shared by the Buddhist sages of the past to help you from losing your mind is the practice of chanting the Buddha mantra. “It’s very simple. There is nothing complicated about it.”
And while you are at it, if you can think of the Buddha, or be in the present moment, just staring at your legs or being aware of your breath going in and out, even for half a minute, without getting distracted, it’ll bring you that much closer to your mind, and your sanity.
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche says that Buddha’s teachings on the mind and the importance of staying connected to it have special relevance in these turbulent bewildering times. It will mean so much more in the future.
Computer algorithms that can monitor and understand a person’s feelings are coming. Some of it is already here. “Amazon shops they seem to know what I want; they seem to know what I read.” When a man loses his ability to make decisions for himself to the machines, his illusion of free will, among many other things, will crumble, says Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche.
“When the world is run by algorithms, artificial intelligence,” said Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. “…Democracy will mean nothing. Individual freedom will mean nothing. But sanity will always mean something.”
What is group karma, really?
Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche explains to Kuensel the phenomenon of group karma vis-à-vis his ongoing Bhumisparsha project
“Group karma is defined as an action created by two or more sentient beings who share the same values, distinctions, and judgments. So, for example, if a road is blocked, as the Thimphu-Phuentsholing road likely is right now, a group of travellers all eager to reach their destination and knowing exactly what to do and not do, will likely share the result of the action they take.
From the Buddhist point of view, such karmic conditions can even result from previous lives. So, just being born Bhutanese, we together share the group karma of experiencing some of the longest ever road construction delays – (the new road) between Phuentsholing and Thimphu for example.
But bear in mind that karma is very subjective. All the years of delay in building that road could be the good karma of the bears and other wildlife whose habitat will remain undisturbed a bit longer. And we can probably say it’s also the good karma of all the restaurant owners in Chapcha.
With that in mind, we see that phenomena can arise that cause even very large numbers of beings to experience similar karmic consequences. For example, 330 million Americans may or may not have Kamala Harris as their Vice-President.
But that gets even more interesting because all those beings who have a karmic debt with Americans, even if they are a thousand miles away, may go through some suffering every time there is an election there.
So right now, due to obvious and not-so-obvious things we have done in the past, and despite all our mighty scientific viral and antibiotic research, we’ve still been reduced to washing our hands and covering our mouths.
Conversely, if our compassionate motivation leads us to join a scientific research team to find a vaccine or to propagate hand washing and social distancing, or even just to wish those people well, then we can help generate a favourable group phenomenon.
Bhumisparsha is like that. As we chant the mantra and remember who performed that earth touching mudra – the Buddha – we are generating an attitude and an action that will produce a favourable outcome.
That Bhumisparsha action is so simple that it won’t drain you at all – far less so in fact than lifting food from your plate to your mouth. The action is simply touching the earth. Because this earth binds and nourishes us, we have group karma connected to the earth. So instead of ridiculously alienating ourselves from this earth, we can at least simply touch it.
Please also ask your children and other children to do just what the Buddha did in response to the biggest, final and most fearsome test and challenge he faced in his search for enlightenment.
Instead of issuing forth bright lights, manifesting as a giant, attacking his enemy riding a tiger with a thousand heads, bribing his enemy with two fish and five loaves of bread, or indulging in any other kind of superhuman display of power that we normally expect from beings of his stature and position, all the Buddha did was to touch the earth.
So let us all touch this earth.”
Contributed by Kencho Wangdi (Bonz)
The writer is a former editor of Kuensel.
He can be reached at @bonzk on Instagram
… after 21 days of lockdown
Yangchen C Rinzin
Except for Phuentsholing, Gelephu, Samdrupjongkhar, and Samtse, people in other parts of the country will be allowed to come out of their homes from today as the government ends the nationwide lockdown.
However, individuals or families will be allowed to only walk or ride a cycle for the first three days.
People are advised to practice physical distancing unless a person is assisting an elderly or a child in the family.
Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering announced yesterday that the government would lift the lockdown in three phases learning from the experience of the past 21 days spread over 10 days from today.
The first three days will also allow more relaxation of essential activities, the opening of more designated shops and restaurants, while people would be allowed to walk in super-zones.
In phase II, from September 4, public transport such as buses and taxis will be allowed to carry half the passenger capacity within the dzongkhag.
The movement of private cars within the dzongkhag will be allowed only from September 7, in the final phase.
Movement of vehicles beyond the dzongkhag will be allowed only from September 11.
“The movement beyond dzongkhag must seek prior permission from the Police,” Lyonchhen said. “This is important as we realised that it is difficult to trace people who travel from one dzongkhag to another.”
The vehicles would be allowed to carry only 50 percent of passenger capacity unless minors and elderlies from the same family.
Lyonchhen also announced that institutions like RBA, RBP, RBG, IMTRAT, and Project DANTAK will operate in self-containment for 10 days.
“As they’ve worked at the frontline and were somehow exposed, there is a risk. So, the health ministry will conduct tests from tomorrow and if the results are negative, then they’d be free to move.”
The local authorities and taskforces will continue to facilitate the transfer of stranded passengers as per the existing practice, according to the press release from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
All offices will be allowed to open and operate full time only from September 7. The press release from PMO stated that until then, management should prepare offices to operate within the Covid-19 norms like physical distancing. The offices would be required to keep options of “work from home” or introduce a shift system.
Additional shops catering to essentials like grocery and pharmaceutical will be allowed to open and shopkeepers will have to continue practising Covid-19 safety protocols. Lyonchhen appealed to the public that given the associated risks, shopkeepers must open shops only if necessary.
“Those restaurants and eateries who have delivery or takeaway services can start from today. But they will not be allowed to have sit-in customers at all times.”
The business entities must close by 9pm.
The press release stated that only non-contact sports like badminton and tennis would be allowed. Sports like swimming, archery and snooker or that involves exposure and close contacts will not be allowed during the unlocking phase.
Tournament of any kind of games would be disallowed while Bhutan Olympic Committee will determine the list of sports that are permissible during the three phases of lockdown.
No social events like birthday, wedding, promotions, official dinners and functions will be allowed until further notice. Cremation and funeral rites will be limited to close family circles with the authorisation from the local authorities.
Although visiting spiritual sites would be allowed during the entire unlocking phases, outdoor activities like picnic and hiking will be restricted.
Construction work will be allowed only within the premises where workers live at the site, and the ration and essentials must be provided to the workers. However, the transfer of raw materials to worksites will be allowed only after the third day when the movement of vehicles would be permitted.
All the easing initiatives are expected to lead to a new normal that is conducive for the society to operate economic and livelihood activities while ensuring health safety, the press release stated.
“This press release should serve as notice to the law enforcement agencies to ensure regulation and compliance on the ground.”
… aims to have smooth lockdown next time
Yangchen C Rinzin
With the Covid-19 positive cases increasing, total lifting of the nationwide lockdown is still uncertain.
The implementation of lockdown did not go seamless for many who faced various inconveniences.
The government is in the process of developing lockdown guidelines that will streamline and implement endurable lockdown henceforth, according to an official from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
Experts from different agencies are in self-confinement developing the guidelines and standard operating procedures (SOP). The official from the PMO said the guideline and SOPs are developed based on the lessons learnt from three-week lockdown.
“As this lockdown was the first time, the implementation was complex and many services were affected,” the official said. “This is why now various groups are looking to have a systematic operation and lockdown hereafter.”
The guidelines will spell out details of events or activities in sequence when a lockdown is declared including what services would remain open.
The official added that different SOPs will also be developed under the overall lockdown guidelines. The first SOP would be on the safety and welfare of the frontline workers.
Other SOPs will look into essential delivery services, and handling people stranded in different parts of the country.
“We’re looking to making efficient essential delivery. The complex strategy this time led to many complaints. The SOP will be streamlined,” the official said.
Learning from past lessons, different SOPs on different issues would be prepared.
“Various experts are also looking into 12th Plan with the objective to engage as many Bhutanese to protect their livelihood,” the official added. “Various economic activities are being explored, as we need to identify other sources for finance.”
The government is expected to finalise and announce soon the guidelines.
Meanwhile, the national Covid-19 task force endorsed a guideline for zone-based opening of shops in thromdes and dzongkhags throms last week.
The guideline will ensure that every zone is a self-contained unit that would require to have shops selling grocery, vegetables, livestock products, and medicines.
The zone will also have an outlet that has an endorsement from Bhutan Duty-Free Ltd to cater to tobacco consumers. Those zones without shops especially that sell essential commodities, dzongkhag or thromdes would facilitate the issuance of license for new shops in coordination with economic affairs ministry.
Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering in his public address published by the PMO said that going by the situation the lockdown might take place on and off. With every lockdown, the government will streamline so that people can experience seamless lockdown.
“Until a vaccine is available, it will be difficult to contain and we’ll have to go through similar situations. We cannot say how many times we will have to go through a lockdown and this will depend on people’s behaviour and cooperation.”
The nationwide lockdown has delayed Opposition Leader’s plan to leave office to join the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).
Opposition Leader Pema Gyamtsho (PhD) was scheduled to leave office on August 17.
Many were taken by surprise when the ICIMOD in July announced the OL as its new director general although most Members of Parliament were aware of his plan to leave active politics.
The National Assembly (NA) has formally accepted the opposition leader’s resignation. The OL had submitted his resignation to the Speaker on July 22.
Secretary general of the House, Karma Weezir, said that the NA and the OL had not completed formalities on the resignation. “We could not do handing-taking of the office due to the lockdown,” he said.
The opposition leader is supposed to join his new office in mid-October according to the announcement of ICIMOD.
However, Health Minister Dechen Wangmo on August 28 said that given the rising number of Covid-19 positive cases, the lockdown could stay for some days and that it would be lifted only once health surveillance and tests for all the vulnerable people are completed.
The ICIMOD is a learning and knowledge-sharing centre which serves eight countries—Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan.
This will be Pema Gyamtsho’s second stint with the ICIMOD. He had previously worked with ICIMOD as a watershed specialist.
Kelzang Wangchuk | Samdrupjongkhar
Since De-Suups started distributing the movement pass to the residents of Samdrupjongkhar thromde yesterday as the task force had completed the zoning exercise, it is expected to implement from tomorrow.
De-Suups visited homes and briefed the households on the movement timing, and other requirements.
Meanwhile, few people in the town came for shopping as soon as they got the movement pass.
Thromde’s executive secretary, Tougay Choedup, said the thromde was divided into five zones- Throm, NPPF, workshop- dzong area, Tinkilo (three kilometres) and Dewathang town, with more than 1,520 households in the five zones.
“We’d not issue movement passes to residents in the self-containtment areas like police and an army camp, IMTRAT, DANTAK, and Jigme Namgyel Engineering College (JNEC), among others as they are not allowed to leave the campus. Their administration would manage for the residents,” Tougay Choedup said.
Tougay Choedup said the movement cardholders are allowed to be out of their homes for three hours. The timing is divided between 8am and 7pm. The residents of Dewathang would get five hours and two shifts a day.
He said the dzongkhag Covid-19 task force had identified 15 shops in the core Samdrupjongkhar town, six shops each in the workshop – dzong and NPPF zones, and two shops at Tinkilo zone, two vegetable vendors in the town, while two vendors each would be deployed to other three zones.
The executive secretary said five shops a day in the town and Dewathang, and shops in other zones would open on alternative days. Two shops in Tinkilo would remain open throughout the week. He said all the shops in the extended areas like Bangtsho and Samdrupgatshel in Dewathang would be open.
“People can go shopping and can also go for walks but within the zones. People would also follow the health protocols while De-Suups, among others, would also monitor in the respective zones,” Toygay Choedup said.
Seventeen days after the nationwide lockdown, the Thimphu Police received 102 cases—prowling (58), domestic violence (15), and substance abuse (29).
Every day, at least six individuals are taken to the detention centre.
The crime branch of the Thimphu Police has to patrol around the clock through the zones to ensure that people do not breach lockdown protocols. They have to also convey all the people who committed crimes to and fro. Additionally, with those who wishes to register their cases.
Thimphu Thromde and gewogs are divided into 44 zones. Six Community Police Centres—Taba, Motithang, Changzamtog, Changjiji, Babesa, and Khasadrapchu are assigned a police officer each.
Officer in Command (OC) of Thimphu Police Station, Gembo Penjor, said that they tried their best to keep people away from the police station as the whole team was residing inside the police station. “We are on Covid-19 duty but cases pop in regularly and we have to take action.”
Intoxicated persons who are caught by the patrolling team are taken to a temporary detention centre for a night and are handed over to their parents or guardians the next day with warning. For non-severe cases, they are not detained.
However, persons with past criminal record are detained for the case to be interrogated after lockdown. So far, only one person has been detained.
The patrolling team also came across 29 persons aged between 14 and 30 sniffing thinner and marijuana. After the lockdown, they will be handed over to Bhutan Narcotics Control Agency for counseling.
For verbal domestic violence cases, the victim and abuser are counselled over the phone. However, domestic violence battering cases are called to police station, interrogated, and the cases are registered. The OC said that so far they did not receive any severe battering cases.
The domestic violence cases registered would be further interrogated after the lockdown. The husbands are handed over to the relatives on a surety agreement.
All cases which need further investigation and charge sheet to the court after the lockdown are sent on surety agreement, the OC said.
The OC said that the challenges the police faced was the reality of Covid-19 itself and to ferry persons to and fro who wished to register their cases which needed additional manpower and additional expenses which exceeded their fuel allowance. “As far as possible, we encourage people to solve their problems at home but if one wishes to register the case, we are there are you.”
We enter a new month, the beginning of fall or autumn from tomorrow. Fall is a season of bountifulness and festivity. However, with a nationwide lockdown and uncertainties surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, the new season is not quite the one we look forward to.
The pandemic has taken its toll. The economy has come to a standstill. Businesses, big and small are affected. Revenue from the domestic market is at all time low. Controlling the spread of the virus is expensive. All resources are directed to fighting it. The government is broke.
The call now is to cut costs wherever we can. The finance ministry has asked state owned enterprises (SOE) to rationalise and cut down on expenditure, wherever it can. Basic economic tells us that if we cannot make profit the best option is cut down on expenditure.
This seems to be the mode many are in. Those on government payroll and in the safety of big corporations and SOE have not felt the impact of the pandemic, at least financially. Some are now and the prospect is bleak.
Cutting down or getting back what is given is difficult and sensitive. But that seems to be the only alternative if we want to see through the year and perhaps, beyond. It’s been only eight months since the government revised the salary with generous allowances. That was when the government was confident of funding the revision. It is different now. SOEs salaries and allowances is the biggest recurrent expenditure both for the government and the state owned enterprises.
Except for a few, most of the SoEs too are panicking as businesses are hit hard.
It is time to implement what the Prime Minister always says, milk the red cow and have milk everyday rather than kill it for meat. Since March, the private sector retrenched employees, sent people on unpaid leave to slashed salaries by more than half. The government’s recurrent expenditure depends on how the economy functions. Internal revenue is more than enough to cover recurrent expenditure like salaries and wages. The source of that revenue has dried up. The fiscal and monetary policies, to help the people, have left a huge dent on the government coffer.
It is time to make some sacrifices. Cutting allowances alone could save the government millions. Allowances are paid for specific jobs. For instance, there is no logic in paying fuel allowance when movement of vehicles is restricted. There are several allowances across the civil service, corporate organisations, parliamentarians and many more that can be witheld or slashed without affecting the income.
SOEs not subsidised by the government would do it even without having to be told. The writing is on the wall. We could pay salaries and allowances for another month or two and close shop thereafter. At this juncture, bold decisions are what is called for while also being able to identify critical areas where people have to be compensated for their sacrifices.
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
A 30-year-old-man, who has been stranded in Phuentsholing since the lockdown began on August 11 will not forget in his entire life the night of August 26.
Out of his hotel, without a proper place, he had to sleep at the Zangdopelri Lhakang.
“It rained that night and there were a lot of mosquitoes,” he said.
He was in a hotel since August 10, one day prior to the lockdown. He continued in the same hotel until August 26.
While he was going broke each day, there was good news for him that he would be given a pass to travel to Thimphu on August 27.
“A friend of mine then asked me to spend a night at his place,” he said.
“So I went.”
However, to his surprise, the hotel manager had lodged a complaint in the police station that he had run away without paying the bills.
Prior to leaving the hotel, he claimed he had even discussed with the hotel manager to pay the bills once he reached Thimphu but the manager had asked him to pay at least half the bills.
However, on August 26, a vehicle had come to pick up and drop him to his friend’s place. The manager was not at the counter when he checked out.
“I had even informed the person at the counter,” he said.
“But the manager thought I ran away and had come with the police.”
Later, the matter was solved with the hotel manager. However, he was chased away by the people around his friend’s place.
“After that I was homeless,” he said.
“I called 5555 but got no help. Then, I went to Zangdopelri to sleep.”
Next day, he was again taken to police custody for the same pending hotel bills. He paid the bills worth Nu 16,669 after calling his relatives and was let go.
After that, he was placed at a hotel facility sponsored by the government.
A driver from Jabana, Paro also stayed in hotels on his own until August 28. Kado, 33, had come to Phuentsholing on August 10 to drop potatoes.
“I called 5555 so many times but there has been no confirmation yet,” he said.
Kado also said some of his friends, who were stuck after the lockdown, had returned to their respective places.
He said he had to change the hotel when the first one he stayed in was turned into a quarantine facility.
“I haven’t paid the bills to none of these hotels. I have told the owners I would be able to pay only after lockdown when I get some business,” he said.
Kado’s Paro-bound truck, which is also loaded with goods, is still at a parking lot. He fears the goods inside may have been damaged now. Since August 28, Kado has been living in a government-funded hotel facility.
A total of 1,403 people had registered to move out of Phuentsholing. However, not all are considered stranded except for 150. Of the total 414 vehicles left the town, 95 vehicles are stranded.
Meanwhile, with the number of positive cases increasing by the day in red zone Phuentsholing, people stranded here have lost hope of their return any sooner. Many said they are frustrated.
Tshering Dorji, 40, from Paro said he is getting anxious each passing day.
“Government is thinking that they will send us home once the number of cases falls to zero,” he said, adding that it is not possible now.
“Although the hotel bills are paid by the government, the wait is getting too long now. I don’t know about the corona virus but I think I will get another disease here.”
The PMO’s Facebook page yesterday announced that people who are stranded in Phuentsholing, given the increasing number of cases, would be released only after testing to avoid any chance of transmission.
“For those who would like to travel to Phuentsholing, we are trying to work your way in, wary of the fact that you are opting to enter a red zone,” the statement said.
Kado and Tshering Dorji said they have tested negative two times.
Another man, 46, who is also stranded said he shifted to a friend’s place after spending some time in a hotel.
“I’m surprised why despite registration on the first and the second day I was never called, while so many people were sent home in between,” he said.
“I called the helpline numbers and asked them. They said my number on the list has not come. Then they said that I haven’t given my destination details.”
If destination detail was not given, the online registration will never accept the registration in the first place, he pointed out.
The 46-year-old also said that the helpline number 1216 was unable to connect from Tashi Cell number since August 28.
48 out of 62 new cases since lockdown are non-Bhutanese
Of the 62 new Covid-19 positive cases detected after the nationwide lockdown on August 11, 48 are employees of Project DANTAK (43) and Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT).
The highest one-day jump of positive cases was recorded yesterday when 27 new cases were detected from the Project DANTAK cluster in Phuentsholing.
Health Minister Dechen Wangmo on Friday (August 28) shared that 16 DANTAK and five IMTRAT employees (three on the same day from Haa) had contracted the diseases.
Following the detection of the first positive case (at the mini dry port) in Phuentsholing outside the quarantine facility on August 11, this was the first time the health ministry shared that the positive cases in the border town were not all Bhutanese.
Today, Phuentsholing has become the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak in the country with 43 people testing positive in the DANTAK camp alone and one at the IMTRAT camp.
The border town was declared a red zone on August 15.
What went wrong at DANTAK camp
The health minister said that irrespective of the nationality, every individual in Bhutan must abide by the national Covid-19 and lockdown protocols that were in place.
Lyonpo added that the cases from IMTRAT and DANTAK were detected from a particular cluster and individuals there were not “roaming freely”.
However, following the news of the 27 new cases, many took to social media to share their concerns on how strictly the lockdown protocols were enforced on the two organisations.
Many questioned the possibility of contracting the disease within the camps amidst the nationwide lockdown. Some also alleged that DANTAK vehicles were freely moving across the border to Hashimara when Bhutanese were strictly restricted to cross the border after the closure of the gates on March 23.
Even after the nationwide lockdown, people claimed that the DANTAK vehicles were freely plying in Phuentsholing when Bhutanese were confined within the walls of their homes. Kuensel couldn’t get in touch with DANTAK officials.
Many also related the source of the outbreak in Phuentsholing to the unrestricted movement of DANTAK and IMTRAT officials as the RRCO’s mini dry port was located near the DANTAK camp.
A Phuentsholing resident, Kezang said that not many Bhutanese tested positive during the mass testing surveillance conducted in the town. “But there are many from DANTAK,” he said. “I have also seen DANTAK people delivering food for their people quarantined in the hotels. How was that even allowed?”
Some of the concerns were shared on social media in July.
Residents of Bangyena village in Haa that shares a boundary with the IMTRAT campus shared that IMTRAT officials continued with construction works even after the nationwide lockdown came into force.
A resident said that only after three IMTRAT employees tested positive, the work stopped. Residents are concerned as one of the two men and the woman who tested positive resides near the settlement.
An elderly from the village said that even after they tested positive, the couple was still at their home. “They should be in an isolation ward in the hospital,” he said.
Bangyena-Kipri-Takchu tshogpa, Tshering, said that the people were raising concern as the couple resided right next to the gewog centre road and only a fence separated the village from the camp.
However, he said that IMTRAT officials monitored the couple on a daily basis.
Prior to the lockdown, people from the village and IMTRAT campus engaged in small businesses such as selling milk and vegetables. The villagers usually collected animal feed (leftover food) from the camp.
Tshogpa Tshering said the movement of people and trade was stopped following the nationwide lockdown. With the possibility of farmers entering the IMTRAT campus with their cattle, he said that he patrolled the area regularly.
Given the close proximity of the village to the Covid-19 active zone, the tshogpa said that 50 people from the village would undergo testing today to rule out the presence of transmission in the village.
He said that the oldest, youngest and those who had regular contact with IMTRAT officials before the lockdown would undergo the test.
The Bhutan Telecom office in Haa is also located within the self-containment zone. About 18 people from the area will also be tested.
Meanwhile, Kuensel learned that the 16 DANTAK employees who had tested positive to the virus earlier had migrated to India.
According to sources, DANTAK employees entering the country after the closure of the gates were quarantined for 21 days in India. Health officials from Bhutan used to test the individuals before they entered the country.
Of the 187 total positive cases in the country as of last night, 21 of them are Indian nationals working for Project DANTAK and Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT).
Health Minister Dechen Wangmo during a press conference yesterday said that three new positive cases were detected at the IMTRAT headquarters in Haa yesterday morning.
Another two IMTRAT employees, one each in Thimphu and Phuentsholing had also tested positive recently. The one who tested positive in Thimphu had travelled from Phuentsholing. The 35-year-old man tested positive while in the quarantine on August 22. He was a primary contact of one of the positive cases in Phuentsholing.
Following the announcement yesterday, many questioned if the government was trying to conceal the identity of the Indian nationals testing positive. The positive cases among 16 Project DANTAK employees in Phuentsholing were not new. The information was revealed only yesterday.
Lyonpo said that the ministry has been sharing all possible details with respect to the pandemic. She said that picking positive cases in the DANTAK or IMTRAT camps made no difference to the extensive preventive measures that are already in place.
Lyonpo said that irrespective of the country of origin, anyone who is in Bhutan has to abide by and follow the national protocols put in place. “We cannot custom design different protocols for different people. The national-level testing, quarantine or movement protocols applies to everyone who is in the country.”
She said that these cases did not make a difference to the existing control and preventive measures mainly because the country was already in a nationwide lockdown that prevented the movement of people from one place to another.
“Another advantage is that the cases were detected in a cluster. They were not freely roaming individuals. Therefore, it was much easier for us to do the contact tracing, testing and assessing the risk within a short period of time.”
Gelephu frontline worker
Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo said that the ministry was still assessing the case of the frontline worker who tested positive on August 27 in Gelephu. “So far none of the contacts of the case has tested positive.”
“I’m a big believer that along the border areas, the compliance towards basic use of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks and shields and handwashing has been amazingly good,” Lyonpo said. “So I hope and pray that this would have a certainss impact on preventing the virus from being easily transmitted.”
She added that given the nationwide lockdown, movement of people was reduced, which gave the ministry enough time to plan and implement the interventions in time.
However, Lyonpo said that the government is not ruling out possible multiple cases in Gelephu.
“We are considering the case as a local transmission mainly because for now there is no particular source of infection for the person,” she said, adding that the risk is being assessed and the ministry would be able to establish the extent of the transmission in the community within the next 48 hours.
Testing is underway in Gelephu and although the primary contacts have tested negative so far, they would be retested after three days.
Lyonpo said that the next course of action in Gelephu would be contingent on the results of the risk assessment.
With cases detected from Phuentsholing, Gelephu, Haa and Paro there is a growing concern of a full-blown transmission of the disease in the country.
However, the minister said that for the government the current situation would be more of a cluster epidemic rather than a full-blown transmission.
“We would still call it a cluster because it is coming out from a cluster from a specific population,” she said. “But we are also looking if other areas have been infected from these clusters and if the virus has gone outside.”
She said that for this the government will have to strategise on whether to conduct a mass screening of the entire population like in Phuentsholing or carry out random sampling.
“To strategise, we would require at least 24 hours to assess the risks. In about 24 to 48 hours we should be fairly confident enough to gauge the risk of the epidemic and that will determine our next course of action.”
However, for Bhutan, Lyonpo said that the mode of transmission – sporadic or cluster – would make no difference as the country has already taken the maximum-intervention approach.
“If you look at our testing, we are testing like it’s nobody’s business. We are in a highly aggressive testing mode. As long as we rule out importation which is from the quarantine centres, rest all mode of transmission does not make a difference to us.”
Following the local transmission in Phuentsholing, the health ministry tested the entire population in the town. During the 10-day mass testing, over 26,000 people were tested in the community of which 25 have tested positive so far.
Beginning yesterday three teams of health officials were deployed to test over 3,000 people living along the Phuentsholing-Thimphu highway.
“Recognising that there is a higher risk in Phuentsholing, we are sweeping the entire Phuentsholing-Thimphu highway,” she said.
“Every member of the household along the highway will be tested. The data would give us a fairly good idea of the extent of the transmission.”
Meanwhile, Haa Dzongdag Kinzang Dorji said that although three IMTRAT personnels have tested positive for Covid-19 in the dzongkhag, residents should not panic.
Speaking to Kuensel, the dzongdag said that the positive cases were detected from a self-containment zone where movement in and out of the zone was restricted.
However, as a precautionary measure, the dzongkhag administration has imposed lockdown in Bangyena and Kipri villages under Uesu gewog, as the two villages are adjacent to the military training camp.
Bangyena village shares boundary with IMTRAT camp and the residents have to route through the camp to connect with the highway.
Dzongdag Kinzang Dorji said that with the restriction on movement, the dzongkhag administration would deliver essential items to the village.
“We should be alert but people should not panic as the dzongkhag isn’t in an emergency situation yet.”
He said that if people follow the protocol set by the dzongkhag administration, there was nothing to worry about.
In case of emergency, residents should call the toll-free number 1007 for essential items and 1008 for medical emergencies.
Additional reporting by Phub Dem, Paro
When lockdown ceases
Yangchen C Rinzin
The Ministry of Education has submitted a proposal to the Prime Minister to re-open Classes IX and XI along with Classes X and XII if the pandemic situation improves and the lockdown is lifted.
Education Minister Jai Bir Rai told Kuensel that the proposal was readied before the nationwide lockdown came into force on August 11, as the ministry felt the need for face-face teaching. “But before the ministry could submit the proposal to the government, the nationwide lockdown was declared,” he said.
Classes X and XII were re-opened before the lockdown in July. Regular classes for X and XII have been suspended following a nationwide lockdown on August 11.
The minister said that the ministry is concerned, as the pandemic has affected students. We’re already noticing that closure of schools has impacted students and many students have also started losing interest in studies,” the minister said. “We know that we’re not in a good situation, but we need to make a decision by keeping the virus at bay, as the trend is worrying.”
More than 200 students from Classes X and XII dropped out from school when the schools resumed in July.
Lyonpo said that although it would depend on the decision of the government whether to approve the proposal or not, it was important to continue education.
“Yes, we need to take Covid-19 seriously, but we can’t keep students out of education. Things may not go back to normal, but education must go on, and by following safety measures, we must look into re-opening of schools.”
Students in Classes IX and XI have to learn the lessons well to perform in the board examinations.
Relocation of students from Red Zone
The ministry has also proposed to relocate Classes X and XII students and teachers of Phuentsholing to a safer area to continue education. It is proposed given Phuentsholing remains a red zone.
The proposal also includes re-opening of Classes IX and XI and relocating students of these classes.
“While we understand the situation right now, we cannot keep the rest of the schools closed because of the situation in Phuentsholing,” Lyonpo said.
Lyonpo said the proposal to relocate schools in Phuentsholing would happen if the government decides to re-open other schools. Although the figure of students and teachers was not shared, Lyonpo said that they could be relocated to nearby schools that have classes from PP-VIII and are closed right now.
“This is just a proposal to help students continue education and if approved, we can work further including the help from the health ministry in relocating them,” Lyonpo added. If approved, the relocation would also apply to two private schools in Phuentsholing.
There are one public higher secondary school and two middle secondary schools in Phuentsholing.
Schools in other dzongkhags with similar situations would also be relocated according to the proposal.
The ministry has also proposed the government to relook into re-opening of ECCDs, Non-Formal Education, Community Learning Centres, and two institutes of deaf and blind if the situation improves.
However, classes for PP-VIII will remain closed for the 2020 academic session.
Meanwhile, the minister said that all the normal teaching for Classes X and XII will remain suspended, as announced earlier while other students would continue learning through online lessons provided through Self Instructional Materials and other online platforms.
Lyonpo said the school administrations cannot conduct normal classes for boarding students who are on the campus right now, as this would be unfair to students who are at home.
“It cannot be possible for teachers to conduct normal classes since some of the teachers are in the campus while some are off-campus,” Lyonpo said. “The school administration can, however, come up with their own ideas to keep boarding students engaged meaningfully.”
Many principals of boarding schools Kuensel talked to said that students are either asked to complete the project works or assignments, read books and are sometimes allowed to watch movies on BBS.
Yangchen C Rinzin
As Covid-19 reaches to interior parts of the country, the health ministry is unable to establish how and when the virus entered Phuentsholing, which is today a red zone.
According to Health Minister Dechen Wangmo like Bhutan, many countries are unable to track down patient zero or pinpoint individuals who may have been the first person to start spreading Covid-19.
Health Minister Dechen Wangmo said, “Epidemiologically, it will be difficult to prove the source for local transmission in Phuentsholing.”
Phuentsholing today has 41 people who are primary contacts of the 25-year-old loader, who was the first to test positive from the mini dry port.
However, during the active community surveillance of the 27,134 people tested, 25 tested positive. None of them was connected to the mini dry port case. This had confirmed the local transmission in Phuenthsoling and the town was declared a red zone.
Although Bhutan’s first local transmission (25-year-old loader) is technically an imported case, health minister during a press briefing yesterday, said that the source of infection and local transmission in the country cannot be established.
“It’ll depend on time but it’ll not be easy to find how did the virus spread or where did they get it from,” Lyonpo said.
“We cannot pinpoint the index case and conclude they triggered the outbreak.”
Patient zero or the index case refers to the first person to be infected by the Covid-19 in an outbreak in a community and spread the virus.
Lyonpo said that based on the cases in Phuentsholing, the health ministry although not concluded, calls the source as a cluster of a specific population and well contained areas.
This will let to exact primary contacts and its details.
For instance, one cluster is a mini dry port where the loader tested positive, as all the positive people were in the same unit. Another cluster was the 16 positive cases detected from Project DANTAK and one from IMTRAT in Phuentsholing.
“It’s still a cluster (mode of transmission)- where positive cases are coming from a specific place,” Lyonpo said. “If we’re to find out whether mini dry port workers got it from Project DANTAK or vice-versa, it will not be easy to prove.”
Health officials urge people to cooperate
Despite the nationwide lockdown, the health ministry has managed to keep essential medical services running uninterrupted across the country.
Services like mother and childcare, immunisation, reproductive health, emergencies, care for vulnerable population (infants and elderlies above 60 years) including persons with disabilities and medication for ongoing management of chronic diseases including mental health, among others continues to be available in all the health centres.
Health Secretary Dr Ugen Dophu said that even before the nationwide lockdown was enforced, all health facilities were asked to dispense refill medicine for three months except for those requiring frequent consultations.
Following the lockdown, refills for patients who were on long-term medication for chronic diseases were delivered at their doorsteps.
However, the ministry recently piloted another mechanism to further streamline the delivery of medicine refills in Thimphu. With the introduction of the zoning system, health ministry identified one outlet (shop) in each zone as an access point to pick and drop medicine refills.
People requiring the refill are asked to drop their prescription with their contact details at the identified shops. In the evening health staff collect the prescription, collect the medicine from the pharmacy at the national referral hospital and drop it back at the same shop.
Health officials said that individuals could collect their medicine the next day. And should someone forget to collect the refill, the shopkeeper or a De-Suup on duty would contact the individual to collect the refill.
Dr Ugen Dophu said that this method was found to be more sustainable and easy rather than health workers having to drop the refills to individual households. “So far we have received good feedback on the initiative. We want to replicate this in other urban centres too in the future.”
He said that the method was piloted in Thimphu as there were complaints of delay in delivery. The mechanism he said was possible and more effective in urban areas.
The ministry has also put in additional vehicles to complement the existing ambulance fleet at all levels of health care centres up to basic health unit (BHU) grade I.
Depending on the size of the centres, the secretary said that additional vehicles were put to reach maximum public and carter services immediately.
However, he said that despite the additional vehicles it was challenging for the centres to provide timely response to all. “This is because our vehicles have to wait for the individual for almost an hour. This disrupts our strategy and we land up doing only three trips instead of 10 in a day.”
“I would like to request people if they have called for ambulances to be ready on time and not to keep the vehicles waiting,” said Dr Ugen Dophu. “Don’t delay the vehicles as they have to cater to other people as well.”
For an efficient system
The health ministry has made it mandatory, since August 11, to allow only one attendant per patient in all hospitals across the country. To reinforce the regulation and in preparation of a worst-case scenario, the ministry on Thursday announced that all patients who are going to be admitted to the hospital along with their attendants would be tested for Covid-19.
A notification from the ministry stated that patient attendants would not be allowed to change until the patient is discharged. No food from outside would be allowed and health facilities would provide a balanced diet food for the patients and the attendant. Also no visitors or relatives would be allowed to visit patients.
Dr Ugen Dophu said that although admissions to the hospitals are continuing, the overall patient visiting hospitals decreased including people visiting the emergency unit.
“Unlike before, only the real and genuine patients are coming now. This is what we want even after the lockdown is lifted. We want people to visit the hospitals only if they really need the service.”
The secretary also said that people should only call the hotline numbers if they are in need of the medical services. “There are people who call our hotline numbers to flirt with lady health workers attending the calls.”
He said that prank calls and queries about other issues such as garbage collection, vegetable delivery and other services clog the hotline and deprive opportunities of those requiring health services.
“Please cooperate with us so that we can cater to as many people as possible. If people continue calling these numbers unnecessarily, we might have to take legal action against them,” he said.
Dr Ugen Dophu said that since more lockdowns could happen henceforth, the health system has to be more efficient with each lockdown. “Covid-19 will stay for a while and the health system has to be wiser and more efficient going forward. And people should also become more cooperative so that things can work more efficiently.”
Tshering Namgyal | Mongar
As days passed, the little they had was running out – rice, oil, cheese and vegetables. It was near crisis as the lockdown continued for two weeks. There was no money to replenish even if a few shops opened.
Tenzin Dema (name changed) was worried. She had a family to feed. Desperate and lost in Yadi town, Mongar, she called up the Royal Kidu Office. Help came and came immediately. The Dzongkhag Druk Gyalpo’s Relief Kidu (DGRK) team immediately made to the site and delivered essentials like rice, oil, milk powder, cheese and salt among others. Ngatshang gewog administration also supported the families with butter, cheese, and vegetable items.
The 26-year old said her year-long ordeal came to an end after she received His Majesty The King’s kidu. Tenzin has been living with her husband and two daughters at Yadi town for a few years now. Her husband, after losing his job with a corporation, left in search for work in Gelephu. He had never returned nor sent any money.
Tenzin and her family rented a small house for Nu 2,300 a month and started weaving for a living, but couldn’t afford the rent. They had no money to even pay the cable operator for a year. A restaurant above her house had come to their rescue with leftover food from the kitchen. Their source of meals came to an abrupt end when the lockdown closed the restaurant.
“I’ve been bearing the situation as much as we could. Without any alternative, it was inevitable and had to ask for kidu,” she said. “I am very grateful to His Majesty The King for saving us from going hungry.”
Tenzin Dema is not alone. Many people who were badly affected by the pandemic and the lockdown received Kidu form His Majesty’s Kidu office in Mongar.
Another beneficiary, Tshewang Namgyal, from Mongar gewog said he had to ask for kidu after he lost his business in January. “All the little savings I had were spent on house rent and I didn’t even have rice to eat at home,” he said. “We are putting extra burden on His Majesty who is worried about the disease, but we had no choice but to look for help.”
As of yesterday the Mongar Dzongkhag DGRK team handed over His Majesty’s kidu to 68 vulnerable families who were mostly day-wage workers, who were affected by the lockdown. Following the recommendations from the gewogs, the DGRK team members said they went door-door to verify the applicants.
Every time the health ministry updates the status of Covid-19 cases in the country, there are more questions than answers. People want to know who, where and how an individual contracted the virus. They are after details to the extent that the media is blamed for releasing half-baked information.
Both the health ministry and the public have their own justifications. The public wants to know the details because they are concerned. If they know the details of the person like where he or she had travelled or visited, it would help them report or help authorities in tracing contacts. Some are even questioning the pleas the health ministry made to help them trace as information provided is vague or incomplete.
The health ministry is governed by rules and ethics. They cannot issue details. In our case, people are ready to stigmatise and it is right to be socially concerned about revealing details. The debate will ensue as long as the pandemic lasts.
After the health ministry revealed that 21 of the 187 Covid-19 positive cases so far are Indians, officials of Project DANTAK and the Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT), there were more questions. The instant reaction was that the government was hiding information, as they had no control over the two foreign organisations in the country. There had been rumours, for many weeks now, that these officials were free to travel in and out of the country even when the border was sealed.
The health ministry confirmed 16 positive cases among Project DANTAK officials, five among IMTRAT and revealing a case from August 22 only after a week gave reasons for people to be suspicious. The health minister assured that it was not important to reveal who tested positive as long as the national protocols are followed. Whether it is an official of a foreign organisation or a local farmer, as long as the case is managed well, the risk too is managed. If contacts are traced and quarantined following protocols, it doesn’t matter who or which nationality tested positive.
If all foreign organisations in the country are governed and strictly adhered to the protocols and standards established, the fight against the spread of the virus could be controlled.
However, the concern among the public makes sense. The government had been telling people to be concerned, not panic. When rumours are not clarified, it creates panic. Bhutanese say there won’t be smoke without a fire. They heard that foreigners had contracted the virus. It became a concern to the extent that some are convinced that the virus reached Phuentsholing through uncontrolled movement of foreign officials.
The health minister clarified that every individual in the country, foreign or local are governed by the same protocol and it is being followed. This should convince the people. Transparency could help people become more cautious. We have seen this before. With three new cases confirmed among IMTRAT officials in Haa yesterday, residents of Haa would be more cautious, for instance. These would help the government’s effort in controlling the virus or the people during the lockdown.
A democratic government must ensure transparency, openness, and accountability. Government’s willingness to uphold the fundamental right to information is key to transparency and accountability. This right is presumed to exist when the information is “freely available and directly accessible to those who will be affected by such decisions and their enforcement.” Any secrecy would extinguish these basic tenets of a democracy.
This week, Kuensel, through an editorial cast doubts on government’s willingness to share adequate information. The editorial further raised concerns about risks of speculations or rumours in the society which could seriously impede the collective fight against the pandemic and prejudice the functioning of a responsible media. An editor of private newspapers on his social network wrote: “Private media houses are not short of news, we are short of sources and the only solution is transparency and cooperation to give right information.”
First, with the nationwide lockdown, the state has suspended almost all our rights under article 7 of our constitution. The only visible right now is the right to freedom of media under Article 7(5). In this pandemic, access to right information by media is the most crucial because the entire nation relies on details through media. Our unity and collective effort to fight this pandemic solely depends on the correct and adequate information. Any confusing information will result in social chaos and eventually cost people’s confidence in the government.
Second, any distortion or denial of right to information will result in fake news, rumours, and anonymity. Further, since the public authorities are vested with unlimited power during the lockdown, it may amount to abuse and threaten the foundations of our democracy. The only way to ensure that the government functions within the limits of democratic values and uphold the people’s confidence now rest with media.
Third, our freedom of speech, opinion, and expression, right to information and right to vote depends on freedom of media. Though article 1 of our Constitution states that power belongs to people, it is our representatives, the government, who actually has the power. Article 20 (6) of our constitution thus, mandates the government to “promote an efficient civil administration based on the democratic values and principles.” People can judge and speak to government only when there is access to information. Information is key to upholding the democratic values and principles.
Fourth, one of the framers of our Constitution wrote “Information is knowledge. Knowledge empowers people and removes the uncertainty and doubts. When citizens are well informed, mutual trust grows between the citizens and their government.” Proper access to accurate information will not only “facilitate active participation of the people in the democratic governance process, but also promotes openness, transparency and accountability in administration.”
Fifth, unlike most other rights, right to information benefits both the government and public directly. Access to information will help people build confidence in our government and promote mutual trust between the state and people. Mutual trust and confidence in government are key essentials in success of the lockdown and fighting this pandemic together as one.
Finally, in any true democracy, the public has the right to demand and scrutinise the actions of public authorities and hold them accountable. The code of ethics for the journalist requires that media must report accurately without fear and favour. The question of accuracy, correctness and unbiased reporting will largely depends on their access to information.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.
Neten Dorji | Trashigang
In Trashigang, 872 staff of Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT), Project DANTAK (GREF) officials and Bhutanese workers were tested for Covid-19. Swab samples would be sent to Monger Regional Referral Hospital to test on RT-PCR.
Health officials visited places such as IMTRAT and DANTAK campus in Kanglung, Khaling and Moshi, among others, to conduct the tests.
Health officials say they conducted the test following the notification from the Ministry of Health. “Individuals working along the road sides was identified as higher risks,” said an official.
“We are conducting a rapid diagnostic test and sending nasal and throat swabs for PCR to Mongar hospital,” said Jigme Tenzin, Doctor of Reserbu General Hospital.
A machine operator, Tashi Dorji, said that it was important to test for Covid-19.
“We are now feeling relieved as the officials conducted a test, and the result was also negative,” said Choki wangmo, who is a day worker with DANTAK. “I also learned that it is important to maintain the safety measures to ensure the safety for both the parties.”
Another worker, Dawa Norbu, said that they were safe and relieved. “If someone is infected among us, all would be infected easily. It went well, the health official conducted the test before it was too late.”
Trashigang has quarantined five individuals at facility quarantine and placed 85 in home quarantine.
The surveillance teams trace the travel history at the entry point and if someone comes from an infected area, he or she is directly quarantined.