Neten Dorji | Bartsham
With their heads almost kissing their knees, three women are busy in a potato field in Bartsham, Trashigang. There is enough distance between them, about three meters or more.
It is not the weed that is distancing them, but the awareness on the importance of social distancing. The women are engrossed. They talk about the weed, the weather and the new coronavirus.
The weeding season is coming to an end. Potato yield will depend on how much farmers can uproot the weeds that compete with the tuber that is both a cash and food crop. Most farmers are done with the weeding. There are not many people out in the fields.
Host Dorji Wangmo said the gewog officials came and told them to keep enough distance between them while working in the fields. “Most of us work with a maximum of three people in the fields. We keep hearing it on the television,” she said.
Above the potato fields, carrying a spade, Jigme Yangden, is on her way to her fields. She becomes inquisitive and questions a visitor to the village. “We want to be safe and has to be aware of new comers in the village,” she said.
Another villager, Cheki Dema said they are following instructions of health officials and awareness programmes they saw on the national TV. They have restricted their movement. She said villagers buy essential from shops in the locality and had cut down trips to Trashigang town.
Villagers are busy with their daily work. Mothers with their children are tending to cattle, construction works are going on as usual and shops remain open.
Tshering Euden, a mother of two said that after she heard of Covid- 19 outbreak, parents started taking extra care of their children. “I don’t see much children loitering around villages,” she said.
Chawmo, 63, of Zortshing said that they are also aware of fake news. “There was a rumour saying the virus is carried by the wind and everybody would be affected. We found out that it was fake,” she said.
A farmer, Sonam Dhendrup said that they don’t see many new faces in the locality but they questioned when they encounter new people. “We are told to report to authority if we see new people coming in the village,” he said. Many believe that the disease could be brought to the village by a newcomer.
Meanwhile, some villager stocked rice and essential after they heard the boarder gates were sealed. “Apart from essentials like cooking oil and salt, I think we will be fine with what we grow here,” said a villager, Sonam Dorji. “It was a relief to hear that essentials will not be a problem.”
Rajesh Rai | Samtse
Covid-19 has renewed economic opportunities for farmers in Samtse.
Farmer Godhak Singh Ghalley, 35, of Lamithang village has been into chilli business for the last three years but he said this year was the best, both in terms of harvest and price.
He claimed he is taking the chilli scarcity seriously and wanted to supply sufficient chillies for people.
Chillies are abundant in Godhak’s garden. His family receives inquiry calls from customers time and again.
The class nine drop out said Covid-19 has taken his chilli farming to a new level of success.
As of now, Godhak has sold more than 200kg of chillies. He is expecting to sell another 200kg in the next harvest.
Many people from the town visited Godhak’s house and plucked the chillies on their own.
He, however, is surprised with people’s behavior.
On March 29, he lost about 10kg of chilies in the crowd. People at the Sunday market stole it from his stall.
“There was so much rush for chillies,” he said, adding that even vegetable vendors from Phuentsholing had come to buy the green chillies.
The chillies that were sold at Nu 200 a kg before are now fetching Nu 250 and Nu 300 these days in Samtse.
Meanwhile, most of the people in Samtse are also going local and organic. Local vegetable sales have increased.
Nowraj Rai, 27, has a roadside vegetable stall at Diphujhora and said sales have increased by more than 40 percent. Farmers nearby bring organic vegetables and keep at his stall for sale.
“Except for onion, all vegetables in my stall are organic,” he said.
Nowraj had come home from Qatar in January.
He said selling organic vegetables is lucrative these days. “Farmers are finally getting paid for their hard work.”
The class 10 graduate said this trend of going local and organic kept the money within the country. “It is also healthy for people.”
Barun Chhetri, 45, at Bhimtar is also planning to grow chilli in large scale. He has about 10,000 chilli saplings ready for plantation whenever favourable.
In his three acres of farmland, Barun Chhetri has grown four types of chillies. He is currently waiting to harvest the Indian chillies. “I don’t take it to the Sunday market as I sell it on the roadside.”
Meanwhile, Godhak said while earning some income, he also got satisfaction to be contributing in his own ways to the country.
“Chilies in my garden are organic and healthy compared to the ones from across the border,” he said.
Recently, he also donated about 10kg of chillies to the quarantine centres in Samtse. Godhak and his father are already working towards increasing the farmland to more than three acres. They are also planning to grow different vegetables.
Inspired by PM of India’s initiative
The Embassy of India in Bhutan has started an online yoga class for all Bhutanese irrespective of yoga enthusiasts, yoga beginners or yoga practitioners since yesterday.
Ambassador of India to Bhutan, Ruchira Kamboj, said that the online session is also for those in self-isolation and in quarantine facility. “The online yoga classes represent a productive way to spend their time in the morning.”
Guruji KVSSN Murthy, yoga teacher of the Cultural Centre of the Embassy of India, Thimphu, will lead the online yoga asanas and postures.
“Given that we are currently encouraged to maintain physical distancing, what could be better than to bring yoga to our homes through online class,” said Ambassador Ruchira Kamboj.
The live-streamed classes are from Monday to Friday and starts at 8:30am for about 15-20 minutes.
Anyone with an internet connection, mobile or laptop or PC can join the online yoga class through Facebook page of the ‘India in Bhutan’ Facebook page.
Those who miss the live classes can access at any time convenient through the Facebook Page or You Tube channel of the Embassy of India, where the videos of these live classes will be uploaded.
“Amidst this crisis, the practice of yoga could help us de-stress, build up physical fitness, unify body, mind and spirit,” said Ambassador Ruchira Kamboj. “Yoga can totally change one’s perspective whether one is in isolation, quarantine, practicing physical distancing or staying active in happier times.”
The Ambassador said that the idea to start the online yoga class was inspired by the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi who has always stressed on the importance of Yoga, an ancient Indian tradition.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi shared his fitness routine with the public on March 30 amidst the 21-day lockdown due to coronavirus.
He shared 3D animated videos of him performing yoga on Twitter to show how he remains fit and for people to entertain themselves as they stay at their homes.
“Someone asked me about my fitness routine during this time. Hence, thought of sharing these Yoga videos,” the Prime Minister tweeted.
The Prime Minister further asked people to share their tips and ways of remaining fit during these trying times.
PM Modi tweeted that practicing yoga has been an integral part of his life for many years and that he has found it beneficial.
A 3D animated video of the Indian PM performing yoga
Bhutan Foundation has launched three free e-books in both Dzongkha and English for children to read during free time.
The free e-books can be downloaded from https://bhutanfound.org/ebooks.
The three illustrated titles- Who Am I?, Snow Leopard and Norbu the Cat, and Ap Nado’s Calf – were created by Bhutanese teachers and artists.
These primary readers were developed and distributed for free as reading materials for school children in the highland communities of the snow leopard range areas in Bhutan.
Developed in partnership with the Royal Educational Council, The Bhutan Foundation aims to raise awareness on the importance of the snow leopard and its conservation in the region.
Tour operator engages guides and drivers in agriculture
Up above the Sangaygang hill, a group of men are busy. Armed with spades and pickaxes, the men, nine of them, donning shades and caps, dig out hard soil to be turned into agriculture land.
The men who recently guided and drove rich tourists to Sangaygang never expected that they would be tilling land to make a living. In a few days, they would turn the barren land at Tashiding, a secluded village, located about 15 minutes walk from the “romantic point” Sangaygang, into a rich farmland.
With the Covid-19 pandemic hitting the tourism and service sector the hardest, several guides and drivers lost jobs and livelihood overnight. The enthusiastic men are ready to do anything to make a living.
They found a saviour in a tour operator. Phuntsho Norbu, of Bridge To Bhutan owns 38 decimal of land at Tashiding. Seeing guides and drivers out of job, he wanted to turn that into an opportunity to help his colleagues in the same business.
Farming, Phuntsho Norbu found, could gainfully engage himself and his staffs in absence of guests in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic.
Catching his breath in between making garden beds, a guide, Kuenga Tenzin, said that he had no backup plans when the disease took the world by surprise. “Our boss was thoughtful to have come up with a plan like this to keep us gainfully engaged.”
While the government is under pressure to look after those affected in the tourism and hotel sectors, some are trying to help the government.
Phuntsho Norbu said that the moment the disease hit the country, many thought it was the government’s responsibility to look into the losses the sector would incur.
“Although no one said this directly but it was implied. The tourism fraternity is now waiting for the government to do something because they are suffering. I think this is not the right attitude and it is almost cruel to think so.”
Comparing the government to a milking cow, Phuntsho Norbu said that when the cow was in good health, everyone got their share of milk. However, when the cow fell sick, instead of helping and caring for the animal, people started hitting the cow for not producing enough milk.
This is the same situation today, he said. “Knowing all well that the government is not in a position to provide everything that is demanded, people should come forward and support the government.”
He said that as long as people had respected the country’s tourism policy and abided by regulations, there should not be any reason for tour operators to struggle at least for the next three months.
“If the situation remains the same even after six moths, we can then discuss ways to address this issue together with the government.”
The reason why tourism sector has flourished in the country, he said was because of the visionary monarchs and the different governments who have tirelessly worked to take Bhutan where it is today.
“Without all the stability in the country and the rich cultural and environmental assets for which we are know for, tourism will be out of question,” he said. “It’s payback time and there’s no better time than today to give back to the country when it needs us the most.”
Phuntsho Norbu added that while helping the country, it was equally important to look after those people who have been there for them during their heydays. “Leaving them behind in times when they need you the most was morally wrong. Your conscience should not allow such things to happen.”
The tour operator has donated Nu 600,000 to the government Covid-19 respond fund and Nu 700,000 to his employees taking into account the two month sustainable development fund (SDF) his company would have generated from the guests.
“We hope that there would be more people who can come forward in times like this and help the government,” he said. “If for nothing else, this would be a gesture to show support and solidarity and also to thank all those things that has help you become who you are today.”
Meanwhile, he intends to further extend his agricultural project. “Even before the Covid-19 issue, we had plans to do something with agriculture during the off season,” he said. “If not for anybody else, the virus has given us an opportunity to prove to ourselves that we can survive as a team.”
In a show of gratitude and solidarity, Bhutanese contributed millions of Ngultrums to the Covid-19 relief fund in the past week.
The latest was Tashi Group of Companies. Yesterday, Tashi Group contributed Nu 20 million to His Majesty’s Kidu Fund for COVID-19 and USD 24,000 worth of rapid testing kits to His Majesty’s Secretariat.
Kuensel learnt that the company has also provided housing to 669 employees and their families in Phuentsholing. They were earlier living across the border in Jaigaon.
The members of the Peling Foundation, initiated by Gangtey Trulku, contributed Nu 1M to His Majesty’s Kidu fund for Covid-19 and Nu 1M to the government on March 30.
On March 26, Namkhai Nyingpo Rinpoche of Lhodrak Kharchu Dratshang, Bumthang and Tshokey Dorji Foundation handed over Nu 1M to the Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering in support of government’s efforts to prevent and contain the spread of Covid-19.
Both Peling Foundation and Tshokey Dorji Foundation expressed their gratitude and appreciation to the health workers, Desuups, and others who are at the forefront helping people. Following the directives of Namkhai Nyingpo Rinpoche and Gangtey Trulku, religious ceremonies are also being conducted in various dratshangs and monastic institutions under their respective administrations to alleviate the situation.
They also expressed their deep gratitude to His Majesty The King for tirelessly examining the vulnerable areas across the country in person to ensure that Bhutanese rise up to overcome the pandemic.
The Peling Foundation stated, “This is also our humble gesture to pay our deepest gratitude and an act of solidarity to the nation during this troubled time. We are further committed to supporting the Nation in difficult times in whatsoever capacity we can.”
“By the grace of Kenchosum and the flawless virtue of pure dedication, integrity, and loyalty of our people under the wise, compassionate, and benevolent leadership of His Majesty The Druk Gyalpo, may the disease and its name vanish at the earliest,” the Tshokey Dorji Foundation stated.
Meanwhile, the Druk Thuenpapuenzhi Community Forest Management Group of Dogar gewog, Paro also handed over Nu 0.35M to His Majesty’s Kidu Fund, yesterday.
Bhutan Telecom (BT) and TashiCell have submitted proposals for additional data for educational purposes to the Ministry of Education (MoE) in the wake of disturbances due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The need to reduce data charges increased after Google classrooms became a reality due to the closure of schools.
The two companies have proposed additional data for students. But the companies have proposed restrictions on the content, which means the reduction in data charges will apply only for certain services like Google classrooms.
The Druk Holding and Investments (DHI) has already decided to provide free data for those who are in quarantine.
BT CEO Karma Jurme said: “We are expecting Internet traffic congestion which is why we are saying that the students’ data quota should for educational purposes.”
But despite the expected traffic congestion, the CEO said that there was no need for the company to increase its carrying capacity with restrictions in the system. He said that BT was in discussion with its partners on the plan.
There are already traffic congestions where the density of users is high.
Asked on who will bear the cost of providing additional data, Karma Jurme said, “If we are coming up with a package for students, we cannot really say that there are financial implications.”
The proposed data quota, he said, was being treated as the company’s support for students in this difficult time. “Of course, if you provide more goods at the same price, financial implications will be there, but we are not looking at it that way,” he added.
TashiCell says it has to increase the capacity to avoid traffic congestion.
Commercial general manager of TashiCell, Namgyal Wangchuk, said that the network traffic would increase when thousands of students come online.
There were a total of 166,786 students in 2019, according to the statistical yearbook 2019.
According to the general manager, the education ministry would provide the lists of students to the companies based on which the service would be provided. “We are working with the government,” he said.
Namgyal Wangchuk said that the government was expected to provide subsidies to the company. According to him, reduction in data charges would have financial implications on the company as it needed to upgrade the capacity immediately to avoid the network congestion.
In a press release, the DHI expressed thanks to His Majesty for the guidance and fighting the virus on the frontline. “We also applaud our frontline health workers, led by Hon’ble Prime Minister and Health Minister, for their extra efforts to stem the spread of the virus.”
The press release stated DHI and Companies had decided that Bhutan Power Corporate (BPC) and BT would provide free electricity and free data services to all private quarantine centres. The service is effective for the duration the facilities are used as quarantine centres.
Earlier, the prime minister had requested the companies to consider waiver of the electricity bills for hotels that are being used as quarantine centres and to consider reduction in data charges
Chimi Demal | Tsirang
Padam Lal, 42, is a vegetable farmer in Pemathang, Tsirang. These days he can almost always be seen watering his vegetable garden. Demand for local vegetables has increased sharply because of import difficulties due to Covid-19 scare.
He is in Thimphu almost every weekend with loads of vegetables. Last week, he supplied 400kg of cauliflower and 500kg of cabbage to Thimphu. Coming Sunday he is planning to send more.
Even as India has declared 21-day lockdown, vegetables and other essentials keep coming to Bhutan. However, factors such as shortage of labour have resulted in reduced supply. This has motivated Padam Lal to grow more vegetables this time around.
It used to take him a whole day to sell vegetables before. Not anymore. He is now struggling to meet the demand. “This encourages me to work even harder,” he said.
Padam Lal is the lone provider of the family. He has been selling vegetables for the last 20 years. The entire two-acre land is filled with fresh vegetables. These days, he makes more than Nu 20,000 from fresh vegetables.
“We have been receiving various supports like fencing and water pipes from the government,” he said.
According to Gosarling Gup Ram Bahadur Karki, villagers were keen to produce more vegetables now. About 70 percent of farmers grow on commercial scale and are sold in the nearby dzongkhags.
In Kilkhorthang gewog, people have returned home to start vegetable farming. Chandra Prasad Khandal from Dekiling used to work in a hardware store in Paro. He is now back in the village to begin vegetable farming.
“Farming has become very lucrative,” he said. “But in my place there is shortage of water. I would have taken up large-scale vegetable farming if I had enough water.”
Kilkhorthang Gup Beda Moni Chamlagai said: “With more people coming back to villages and taking up farming these days, we are expecting more production.”
Gewog officials who go around the chiwogs providing health advice on Covid-19 are also encouraging farmers to grow vegetables.
Kilkhorthang has more than 500 households; 90 percent of people are involved in vegetable farming. About 60 percent of farmers grow on a commercial scale.
According to gewogs’ agriculture extension officials, the dzongkhag agriculture sector with the help of agriculture department is supplying seeds based on the requirements.
“For summer vegetables, we have been receiving seeds and would supply to the gewogs,” an official said.
Nim Dorji | Trongsa
While the National Food Security Reserve (NFSR) and Food Corporation of Bhutan (FCBL) stocked all basic necessities in Trongsa, the town is running short of the most important spice or vegetable.
Vendors and grocery shop owners are running out of chilli, both fresh and dried.
Trongsa residents say green chillies were out of stock since last week and vendors said they couldn’t get it from anywhere. Only one vendor in the vegetable market had dried red chilli stock yesterday is out of stock.
The vendor said trade officials told them not to sell in bulk, as there is a shortage of chilli in the market, but the dried chili is out of stock and looking for alternative.
Three vendors in the vegetable market have closed their stalls after running out of vegetables.
Locals who come to sell the products claim that when they bring huge quantity of dried chillies, people do not buy and accuse them of charging high prices.
While residents complained of vegetable price increase, a vendor, who didn’t want to be named, said they have to change three vehicles to bring vegetables from border areas to Trongsa. “We also have to pay Nu 2,000 to the police personnel there.”
Officials from the regional trade office in Trongsa said that they didn’t receive any formal complaint on the price inflation but they regulate and monitor. “People are informed not to escalate prices of commodities and if they do so they will be charged as per the Consumer Act of Bhutan,” an official said.
Meanwhile, as per NSFR, each dzongkhag should reserve stocks that could last for three months.
FCBL in Trongsa dzongkhag stocked 151.35 metric tonnes (MT) of rice, 24.18 MT of edible oil and 9.85MT of pulses.
Bumthang FCBL depot has also reserved 94.94MT of rice, 13.95MT of edible oil and 7.5MT of pulses at Gangrithang Primary School.
Tshering Namgyal | Mongar
Dechen Norbu from Sangnyerphai in Chali is the only farmer growing spring paddy in Mongar.
Last year, Dechen Norbu harvested around 500kg paddy from around a langdo of rice field. He also had surplus to sell around 40 kg of rice which sold them at around Nu 60 per kg at the vegetable market shed in Mongar town.
Dechen Norbu has cultivated paddy in about a two-langdo land this season.
“After growing spring paddy, I didn’t have to buy rice from the market and I am hoping for a better yield this year,” he said.
Growing spring paddy was made possible with the support from Agriculture Research Development Centre (ARDC) in Wengkhar as part of a project to commercialise spring paddy in four sites covering 533 acres in three dzongkhags (Gelephu-136 acres, Chuzargang-185 acres, Yoeseltse-118 acres, and Khameathang-94 acres) initiated by Department of Agriculture, MoAF in 2017.
In the east, ARDC in collaboration with dzongkhag agriculture sectors initiated spring paddy programme in Mongar and Samdrupjongkhar (Phuntshothang-10 acres, Jamgsawom-4 acres). A total of 26 households were engaged in spring rice cultivation in around 15 acres of land.
In Mongar, only Chali gewog was selected and the ARDC-Wengkhar provided technical backstopping along with inputs such as 45 kg of seeds, polythene sheets and fertilizers.
The spring paddy focal person from ARDC-Wengkhar, Kinzang Thinley, said the eastern part of Bhutan was predominated by maize with limited rice production. Rice import was almost 50 percent. Modern farming practice would help fulfil the national mandate of achieving 65 percent rice self-sufficiency, he said.
According to officials, in the east, the spring paddy initiative was started in 2018 with evaluation of four paddy varieties. The farmers selected Samtenling Sokha Ray. It is believed that the yield from the variety is around 1.2 metric tons of rice per acre.
ARDC-Wengkhar plans to carry out suitability mapping of spring paddy in the region for promotional programme, develop complete package of practice (PoP) for spring paddy production in the form of pamphlets and brochures. The complete promotional programme package will be handed to the dzongkhag agriculture sector.
“This will help utilise scarce wetland twice a year for rice production,” Kinzang Thinley said.
Officials said they were in the process of studying the impacts of spring paddy cultivation. “In the long run, if more farmers come forward to take up this initiatives, it will definitely uplift the socioeconomic position of farmers,” Kinzang Thinley said.
The spring paddy programme was supported by CARLEP-IFAD project.
There are times when situation makes us wiser to initiate bold changes, some even questioning the very basis of our customs and traditions.
This week, His Holiness the Je Khenpo in addressing the nation through a recorded sungshey on the national TV, left many with folded hands, nodding in agreement. The message was on the importance of social distancing in the wake of the new coronavirus, but HH the Je Khenpo’s wisdom had more. It reminded of our attitude or perceptions of things that we do. And the way we do.
When his HH said that the number of cars in a convoy, food items or the size of the crowd is immaterial for the dead, it questions our attitude rather than the belief. It is created by social pressure rather than belief or Buddhism.
Cremation draws crowd. If it is complicating the effort to prevent the spread of Covid-19, it has, on the hindsight, been very complicated. Everybody attends funerals to pay the last rite. That is not a problem.
The problem is when it starts becoming a burden to the already bereaved. Burden can be from misconception that not many had attended the funeral, that the food was not good or that there were only countable cars in the convoy that went around the town before reaching the crematorium.
Quite often, apart from the physical presence, the duthroe become a gossip ground. Men and women sit in decorated tents and talk about everything under the sun including the veg juma on the menu. Jokes abound and laughter loud when the host is mourning. When help is needed, it is mostly the hired hand that tends to the oven from the start to the end.
In the kitchen, it is soldiers or police personnel who had been called from duty to help cook and do the dishes. The appreciation is so much that everybody agrees that a relative in the armed force is a must. Attending a funereal is an unquestionable excuse to miss work. It is worse when a whole office is empty for hours.
His Holiness’s pragmatic message is a reminder that it is not religious traditions, but our own attitudes and misconceptions. Funeral rites need not be presided by a high lama always. People are convinced when His Holiness stopped presiding funeral rites followed by the four Lopons. At the Thimphu duthroe, the Dratshang has arranged monks headed by a Truelku. That does not mean everybody should rush to Thimphu.
There is no logic in stacking Bangkok-imported tshogs wrapped in plastics. Cleaners at the duthroe are overwhelmed by the amount of junk they collect. Some must be returning to the shops.
It is difficult to change our customs driven by pressure and not reasoning. People will go to attend funerals, crack jokes, gossip and feel satisfied with their presence. The host will keep note and return the favour.
Having listened to His Holiness’s sungshey, it gives us reason to change. Traditions have evolved with time. Another initiative of His Holiness, banning packaged tshogs, is not only working, but it is also appreciated in the face of mounting plastic waste problem.
Kelzang Wangchuk | Samdrupjongkhar
Almost two years after remote Yangmalashing village in Dechenling gewog, Pemagatshel, is connected with a farm road, farmers couldn’t use it as there is no bridge over Kerongdrang stream.
Kerodrang separates the village from the gewog.
Villagers say a bridge over the stream could have helped them transport their vegetables and oranges to the nearest market. Yangmalashing has the highest orange production in Nganglam drungkhag.
According to villagers, debris block the hume pipes during monsoon and some portions of the road also gets washed away. “If there is a proper bridge over the stream, the village would be connected to Nganglam drungkhag and the gewog centre through Kerong village in Choekhorling gewog,” a villager said.
Villagers said that Kerongdrang becomes a menace in summer. “It swells in summer even when there is a slight rain,” a villager, Rinchen Zangpo, said.
The 54-year-old farmer said the gewog administration had installed three hume pipes to divert the water,but it does not serve the purpose because it gets blocked in the summer. “People have to walk via Kerong village, which is about more an hour walk uphill.”
He said besides carrying rations on their back, they have to transport oranges paying Nu 50 per pon (80 pieces) and Nu 100 per bag of rice carrying on horses, adding that only the light vehicles can ply along the farm road.
Despite being connected to a farm road, a villager, Chimi Wangchuk, said they still have to carry patients to the other side of the stream during emergencies. “Having the road doesn’t serve its purpose without the bridge.”
Villagers said they raised the matter to the gewog administration through the chiwog tshogpa and the gewog awarded the clearing works but the contractor did not the clear the road properly. “We are not happy as heavy vehicles could not ply through the road,” a villager said.
Yangmalashing chiwog tshogpa, Nidup Tshewang, said the village is in dire need of a bridge and raised the issue in the gewog tshogde.
He, however, said the gup informed that gewog has no plan for a bridge until the next five year Plan.
The 12kms farm road would benefit more than 50 households in Yangmalashing chiwog.
Religious ceremonies and rituals are indispensable to the lives of the common citizens but many aspects need to change especially given the Covid-19 situation, His Holiness the Je Khenpo said in an address to the public on March 29.
At the heart of His Holiness’ address was the message to maintain social and physical distancing and comply with the instructions on precaution for Covid-19 from the government.
“If it were most indispensable to the lives of the laity, then the members of the clergy will have to fulfil their needs even at the risk of their lives,” His Holiness said.
While people are obligated to perform funeral rites, there is no need to rush to Thimphu or Punakha to conduct them. There are cremation grounds, monastic bodies, and a lam in every dzongkhag, which would more than amply fulfil what is necessary.
His Holiness said that for the deceased, it is immaterial how many vehicles follow it to the cremation ground, the size of the crowd, or the number of food items placed before it.
“There is no need to assemble a crowd at the cremation ground or during the rites later,” His Holiness said, adding that given the situation such behaviour is unadvisable.
What is important is that those who miss the funeral need not worry about others’ bad-mouthing and the relatives too should not expect others to gather. Condolences could be conveyed through telephone.
The health ministry has prohibited any form of gathering. “We have to abide by that and if we don’t then we risk not just our lives but endanger the entire country,” His Holiness said.
“The best one can do is recite the mantra of Chenreyzig and dedicate it to the deceased.
The old practice was that even during important religious ceremonies there were no large gatherings.
Conducting prayers for the living or annual family religious activities, a monk alone would suffice.
“Or you could call the monasteries or monastic schools and deposit the offering in terms of cash in the bank accounts of monasteries,” His Holiness said.
His Holiness said that authorities were taking every necessary precaution and if Bhutanese could abide by the government’s orders. “Today, since the disease is well contained, it is easy to control. If we fail to act now, things could get out of our hands.”
Besides many prayers and rituals that are underway, His Holiness urged those in retreats, monasteries, and the public to recite the mantra of Avalokiteshvara. The 10 nunneries in the country are asked to conduct recitation
Guide and driver share their ordeal of 24 days in quarantine
There was no celebration, but when 29-year-old Sangay (name changed) returned home after spending almost a month in a quarantine facility in Thimphu, it was emotionally not less than the grandest homecoming.
At the doorstep, upon his arrival, were his one-and-half-year-old daughter and wife. His aging mother-in-law in the back, all impatiently awaited his return.
Sangay was finally home, after 24 days.
Sangay, the tourist guide who became one of the primary contacts of Bhutan’s first Covid-19 patient, reunited with his family on March 29 after he and the driver tested negative to the virus for the fifth consecutive time.
“Every single day at the quarantine center was agonizing. The fear that we might test positive haunted us,” he said. “However, the services we were provided with, including food and hospitality helped us calm our anxieties from time to time.”
For the 40-year-old driver, it was his family’s safety that worried him the most. “As the sole bread earner in the family, I could not afford to get sick,” he said. “More than myself, I was worried about my family.”
A normal day
On March 2, Sangay and his driver received their guests, the American tourist and his partner at the Paro international airport. In the next four days they were in constant touch until the 76-year-old tourist tested positive on the night of March 5.
Sangay said that the American was already coughing when he arrived in the country. “Our guest said he had the cough for months and we didn’t suspect anything then.”
Between March 2 and 5, Sangay escorted his guest to the national referral hospital three times. “He was not feeling so well which is why we had to take him to the emergency unit on two occasion.”
Impressed by the services he received at the hospital, Sangay said the American wanted to make a donation to the hospital. “We went to hospital again on March 5, as he was not feeling good and also because he planned to make some donation.”
However, considering his deteriorating conditions, a doctor at the hospital suggested them to test for the new coronavirus. He was taken to the isolation ward. Sangay and the driver went to the car to get a nap.
Around 11:30pm Sangay started receiving phone calls from senior government officials and police from Paro and Punakha. “It was then that I knew our guest tested positive for Covid-19.”
The duo were taken to a quarantine facility and their samples were collected the next morning. The same morning, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering announced that Bhutan detected its first positive case in the country.
Inside the quarantine facility
Sangay said the fear of testing positive deprived them of sleep at the quarantine centre. “All we could do was pray.”
Each time they tested negative to the virus, a glimmer of hope overwhelmed them. “Food was good and regular tea and snacks were served,” he said, adding that both of them had put on about 4kg when they came out earlier this week.
Prayers and prostration gave them positive energy. “We spent most of our time prostrating towards the Phajoding monastery from our room. Other times we were following the news on TV and internet,” he said.
The news of the partner testing positive came as the final blow. “We were scared since we were in close contact with each other,” said the guide.
The fifth test came negative. They were allowed to go home. But Sangay and his driver were worried. “We didn’t want to take the disease out to the community,” said Sangay. They requested for extended quarantine. Health officials assured them that they were good to go and provided a certificate to authenticate their status.
By the god’s grace
Both Sangay and the driver attribute their safety to the prayers and blessings their family members including all Bhutanese offered to them while they were quarantined.
“We cannot thank enough for what His Majesty The King, government and all the Bhutanese have done for our safety. We are the few lucky ones to receive all the care from The King himself,” said the driver.
Sangay said that having a healthy body could also have played a part in not getting infected. “It is important for all of us to take good care of our bodies, eat healthy and exercise.”
In his message to the public, the driver said that the disease is not life threatening and people should not panic. “If you know how to maintain self hygiene, you would not get the disease. Even if you do, this virus would not kill you.”
Meanwhile, Sangay shared that the 57-year-old American woman who is in touch with him has been appologising to them and the country for all the troubles.
“It wasn’t their fault. All we want is to see them leave our country in good health.”
The mission that began in early march is incomplete. The American woman always wanted to hike up to the Taktsang monastery. “If it is possible, we will fulfill that dream together when she recovers.”
…quarantine period increased to 21 days
In what could come as a solace to many Bhutanese, the partner of the index case, who tested positive earlier, have now tested negative to the virus.
Health minister Dechen Wangmo during a press briefing yesterday, said that the American woman who was undergoing treatment at the isolation ward at the national referral hospital tested negative on March 23 and 24.
Following the test, the 57-year-old woman has been placed under observation for seven days. Lyonpo said that as per the regulations, if she shows no symptoms within these seven days, she would qualify as recovered.
This means that by April 1, Bhutan could have its first Covid-19 recovered patient.
Lyonpo also shared that the two Bhutanese who tested positive to the virus after returning from Europe have started treatment for the symptoms.
The patients at the isolation ward are given the same antiviral regime that is used in Japan, Singapore and Thailand.
Even as some people in the quarantine centres were planning to request the government if they could continue the remaining days of quarantine at their respective homes, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering yesterday announced that the quarantine period would be increased by seven more days starting today.
This means that those people entering the quarantine centres today would now have to stay inside the designated facility for 21 days upon their arrival in the country.
For those who are already inside the facilities, the 21 day will be counted from the number of days they have been in quarantine so far.
Lyonchhen said that the decision was made considering the highest preventive approach the government has taken so far to prevent the disease from entering the country.
He said that as the surveillance picks up more cases from the quarantine facilities, this is one of the ways to minimise the possibilities.
Although incubation period for Covid-19 ranges from 2-14 days, the average being around five days, there are reports of a few ‘outliers’ around the world and this strategy is to pick such cases, Lyonchhen said.
In a Facebook post addressing all those who are in the quarantine centres, Lyonchhen wrote, “We understand it must have come as a dampening news for most of you in the quarantine facilities, who eagerly waited to meet your family and loved ones upon your return to the country.”
“Given the life we are used to, it is not easy to be confined in a room for even a day, let alone for three weeks. But this has become the necessity of the hour,” he wrote.
Lyonchhen said that those people staying in the quarantine facilities are equally serving the country in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. “As grateful as we are to all the health officials and others in the frontline, the sacrifices you are making are no less.”
The Prime Minister also added that while many have braved the situation in solidarity, anyone inside the quarantine requiring support should call the counsellors listed on the Prime Minister’s Office Facebook page.
“These are challenging times and it is not just us but the entire world that is living through this unprecedented journey. But for Bhutan, we have our biggest assurance and comfort in His Majesty The King who is selflessly looking after the people.”
He added, “So when you walk out of that room at the end of 21 days, hold your head high for you have done your part in serving your King and the country. For now, along with the people of Bhutan, I will pray for your good health.”
Meanwhile, the driver and guide, the primary contacts of the index patient and second positive case were released from the quarantine facility on March 29 after testing negative on their fifth test.
The other driver and guide of the Hong Kong tourist were also released on the same day after testing negative twice and upon the completion of their respective quarantine period.
The ministry have tested and released 124 people from the quarantine centres so far.
Aircraft not chartered, say officials
Phub Dem | Paro
Ninety-three medical students from Sri Lanka were welcomed with a surprise at the Paro International Airport yesterday. They left Sri Lanka prepared for the two-week mandatory quarantine, but learnt on arriving, that it has been increased to 21 days.
While some students applauded the government’s decision to increase the quarantine period, others were worried.
A few students said that if they knew the quarantine period was extended, they would have stayed back in their college.
A girl said that she was worried if her college would resume studies before they complete the quarantine period. “Internationally the quarantine period is two weeks, we cannot change the fact reasoning some exceptional cases which were detected positive after 14 days,” she said.
She said that some students, especially final year students, stayed back because they were not sure about the reopening of the college and with the fear that they might miss classes.
A third-year medical student of General Sir John Kotelawala Defense University said that they were taught that the incubation period was 14 days. “The Prime Minister being an expert in the medical field must have extended it with certain reasons,” she said
Some students said that they were willing to intern and help the medical staff especially in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Even though we are third-year medical students, if given a chance we are ready to serve the country,” a student said.
A parent of a medical student in Sri Lanka, Tshering Dorji coordinated to bring home all 182 medical students after many parents requested him.
He said that the process was taxing. “Even though the government was willing to pay the cost, we requested the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to facilitate the evacuation with parents willing to bear the cost.”
Initially, two flights were arranged with a boarding capacity of 126 each since parents of 139 medical students agreed to evacuate their children.
He said that the operational cost of two flights, when divided among 139 students, came around Nu 37,200.
However, at the last minute, only 93 students registered.
“As 93 students could be accommodated in one flight, the other was cancelled and the cost reduced,” he said. The excess amount was refunded yesterday.
He said that the students came with parents undertaking and that everything was sorted out including informing the students about the opening of college one to two weeks ahead of time.
Deputy General Manager of the commercial department, Bhutan Airlines, Sonam Yangchen, said that the company charged only the operational cost, which includes fuel, direct maintenance, ground landing and crew.
She said that the flight couldn’t be categorised as a chartered flight because there was no profit.
Each passenger paid Nu 29,851.61 as fixed cost.
Meanwhile, swab sample of a passenger showing flu-like symptom was sent to the Royal Centre for Disease Control at Serbithang, Thimphu for testing.
To ease crowding and taxis competing for lesser number of passengers, taxis will ply based on the even and odd number all over the country. The rule came into force yesterday afternoon.
The Road Safety and Transport Authority (RSTA) initiated this as a measure to ensure social distancing after the government announced the importance of maintaining distance while travelling.
The government on March 28 announced restriction on the carrying capacity of taxis and passenger buses. It was decided that a four-seater taxi would carry only two passengers and the number of passengers in public buses was slashed by 50 percent. Taxis with a seating capacity of eight people can carry only four.
RSTA has come out with a standard operating procedure (SOP) to ensure the proper implementation of the rule. RSTA’s Officiating Director General, Ugyen Norbu, said that they have distributed the SOP on physical distancing to all the traffic authorities around the country on March 29.
The taxi association and relevant authorities were also briefed about the new rule in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak. Traffic police said that they had been explaining the rules to taxi drivers and bus operators, as this is a new rule.
To reach out the information to all the taxi drivers around the country would be challenging for the Bhutan Taxi Association, as some of the drivers have not registered with the association.
Officials said that registered divers would get all the information from their group’s WeChat. Sharing information by registered drivers would be only solution to spread the message to all the taxi drivers, as per officials.
Taxi drivers, meanwhile are not happy.
A driver, Sonam Thinley, said that the taxi drivers had been incurring loss due to the coronavirus problem. “Now we struggle to get Nu 500 a day.”
Another driver, Man Bhadur Waiba, said that it is difficult to sustain at the moment. He said a trip from town to Olakha with a fare on Nu 35 per passenger brought them only Nu 70. “By the time we move from the town, we have to pay Nu 10 as a parking fee and the net amount becomes only Nu 60,” he said. “While returning, we hardly get passengers. Drivers are worried about house rent, vehicle loans and family expenditure.”
As per the SOP, taxi drivers are not allowed to increase the fare.
Another driver, Tashi Gyeltshen suggested carrying at least three passengers.
“If we are allowed only two passengers, government should keep the provision to increase the fare from the normal rate. Waiving off parking fee for taxi could be one solution to,” said Tashi Gyeltshen.
The SOP would be implemented until further notice from the government and not complying with it would be charged as per the law.
The public at the bus terminals and the taxi parking are required to maintain a distance of 1.5 metres while waiting for bus or taxi.
Covid-19 is going to change the way we plan our future. When it is finally gone away, we would be reacting to home and world events very differently. We will have become a little wiser.
We have been struggling to revolutionise our education system for some time now. Not many years ago, we tried our hands on online and tele-education. It did not take off because growing out of the old system was difficult for many. But then we are doing very well all of a sudden because we are compelled to.
There are complaints from parents and students. This is natural in the beginning. It takes getting used to. Many already have positive reviews regarding tele-education that we have had to start in the wake of Covid-19 threat.
Soon we will be able to figure out what we lack and where we need to focus on. Done right, online and tele-education will come with great benefit in the long run. ICTisation of education will be a reality. When all these things come together, driving our education system for the 21st century needs will be easy.
These are the opportunities that we have today and we should make the most out of them. But success will depend largely on connectivity and access. These infrastructure challenges will have to be dealt with beforehand. Will our children in rural areas, for example, be able to take advantage of these changes?
Besides providing wider learning horizon to students, online and tele-education have the potential to also address the problem of teacher shortage in the country. We would have dedicated and highly motivated teachers in the cadre and they can be retained with good pay. Expenses on school infrastructure, which have recently grown by many folds because of myopic political decisions, can be cut down significantly.
We are talking only about education. Covid-19 will have changed the outlook and the behaviour of all the sectors in the country. Businesses will be looking at their efficiency and sustainability very differently. The government offices will hopefully have become more responsible and caring when it comes to public service delivery. But then the greatest opportunity lies in changing our education system altogether.
Investment will be vitally important in this sector.
About 16 members of a farmer’s group in Drujyegang gewog, Dagana, called the Thuenpa Puenzhi Soenam Detsen, contributed one tonne each of cabbage and cauliflower to the government. The vegetables loaded in two Bolero pick up trucks would reach Thimphu tomorrow.
The vegetables are meant for the hotels used as quarantine facilities.
Bhutan Telecom, TaschiCell and the information and communication ministry have identified a time-slot based access for students to ensure students have access to the online education.
With a time-slot based access, students can access the network during the low use periods in the two companies’ network and avoid the peak use periods that are generally in the afternoon.
The ministry (MoIC) is also exploring other ways and means to restrict student access to only educational resources through these special accounts. “This is done to avoid network congestion using mobile internet while allowing online learning to take place.”
Details on the time-slot and mobile data packages are being decided and will soon be announced.
MoIC is working with the education ministry and the telecom service providers to facilitate data access for eLearning for students across the country.
Since online education has become a priority, accessibility and affordability of mobile Internet for students has become essential. “We are therefore working with the telecom service providers to design a special Internet tariff for students to access online education,” a press release from MoIC stated.
“However, we must do so in a planned manner to avoid network congestion which would otherwise make the network unusable for everyone.”
The primary means of accessing the internet is through the mobile network in Bhutan.
There are other technologies such as fiber optics, and broadband to access the Internet. However, the majority of these connections are in public offices and businesses. This does not help when people are trying to avoid gatherings and are staying at home.
The demand for internet capacities over the mobile network has increased significantly following the Covid-19 global pandemic, and the telecom service operators are already reporting increasing congestion in parts of their network, the ministry stated.
The demand for internet capacities is expected to increase, as more and more people choose to work from home. Similarly, the use of online entertainment platforms, including video streaming and video conferences would also increase pressure on the finite capacity of the existing mobile internet infrastructure.
More congestion expected
The existing mobile infrastructure is not designed for such unplanned demand and will invariably result in congestion, similar to when there are huge gatherings like national celebrations and sporting events.
“If we allow such unplanned use of the network it will become congested across the country and unusable for everyone. Therefore the ministry in consultation with the telecom service providers, plans to adopt measures to use the available capacity optimally while reducing congestion that would make the network unusable.”
The ministry stated that Bhutan is not alone in facing internet infrastructure congestion amid the global outbreak of Covid-19.
“Around the world, authorities are facing similar challenges as a result of an unanticipated spike in demand for internet access amid the current Covid-19 global pandemic.” Countries such as China and Italy, it stated, have experienced up to 70 percent increase in their total mobile network capacity, which no mobile operator would plan for.
While the ministry is exploring more measures to avoid congestion in the national internet infrastructure in close collaboration with the telecom service providers, ISPs and TV cable operators, the public is requested to take more responsibility in their online habits given the current situation.
The ministry is asking parents and students to responsibly use the internet for online education.
The ministry stated that it would ensure that telecom service providers closely monitor the usage of the internet infrastructure to better understand the usage trends and adjust their existing resources accordingly for the optimal benefit of the people of Bhutan.