They worry about bringing in stocks from across the border
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
Until dusk yesterday, Phuentsholing didn’t witness any panic buying although news of lockdown in India had many worrying.
By 6:30pm, stores, wholesales and retail shops saw many customers rushing to buy essentials.
Tashi Departmental Store located at the heart of the town, which saw only a number of customers during the day bustled with customers in the evening. Many queued at the billing counters.
Although many store owners claimed the rush yesterday was a decrease from what it was on March 23, the first day of the gate closure, most of their rice stocks had exhausted yesterday.
Tashi Departmental Store’s manager said they finished the rice stock by yesterday evening and are expecting to restock it today.
Zimdra Impex, one of the largest departmental stores also had a few number of customers during the daytime yesterday. But it increased in the evening.
A staff said that the store saw a massive rush on Monday. Some bought about five to six bags of rice. The store had to restrict people from buying more than a bag of rice to make sure there is proper distribution.
Rice, oil, salt and sugar are the most bought items.
According to the staff, trade officials are also enquiring about the stocks time and again.
Meanwhile, many shopkeepers said they are worried about bringing in stocks from across the border.
The owner of RR Enterprise said she sold all the rice on Monday. She is wondering how to bring additional stocks the business stocked at Hasimara.
HD Enterprise at Phuensum Lam also ran out of its rice stock yesterday. “We have already ordered but it has to come from Hasimara,” the shopkeeper said. “I don’t know how it would be brought.”
With the gates sealed on March 23 and the lockdown in India, the growing concerns among the shopkeepers in the town is the lack of labourers to help transport, load and unload goods and commodities.
A grocery shop owner, Tashi Wangyel, said that they are having a difficult time without labourers.
“We are receiving orders from Mongar but there is no one to load now,” he said, adding that he has enough stocks in the godown. “But we don’t have labourers.”
On the first day of the gate closure on March 23, about 676 labourers exited Phuentsholing.
Phub Dem | Paro
Paro vegetable market was unusually crowded for a weekday yesterday.
Lhamo Drukpa, a vegetable vendor said that the place was empty for days. But with the news of a ban on the import of vegetables, people quickly flocked at the market to stock up.
She was only left with some onions and shrunken cabbages. “That’s all I have. If there is a ban I have nothing to sell.”
She said that it would take some time for the local vegetables to hit the market.
Another vendor, Lhakpa said that although the government said that local vegetables would be available, Tsirang was supplying only cauliflowers as of yesterday.
He said that even if farmers grow vegetables, the problem was with the sustainability of the supply chain. “Farmers can supply varieties of vegetables only in summer. What about other seasons?”
He questioned if the government had studied the impact of the unexpected closure. “Vegetable growing season is just beginning and the stocks are already exhausted.”
By noon, the vegetable market had run out of chillies and tomatoes.
The agriculture ministry recently announced the restrictions on import of fruits, vegetables, doma and betel leaves as a temporary measure.
Nim Dorji | Trongsa
Coinciding with the auspicious 30th day of the first Bhutanese month, Trongsa dratshang distributed ngag-chu, blessed water, to the public as a preventive measure against Covid-19 on March 24.
The dratshang collected various drupchu (holy water) and damzey (sacred medical substances), and conducted rituals before distributing the water to the residents in Thruepang parking.
The secretary of Choetse Rabdey, Sonam Rinchen, said the blessed water is expected to keep people safe.
He explained that about 80 years ago, a disease widely spread in the locality but with the distribution of a holy water made from the tooth of the 27th Je Khenpo Pema Zangpo (a sacred relic in the dzong), many people got cured.
“We have soaked the tooth of the late Je Khenpo in the holy waters with various other elements and distributed to the people,” Sonam Rinchen said.
With India in a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the new coronavirus, words are going around that Bhutan should follow suit.
Technically, we are already in a lockdown. We share borders with India on three sides. All the borders are sealed. There is no movement of vehicles across the border with a few exceptions.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided for the total lockdown, asking its 1.3 billion people to stay home, because the country’s massive population can overwhelm the effort to fight the disease. India is crowded. The population and its density are challenging the effort to contain the virus.
A total lockdown, not allowing people to get out of their homes in not recommended as of today. Beyond a few towns, Bhutan is sparsely populated. If ever there is a need of a lockdown, it could be in a few towns like Thimphu, Paro and Phuentsholing.
A complete lockdown would mean no movement of people and vehicles except for a few crucial ones. With borders sealed indefinitely, we need to reap the advantage of what each dzongkhag is good for.
The sealing of borders and banning of import, especially vegetables could come as an opportunity for the country. It would be the first time to completely ban the import of vegetables. We know how bans in the past worked.
There is a rush at the centenary farmer’s market yesterday. There are vegetables, mostly from what vendors brought in before the closure of the border gates. The centenary market sells local produce including chillies in winter.
When the imported stock runs out, we will know the local capacity to supply vegetables. It will provide planners, authorities and implementers of regulations a real insight into what is imported, locally produced and other practices in the vegetable business. It could come handy in long-term planning.
Besides vegetables, we need not worry about other essentials. There is assurance of continuity from the highest authorities.
While many people were rushing to groceries and the vegetable market, His Majesty The King was in Phuentsholing to inspect the plans put in place to ensure uninterrupted supply of essential goods from India, in light of the closure of our borders, and the 21-day lockdown in India.
For us, it is fortunately the vegetable growing season. Harvest from places like Tsirang and the Punakha-Wangdue valley has started coming in. It may not be enough when vendors have to cater to hundreds of hotels. But with most hotels closed or business lowdown, local produce should meet the demand.
If there is a concern for price, authorities are one step ahead. They have warned of hoarding or hiking price and inspectors are keeping vigil.
There is no reason to panic or hoard. We can live a few weeks or months without imports. It is, in fact, a blessing in disguise to see our potential in many areas.
What we need to be concerned is about our health. By staying clean and safe, each one of us could be contributing to the fight against the spread of Covid-19.
Customers complain of inflated vegetable prices
Early morning, the Centenary Farmers’ Market in Thimphu woke up to full parking spaces, large groups of people and rushing vegetable pickup trucks. Within a few hours, a vendor sold off her whole day’s stock.
Tashi Tshering, a doma addict rushed to the market after hearing about the ban on betel leaf and areca nuts. He bought betel leaf and nuts to last him for two months. Disappointed, he said, “By the time I got here, Bangla pata was sold out. The outer layer of the areca nut is not removed, even.”
Since the agriculture minister Yeshey Penjor announced a temporary ban on imported fruits, vegetables and areca nuts and betel leaf on March 24 in Covid-19’s wake, people have gathered at the vegetable market to panic-buy. “Import of vegetables is forced to stop due to no disinfection option.”
He justified that a ban was imposed since the health ministry advised the agriculture ministry to disinfect goods coming into the country, but it was not possible for fruits, vegetables and meat. The ban is applicable to betel leaf and areca nuts.
Lyonpo’s Facebook statement said: “Farmers have been requested to increase their farm produce with a buyback guarantee from the government. Urban dwellers are once again requested to start digging your backyard and other open spaces in the vicinity.”
However, a vegetable supplier, Sangay Om said, that the ban should be imposed only after studying the market situation. “More than half of Bhutanese populace lives in towns. Many are reluctant to work on farms.”
The local vegetable and fruit production might not be sufficient, Sangay Om said, adding that the local produce is expensive.
A few days ago, she imported more than 2,000 kilograms of vegetables. She also supplies vegetables to hotels that have turned into quarantine centres across the capital.
Tshering Dema, a vegetable vendor, buys from the wholesalers. She said it would be easier to buy the local produce but was worried about how the local market would be able to meet the demand.
“Bhutan’s vegetables are seasonal,” she said.
A local vendor who buys vegetables from Tsirang and Punakha is, however, hopeful. Cultivating the fallow lands with increased inputs, she said, might increase production.
A youth working in one of the agriculture groups said that the group was processing for land lease in the dzongkhags to start large-scale farming. She, however, had concerns about how the local producers can meet the domestic demand as the vegetable growing takes time.
An official of the Bhutan Agriculture and Food Regulatory Authority said the authority did not get any official directives from the ministry and the earlier import ban is still on for beans, cauliflowers, chillies and meat, “including raw, processed, frozen and dry meat until further notice.”
To increase local food production, the agriculture ministry announced that the government is committed and prepared to support all venturing into food farming such as low-interest rates, marketing, technical guidance, and procurement of implements.
The netizens appreciated the ministry’s move to go local but shared concerns on the increased price of the local products. They suggested monitoring the price as the price of a kilogram of chilli increased from Nu 100 to Nu 250 yesterday alone.
In response, Lyonpo on his Facebook page wrote that people should not worry about the shortage of supplies in the market since it is a growing season. He urged people not to hoard and panic buy as the price will depend on how consumers behave. “If consumers rush and hoard, sellers will take advantage.”
He clarified that the import control was a temporary measure and not a ban.
At a press conference yesterday, Health Minister Dechen Wangmo said, while there was no medical evidence that Covid-19 can be contracted from vegetables, fruits and meat, if Bhutanese could eat local products, it is safe and quality assured.
Tshering Namgyal | Mongar
Lhuentse dzongkhag quarantined a man at the Lhuentse Higher Secondary School hostel two days after he returned from India.
The 43-year old trucker from Gangzur village was quarantined on March 23, following police inspection based on information provided by the Nganglam checkpost.
Entry details showed a man entered the border gate at 6.45am and told the officials at the gate that he was returning from Rangya in Assam with construction materials. However, it was learned that there was no exit history found either from Samdrupjongkhar or Nganglam checkpost.
He was traced out through vehicle number from Chumidrang, a few kilometres from his hometown towards Gangzur gewog centre, while he was taking hot stone bath with relatives and villagers.
Lhuentse district health officer, Ugyen Dorji, said 14 villagers, mostly relatives, were found at the bath with him.
On questioning, he told the officials that he spent that night in Yangbari, then unloaded his truckload at Gyalpoizhing and spent the night at Mongar the next day before he left for Lhuentse on March 22.
Ugyen Dorji said his family members and those who came into contact with the driver were advised.
Meanwhile, some said his wife, a staff member with the Mongar Middle Secondary School, who returned from her husband’s home to Mongar yesterday should also be quarantined.
Eight home quarantined in Trashigang
Neten Dorji | Trashigang
Trashiyangtse dzongkhag has quarantined three people as of yesterday evening, two women and a man.
The three are quarantined in Tsenkharla central School.
Trashiyangtse hospital’s medical officer, Dr Namsa, said a 74-year-old man from Phongmey in Trashigang was quarantined, as he was returning from Arunachal Pradesh in India. He went via Daifam in Samdrupjongkhar.
Surveillance in Jangphutse border area traced the man.
The two women, who are sisters, were quarantined after one of them returned home from Phuentsholing.
Dr Namsa said school counsellors and health staff are counselling the three people every day.
Meanwhile, eight people were home quarantined in Trashigang, two in Kanglung and six in Merak.
University of Pennsylvania’s history professor Alex Chase-Levenson explores pandemics and quarantines in his upcoming book, and shares some lessons we can take from the past to help manage the present.
As concerns about the new coronavirus sweep across the world, so does the prospect that vast swaths of populations will wind up under some type of quarantine. With China currently restricting movement of tens of millions of people and Italy’s countrywide lockdown over the pandemic, many citizens across the globe are wondering what the pandemic will mean for their day-to-day lives.
Alex Chase-Levenson, University of Pennsylvania’s assistant professor of history, looks at a historic and massive quarantine system in his new book, “The Yellow Flag: Quarantine and the British Mediterranean World, 1780–1860,” set to publish later this spring. The system ensnared every single person, ship, letter, or trade good moving from the Ottoman Empire and other parts of North Africa to Western Europe into the 19th century. It affected everyone from sailors to celebrities like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Lord Byron. Chase-Levenson talked to Kristen de Groot of University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Today about some key takeaways from his research and lessons we can learn from pandemics and quarantines of the past.
How did you get interested in this topic?
I’ve been interested in quarantine for a long time. At the end of college, as I was working on a paper about European travelers in Egypt in the 19th century, I came across a guidebook from the 1840s, the first British guide for travelers to Egypt. Almost the whole introduction was about dealing with quarantine on the return trip. A central rationale for this system was the occasional presence of bubonic plague epidemics in Middle Eastern cities, but even when there were no reports of any disease, every person traveling from the Middle East to Western Europe needed to be quarantined, usually for at least three weeks. I found this amazing, and I still do. The quarantine system ensnared millions of people over its existence, roughly from the mid-eighteenth century to the 1850s. These people had to have their clothes fumigated, had to hand over every piece of mail to be dipped in vinegar and smoked. Sometimes, you can still smell that on early nineteenth-century letters.
It was just really interesting that in this early period, a international medical system existed on this scale. This continental border was so real and tangible and intense at a time when we are not expecting to find such a transnational system.
And this system was built from the ground up by low-level bureaucrats in Mediterranean port cities. Through the regular exchange of letters among local boards of health, mutually assured disinfection emerged. That is, boards of health made it known to other boards: If your procedures aren’t up to snuff, ships from your port will be quarantined elsewhere in Europe. As I’ve researched my book, it’s been so fascinating to see how this shared, continental transnational border took shape.
For the average person, what are some key takeaways from your book?
One would be the way that elite, national politicians were forced to go along with the procedures that bureaucrats in port cities developed. All these members of the boards of health had developed their rituals and traditions of disinfection, and, sure, there were government ministers who thought quarantine was ridiculous and over the top. More than 90% of ships being quarantined came from cities with no reports of disease and had no disease on board. But because boards of health had built such tight links with each other and could always point to the threat of retaliatory quarantine, politicians who wanted to relax procedures were brought on board.
Another takeaway people might find interesting is how much some of these disinfection procedures and ideas from another era resemble beliefs we continue to hold. This is a period before germ theory, and diseases were understood to be spread in various ways: Advocates of quarantine suggested there was some nebulous contaminating substance called ‘contagion,’ but opponents of this idea stressed causes that were more atmospheric and environmental.
Some of the procedures that happened during nineteenth-century quarantine are still being used today. Alcohol, vinegar, and chlorine were some favorite disinfecting substances both then and now. And even though we think we’ve moved way beyond ideas that some ‘miasma’ in the atmosphere can make you sick, you still see traces of environmentalist medical ideas too. Lots of people say, for example, that swamps are unhealthy—and not just because they breed mosquitoes—that being inside with really intense air conditioning and then going out into hot weather can give you the flu. Or your parents might tell you: ‘Don’t go outside with wet hair, you’ll get sick.’ We still have understandings of disease, contagion, and contamination that go well beyond the science of bacteria and viruses.
And a final major takeaway that really resonates with the present is the dramatically different way people of different classes experienced quarantine in the period I write about. If you were rich, and the people who published travel narratives about quarantine generally were quite wealthy, the whole thing often sounds unexpectedly great. ‘Oh, it might be a little bit sinister, but I managed to catch up in a lot of reading, and the food was wonderful.’
The vast majority of people quarantined, though, were sailors, soldiers, and fishermen who had to move back and forth across the Mediterranean. These people were crammed into tiny rooms, and they had to stay there for weeks. This would have been almost unbearable, and you get glimpses of it even in accounts written by very rich people. One such traveler, for example, who could pay for private lodging at a quarantine station at the Austrian frontier, casually mentioned seeing a crowd of 300 peasants crossing from the Ottoman Empire who couldn’t afford to rent any kind of shelter and had to camp outside in freezing weather for 10 days while wearing clothes that had been ‘fumigated’ by dipping them in cold water.
In his review of your book, David Barnes, associate professor of history and sociology of science at Penn, says the book ‘delves deeply into one of the great questions of the 19th century, and indeed of our own age: What are the responsibilities of the modern state?’ What did you find those responsibilities are?
Quarantine is really the oldest precedent that the government needed to invest itself in the health of the nation as a whole, that putting money from taxation behind a medical measure was legitimate. So, it’s a crucial precedent for our modern understanding that the state should be responsible for public health, for the wellbeing of its citizens. Also: Long before there were passport control lines, quarantine constituted a major border regime. There are many ways this system shaped our understanding of what modern states should do.
What can governments today take from what Britain and its Mediterranean trading partners did?
I think my work shows that quarantine policy worked most effectively when politicians stayed out of the way. For the most part, the boards of health that ran the lazarettos [quarantine stations] had professional integrity that enabled the system to function.
All told, quarantine practices and debates contributed to the idea that medicine formed its own sphere of expertise where professionals should be in charge. That’s certainly a relevant lesson today, especially in the United States. Equally important: Quarantine can easily reinforce racism and stereotypes. When the practice is necessary, we need to think about way it can be applied as universally, equally, and sensitively as possible.
How does your research inform what is happening now?
From reading a huge number of travel narratives about quarantine, I have some pretty good ideas about how people have dealt with long periods of medical isolation. It’s a different kind of routine, a change of pace that take some adjusting to, and especially if we can disengage from the 24/7 news cycle—something I’m finding pretty hard to do in these days of coronavirus—social distancing could be more manageable.”
Benjamin Disraeli, way before he was prime minister of the United Kingdom, traveled to the Eastern Mediterranean in his 20s, and when he came back to Western Europe he was quarantined for several weeks. Despite having complained to his father about how much he was dreading this, Disraeli spent the time finishing writing a novel and later claimed that reading old newspapers that were lying around the Lazaretto of Malta is what made him ‘understand politics.’
So, as we seclude ourselves from normal life more than we ever have before, if we want to learn from the travelers who experienced quarantine two hundred years ago, we should think about how important it is to develop routines and cultivate small pleasures. I’ve been cooking a lot, and it makes me remember one traveler who said that in quarantine, eating dinner was the ‘great event of the day.’ In many of the travel narratives I’ve read, quarantine was something people didn’t hate as much as they thought they would, which is something optimistic we can take from that time.
By Kristen de Groot, University of Pennsylvania. The interview was first published by Penn Today. Permission given to Asia News Network members to republish.
The lesson of the day is “comparative advantage”. What is it? Simply put, it is an economy’s ability to produce goods and services at a lower opportunity cost than that of trading partners. In other words, a comparative advantage gives producer or a company the ability to sell goods and services at a lower price than their competitors and so realise bigger sales margins.
Jamyang Tshulthrim, an Economics teacher of Chukha Central School, is delivering the lesson for the key stages four and five—for classes nine to twelve. The delivery of the lesson, however, is not happening in a classroom. It is in one of the studios of Bhutan Broadcasting Service Corporation (BBSC).
Bhutan and Japan both produce apples but, if Japan can do so at a lower cost than Bhutan, Bhutan had better look at producing something elsewhere it can do at a cheaper rate. That’s Jamyang Tshulthrim trying to bring the meaning of comparative advantage home to the students.
The Ministry of Education has begun an initiative to educate children through television challenges because schools have closed due to Covid-19 scare. The programme that was supposed to begin yesterday will be launched today. But broadcasting the lessons will start only from March 27.
Running a school system this, of course, comes with challenges myriad.
A good number of households, especially in the rural parts of the country, do not have a television receiver or set. A large number of students could, therefore, miss the lessons. There are other impediments also.
Two BBSC studios began recording the lessons from Sunday last after a two-day trial.
Only about 40 thematic lessons have been recorded so far. Editing them before broadcast could take some time.
There are six studios in Thimphu recording the lessons for all the key stages up to Class 12—three in Motithang Higher Secondary School, which has been turned into Education in Emergency Centre, one in iBEST Institute, and two in BBSC.
Then there is an online group called VTOB or Teachers of Bhutan Volunteers. But then, teachers coming forward to record lesson in the studios have been few and far between.
The Education Ministry is having to call teachers from the dzongkhags to come to the studio to record the lessons.
Tashi Dorji, general manager of BBS 2, said that stocking the episodes was the major challenge. Some teachers do not come on time to record the lessons. Many become nervous and retakes eat the time.
Wangpo Tenzin of the Royal Education Council (REC) said that the REC had outlined the thematic urgency clearly. If at all, the problem might arise from recording the lessons and broadcast time, he added.
BBSC is also buying Bhutanese films to keep the people at home. At this time, when the virus scare is raging, social distancing is critically important. However, BBSC has been able to procure only three Bhutanese files.
Chik-thuen is coming too.
This is an effort by actors and musician to help keep people at home. There will be programmes—songs and dances, among others. The programme will begin from today.
His Majesty The King is in Phuentsholing to inspect the plans put in place to ensure uninterrupted supply of essential goods from India, in light of the closure of our borders, and the 21-day lockdown in India.
While in Phuentsholing, His Majesty also inspected the Amochu Land Development and Township Project area (near YDF), the site chosen for the construction of temporary shelters for Bhutanese living in Jaigaon. On His Majesty’s command, the Royal Bhutan Army has deployed about 1,300 soldiers and officers for the construction. Over 5,000 Bhutanese have been evacuated from Jaigaon, and are currently sheltered in schools. Schools nationwide are closed since March 18 until further notice to prevent Covid-19. His Majesty is on a tour of Samtse and Phuentsholing.
2:51: The international quarantine period is 14 days. But the national technical advisory committee will come out with a decision on whether the period is enough: health minister.
2:44:Health personnel stretched thin that is why BAFRA staff have been asked to help in disinfecting all the goods entering the country, hotel rooms, and vehicles ferrying people to quarantine centres.
2:30:The country has enough international standard testing kits to conduct about 6,000 tests. Request for more kits has been put to the World Health Organisation.
2:27: Regular health care services would be prioritised should the country enter into the RED zone. Certain cosmetic health care or services would not be offered.
The country has enough medicine stock to last 9 months.
2:25: 600 Desuups trained in Covid-19 screening, the ministry targets 5,000 Desuups.
Health ministry preparing 113 certified counsellors and 6 clinical counsellors to attend to those in quarantine centres.
24 of 48 doctors on training abroad have returned to the country and are currently in quarantine. The ministry has also compiled a list of retired doctors and health personnel too, should there be need for additional human resource.
2:17: Hongkong tourist who visited Bhutan had tested positive. He began showing flu-like symptoms on March 19. His wife said that he was still healthy when he left Bhutan.
Health ministry is tracing his contacts in Bhutan despite there being a very low risk of him being infected while he was in the country.
Samples from his driver and guide tested negative. Both are in quarantine.
Tshering Palden and Tashi Dema
Bhutan National Bank (BNB), while sanctioning Nu 152 million (M) under priority sector lending (PSL) to 118 clients in the country, applied different loan terms and interest rate.
The Royal Audit Authority (RAA) pointed out the discrepancy in its compliance audit report issued to the bank in November last year.
The report stated that the bank sanctioned loan at 8 percent with five years repayment term to two clients and 8.5 percent with seven years repayment to two other clients to establish piggery farms.
“The bank had sanctioned the loan above the maximum limit of Nu 500,000 for primary production under agriculture cottage and small industries (Agriculture CSI) to two clients,” it stated.
RAA stated that sanctioning loans at different terms and interest rate discriminates the clients under the same loan product and since the PSL loan are guided by its guidelines, any loans sanctioned under the flagship needs to be in compliance with its provisions. “The terms of the loans should be applied consistently.”
BNB officials justified to the auditors that BNB sanctioned loans at 8.5 percent to two clients, who were willing to pay the interest and show 30 percent equity portion, which is applicable under agriculture CSI in consultation with the Royal Monetary Authority of Bhutan.
BNB has also violated another section of the PSL guidelines that mandated loans for all activities to be based on cash-flow or project financing along with fire and theft insurance while sanctioning Nu 2.1M to three clients for setting up project and purchase of machines, equipment and vehicle.
Audit verification found that a client who took Nu 1.6M loan has not operationalised any activities and did not purchase machinery and equipment despite even seven months after the sanctioning of the loan.
It was also found that the supplier had credited the amount back into the client’s account and the client did not use the loan for its intended purpose.
“Further, the client had not made any payment after lapse of three months gestation period and has not responded to officials during site visit,” the audit report stated. “Although the loan amount has been directly credited to the supplier’s account, the machineries and equipment were not supplied and insurance was not processed.”
Another client who took a loan of Nu 516,000 has also not fully utilised the loan amount to purchase equipment and machinery. “The loan amount has also defaulted,” according to the audit report.
PSL guideline also mandates financial institutions to ensure that all loans extended for priority sector activities are for approved purposes and the need use must be continuously monitored. “Financial institutions must put in place proper check and balance for all priority sector lending operations through its credit appraisal system,” the guideline states.
RAA stated that as stipulated in the guidelines, BNB should strictly adhere to proper appraisal of credit before sanctioning of the loan and periodically monitor the progress of the activities.
BNB officials justified that they issued cheque or deposits directly to suppliers in all loans pertaining to PSL but in rare cases, the amounts are deposited back to the clients account without informing the bank, as suppliers fail to deliver the equipment. “In order to avoid such issues from recurring, we discussed to issue stringent payment letter requiring an undertaking by the supplier, stating an obligation to deliver the stated equipment on time and in case of cancellation of the delivery, the supplier is fully liable to refund the full amount to the bank.”
Meanwhile, PSL was introduced as an integrated platform that will coordinate interventions from several government agencies to stimulate cottage and small industries to transform the country’s economy through improved access to finance.
Kuensel online poll and people Kuensel talked to say “yes”
Following the recommendation of the joint parliamentary committee on Covid-19 to increase the quarantine period, a debate has ensued over whether or not a person can be declared free of the virus on completion of 14 days in the quarantine.
Most people Kuensel talked were in favour of increasing the quarantine period as some cases were detected after two weeks from the day the person was exposed to Covid-19.
However, health experts both in the country and outside say that those cases were outliners. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the upper limit of the incubation period of Covid-19 is 14 days.
The second Covid-19 patient in Bhutan tested positive 28 days after she had come in contact with her 76-year-old infected partner. The two had met on February 22 but she tested positive only on March 20.
The guide and the driver of the American tourists, who were released upon completion of the 14-day quarantine period, were also re-quarantined at a quarantine facility in Motithang after the second Covid-19 case was confirmed.
An overwhelming 88 percent of Kuensel viewers on Facebook voted in favour of increasing the quarantine period from 14 days to 28 days. As of 10pm yesterday, more than 22,200 Facebook users had participated in the poll.
Executive director of the Association of Bhutan Tour Operators (ABTO), Sonam Dorji, said that suspected contacts and contacts could be asked to stay at on home quarantine after the 14-day quarantine period as a preventive measure.
“They can be kept in home quarantine after the completion of two weeks depending on the status of the person,” he said.
Samtse’s Dzongkhag Tshogdu chairman, Nima Dukpa, said that the quarantine period should be increased to make sure that the person is not infected when he or she leaves the quarantine. He suggested that given the way the virus was behaving, the quarantine period should be increased to four weeks.
“We have heard of cases where persons tested positive after completion of the quarantine period. They were not sent to isolation since there were no symptoms,” he said.
Branch manager of RICBL in Pemagatshel, Soenam Tshewang, said that the quarantine period needed to be increased in spite of experts saying that the incubation period of the virus is 14 days.
He said that increasing the quarantine period was required as a preventive measure, adding that the economic impact of a Covid-19 outbreak in Bhutan would be more costly than the cost of maintaining the quarantine facility.
There are also concerns about the pressure on the national exchequer.
As of yesterday, there were a total of 2,091 people in various quarantine centres in the country. The government spends about Nu 1,000 for food and other facilities per person on a daily basis.
However, secretary general of Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), Phurba, said that the quarantine period should be increased only if it was scientifically justifiable. “It has to scientifically approved. During the pandemic, going by public views, could create lot of problems.”
Chairman of the joint parliamentary, Dorji Wangdi, said that 14 days was a minimum period recommended by WHO.
“The recommendation is based on the evidence that the partner of the American tourist was detected positive after 28 days and she is still asymptomatic. All efforts and resources spent in 14 days will be rendered null and void even if one person spreads the virus,” he said.
The country, Dorji Wangdi said, was at a preventive stage and that the committee had recommended extension of the two-week period in facility quarantine rather than in home quarantine. He said home quarantine was difficult to monitor.
The committee made the recommendation in view of the existing epidemiological evidence about the Covid-19 having shown that it is difficult to confirm within two weeks if a person was infected with the virus.
Health experts Kuensel talked to said that the two-week quarantine was scientifically adequate. But the fear is about the outliner cases spreading the virus.
An epidemiologist and professor at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry in New York, Rossi A. Hassad (PhD), wrote on MedPage Today (health website) that the two-week quarantine period was actually observed for a small proportion of cases of SARS.
“In the context of an accelerating COVID-19 epidemic and growing uncertainty, a higher upper limit (possibly 21 days) for the incubation period seems reasonable and warranted in the interest of adequately protecting the public,” he wrote.
The health minister and other members of the cabinet could not be contacted for comments.
The United Nations (UN) has contributed USD 1.14 Million (M) to support the national Covid-19 preparedness and response and other immediate assistance.
The UN resident coordinator, Gerald Daly, on behalf of the 26 resident and non-resident UN agencies, funds, and programmes working in Bhutan handed over the amount to the Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering yesterday.
The resident coordinator said, “We need to cut through the red tape as much as possible while remaining effective and accountable. We are in an unprecedented situation and it can no longer be business as usual.”
He said that like the rest of the world, Bhutan is facing potential impacts from the virus. “But, through decisive action, and through working together, we do have a small window to get ahead of it,” he said. “These are challenging times. On behalf of the UN, I would like to commend the Royal Government for the hard work and results being achieved towards the Covid-19 preparedness and response plans and action.”
According to a press release, a contribution of USD 50,000 was provided to support Bhutan’s immediate needs of the quarantine facilities across the country.
USD 10,000 each came from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), World Food Programme (WFP) and the United Nations Resident Coordinator’s Office (UNRCO).
Three UN agencies through their agency’s emergency funds have mobilised USD 1.09M of which certain portion have already been transferred to the government, while some are underway.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) mobilised USD 550,000, World Health Organisation (WHO) mobilised USD 244,500 and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) mobilised USD 300,000.
“Recognising the fact that Covid-19 is not just a health crisis and its social and economic impacts threaten to leave scars for years to come, the UN recognises the importance of a comprehensive, multi-dimensional response package,” stated the press release.
With WHO and UNICEF in the forefront supporting the government in its response in the health sector, the other UN agencies has also committed to extend technical support to the Covid-19 response plan, the national contingency plan, the economic stimulus plan and any other sectoral initiatives beyond the health sector.
“The UN hopes that all these actions will materialise into a comprehensive national response plan, which can be a guiding as well as a reference document for use by the Royal Government of Bhutan, and its development partners for resource mobilisation.”
UN Secretary General, António Guterres, said, “We are facing a global health crisis unlike any in the 75-year history of the United Nations – one that is spreading human suffering, infecting the global economy and upending people’s lives. This is, above all, a human crisis that calls for solidarity.”
The press release stated that the UN stands ready to undertake reprogramming within the joint RGoB-UN annual work-plan for 2020, to further support the government.
Yangchen C Rinzin
March 23, 2020, will probably be remembered in the history of tourism in Bhutan as the day when there was only one tourist in the country.
Since the day Covid-19 was first detected in the country, all tourists gradually left Bhutan after the government banned the entry of tourists. The last four tourists left Bhutan on Monday.
The only tourist left in the country is the woman who tested Covid-19 on March 20. The tourist is in isolation at the national referral hospital.
The usually busy tourist hotspots like the Memorial Choeten, Kuenselphodrang (Buddha Point), or the Craft Bazaar along the Norzin Lam in Thimphu today wear a deserted look.
The first case of Covid-19 was detected in the country on the same day when Bhutan received an award for the “Best Destination: Happy Tourism” by the Pacific Asia Travel Writers Association.
Bhutan technically has zero tourists in the country for the first time since tourism opened its door in 1974.
There were more than 1,000 tourists in the country at the time when the first Covid-19 case was reported.
Tourism began in Bhutan in 1974. The travel to the east was opened first in 1989.
The number of tourists visiting Bhutan increased to almost 2,000 by 1981 and it kept increasing every year. By 2019, the country began receiving more than 200,000 tourists.
With only single tourist remaining and the government’s indefinite ban on tourism, TCB’s director general, Dorji Dhradhul, said that this was unprecedented and had mixed feelings of loss and opportunity.
“I say loss because the number of tourists has reduced to one and impact on tourism is vivid,” he said. “However, we’re taking it as an opportunity to begin tourism with a new face.”
The ban has resulted in a national revenue loss of USD 4.4 million based on a total of 2,550 international tourist cancellations due to Covid-19 between January 15 and March 23. This is excluding cancellations from regional tourists.
Dorji Dhradhul said that Bhutan was taking intense measures to contain the Covid-19 outbreak. The government, he added, was also working to keep those in the tourism and other affected sectors gainfully employed.
“We’re also working on a tourism recovery plan and even looking beyond like domestic tourism and wellness and wellbeing tourism,” he said.
He explained that in domestic tourism, which is yet to take off, it could popularise pilgrimages and other forms of spiritual tourism in the country, including adventure-based tourism.
Coming to wellness and wellbeing tourism, he said that Bhutan had been until now promoted as a destination with a unique culture and pristine nature but had much more to offer.
Dorji Dhradhul said that with Bhutan being known as the land of medicinal herbs in its olden days, peaceful surroundings, and with GNH, Bhutan makes a great potential destination for these travellers to reflect, relax and rest.
“We would work to expand on that new initiative and take Brand Bhutan to the next level,” he said. “For now, we can only wish the lone tourist speedy recovery,” Dorji Dhradhul said.
There are speculations surrounding the incubation period of the novel coronavirus. Many are convinced that two weeks is not enough, as new studies indicate that it takes some people much longer to develop symptoms after they are exposed to the disease.
At home, the second person to test positive was confirmed 28 days after coming into contact with her 76-year-old partner. This caused more doubts about the duration of the mandatory quarantine. What if the woman was allowed to leave after 14 days?
The doubts heightened after the guide and the driver, both first contacts, were immediately called back for mandatory quarantine. Both tested negative after the fourth test.
The joint committee of the Parliament is recommending the government to increase the quarantine period. There are people calling for the same.
The incubation period is a critical factor in controlling the spread of the disease. Although the World Health Organisation estimated the incubation period of Covid-19 to be up to 14 days, the upper limit was based on observation of a small number of SARS cases. With the outbreak now going beyond control, many, based on research and analysis, are recommending extension of the quarantine period, especially for adults to 21 days.
The partner maybe an outliner, but scientists have found that nearly 1 in 8 patients had incubation times longer than 14 days, leading them to question whether current quarantine recommendations are optimal.
Another key factor, experts are considering, is the time between the infection and becoming infectious or positive. This was found to be happening shorter or longer than the incubation period, implying that an asymptomatic person, like the partner of the American tourist, may be able to transmit the virus even if not tested positive.
Experts are still exploring the transmission dynamics of the Covid-19. Considering the doubts, many suggest effective quarantine management – top on the list is increasing the quarantine period.
Much remains unknown about how the virus is transmitted. Given our shortage of expertise both in research and resources, it is wise to consider the findings of new studies and recommendations. Our focus today is still on preventive care. We are fortunate that not a single Bhutanese tested positive. All this while we believed that prevention is our best treatment.
It may cause inconvenience to those quarantined. But words coming from the quarantine facilities are encouraging. Many are convinced that quarantining is a preventive measure and not a detention centre to punish people.
They care for their family, relatives, parents, the community and the nation. There are cooperating and appreciating the measure the government, with His Majesty The King’s guidance, has taken in safeguarding the country and its people.
We are also fortunate that most quarantined are in facilities that are better than many facilities around the world. The mental stress and the loneliness can be understood, but given the risks of the pandemic, it is a small sacrifice. And most understand it.
There are ways to make those in quarantine feel at home. One common complaint is on the free meals served. We could improve the quality for the big sacrifices they make.
Neten Dorji | Samdrupjongkhar
With most of the automobile workshops and shops in Samdrupjongkhar closed after the border was sealed on March 23, local truckers have assumed the role of mechanics.
A trucker, Sangay is busy with his new responsibility. He and his friends are replacing spare parts to their trucks.
“With the closure of Indo-Bhutan border gate, mechanics are restricted to come as day workers,” he said.
Eastern Automobile workshop manager, Sonam Choden said that the workshop has to close down until the situation of pandemic coronavirus disease improves. “It is difficult to get Bhutanese mechanics. Even when they join, they don’t stay long.”
She said her automobile workshop has 10 Indian labourers working as day workers.
The workshops don’t have other alternatives besides relying on Indian labourers as local workers quickly move to other firms.
Another workshop owner, Jamyang Wangyel said that most of the workshops depend on day workers from across the border.
“Maximum of 10 and at least seven labourers are day workers in all seven workshops,” he said.
With the business down, he is worried about paying the monthly salary and annual income taxes next month. “Though we are affected by Gyalpoizhing-Nganglam highway, it is the worst this time,” he said. “I was forced by the dealer in India to clear my dues.”
According to automobile workshop owners, 90 percent of local businessmen in Samdrupjongkhar depend on day workers.
Sonam Dorji, another workshop owner said, “It was good business before Covid-19.” He said the monthly income was sufficient to pay taxes and salaries for labourers. “But now I don’t know.”
He said until the Covid-19 issue is over, there are no alternatives for him. “I don’t think we would reopen the workshop if the disease continues,” he said.
Workshop owners said that sometimes they could earn around Nu 80,000 per month from his workshop.
Some said most of the income goes into paying the labourers from outside. “It is time to realised and work towards economic growth of our own country,” a workshop operator said.
He said that all citizens have to think before depending on everything on the outsiders.
A hotel owner in town said that Covid-19 has given them a lesson. “We realised that depending on the outsiders too much is not good.”
She said that most of the Bhutanese don’t want to work in hotels and that has forced all hoteliers to have a minimum of two Indian day workers. “We don’t have other options other than employing Indian workers.”
One of the residents said that the coronavirus crisis has caused a huge human and economic loss in the locality. But it has also united as human beings, as all family members are together.
Meanwhile, after closing down all entry points across the country, the Samdrupjongkhar town became silent and empty. Not many travellers are seen around the town.
About 700 tour guides, mostly freelancers, have registered with the Guides Association of Bhutan (GAB) to take up jobs in various sectors in Covid-19’s wake.
The registered guides are currently undergoing orientation programme on the nature of the jobs, conducted for half an hour for seven to eight individuals to avoid mass gathering.
GAB expects to deploy the laid-off guides and start the work by next month. GAB’s executive director, Sonam Tashi said: “About 70 percent of the freelancers would be involved in these jobs.” He added that the jobs were in the unskilled sector and to avoid future complaints, GAB was familiarising them with the nature of the jobs and the pay scale.
Depending on the severity of the guides’ economic condition and source of income, the jobs would be given to those with immediate need. Most of the jobs are within the Thimphu thromde areas.
Tourism Council of Bhutan is expected to involve 260 guides in the tourism-related activities such as building roadside amenities and maintaining trekking trails.
As of now, two contractors have approached GAB asking to deploy about 30 guides to work in the construction sector.
“GAB is in the process of drafting proposals to involve guides in income generating activities,” Sonam Tashi said.
There are more than 4,000 tour guides in the country.
The Hotel and Restaurant Association of Bhutan has also developed an action plan to engage laid-off workers in the hospitality sector. The plan is being reviewed by the executive authorities.
A few days ago, labour ministry announced that the employer paring down employee must comply with the Section 91 clause (a), (b) and (c) of the Labour and the Employment Act of Bhutan 2007. The employers should submit a written notification to the ministry.
In an earlier announcement, the ministry asked the affected employers and employees to register on the labour ministry’s website.
However, according to an official, the registration is currently on hold as there is need for clarity on the clauses.
Wangduephodrang police detained a 45- year-old man on March 23 for voluntary manslaughter of a 50- year old man.
According to police, the suspect stabbed the victim outside the Nyisho gewog office. “At that time they came to the gewog office to settle an extramarital affair case,” a source said.
The incident took place on the afternoon of March 23.
The victim was confirmed dead on reaching the nearby Nyisho basic health unit (BHU) due to excessive bleeding.
Both the suspect and the victim were from the same gewog.
Nyisho Gup Dorji Dorji said that the suspect lodged a complaint to the gewog office against the deceased saying that he had an extramarital affair with his wife. “The suspect doesn’t have proof when we verified it.”
“Since there was no proof, the gewog administration requested them for a compromise. Both of them agreed and departed for lunch. We informed them that by the time they return from lunch break, the agreement letter will be signed,” said the gup.
However, gup said that the incident took place during lunch break which was outside the gewog office boundary. “It was shocking. The suspect might have hidden the weapon outside.”
Five to six cases related to extramarital affairs occur in the gewog every year, according to gup.
“If the Covid-19 situation becomes better, gewog is planning to sensitise the people more on the issue.”
Wangdue police said that they have been advising people not to carry weapons while visiting offices.
The case is still under investigation.
What is it like to be in quarantine?
A knock comes on the door. One gets used to a health official with a digital thermometer waiting outside. This happened at least thrice a day.
I am among the 34 Bhutanese quarantined in Tsherim Resort, Paro. Most are students who had to return home after schools and colleges abroad closed due to covid-19 scare. I had to leave my college and return home immediately after the state government of Tamil Nadu asked all educational institutions in the state to close down.
Coming home this time was a different experience. Airports looked more like a hospital. Onboard Drukair from Kolkata everyone was wearing a facemask. After landing in Paro, we were taken to the resort. I was reading reports about quarantine and self-isolation, about people in Wuhan and in Milan singing from balconies while in quarantine.
When one is shut-in for two weeks, I find myself doing the same. I read. I look out the window. There is not much else to do anyway. This is my 5th day of my quarantine. All I do or am allowed to do is open the door for meals and routine health services. If any of us developed Covid-19 symptoms, we are to call health official immediately.
Television and the Internet help. I keep myself informed about the situation in the country. But then, I have also come to realise that too much information can be dangerous. Because I flew home from Chennai via Kolkata, I sometimes feel I might have contracted the disease. Worries can make a person weak. One begins to feel unwell.
The more I think about all these things, I do not want to even cough. I am all right but I feel like my breathing fast and short. Battling and winning over panic is important, I know. It ain’t, though. The moment I realise I am thinking too much, I try to read to distract myself. Physical exercises I found the most useful.
I also get frequent calls from home. My mother makes it a point to call me daily. She is in Radhi, Trashigang. Worried, she enquires if I have developed some symptoms. It is comforting to know that she is well informed about the pandemic. I wonder what would happen if those under quarantine were not even able to keep in touch with their family and loved ones. I must thank my government for such arrangements.
It is raining outside. The weather has been like this for some time now.
“The disease is spreading fast. Please keep yourself strong and healthy.” That was my mother on the phone just a while ago.