But numbers are insignificant to achieve stable wild population
In 15 of the 41 priority zones, Bhutan recorded 27 white-bellied herons (WBH) this year, an increase by two individuals from the previous year.
Nineteen birds were found in the Punatsangchhu basin, seven in Mangdechhu basin and one in Kurigongri basin. The highest number of five individuals was reported from Tsaidang in Zhemgang.
The 18th WHB population survey from February 27 to March 2 confirmed 24 adults and three sub-adult individuals along Punatsangchhu, Mangdechuu and Kurigongri basins, spanning more than 400 kilometres.
Population size reflects the combined outcome of three demographic processes: reproduction, survival, and movement.
Two live nests with three eggs each were sighted in Punatsangchhu and Mangdechhu basins during the survey.
While the increase in the population of WBH this year is a positive sign, the chief of research with the Royal Society for Protection of Nature, Indra Acharja, said, the rise in numbers was not significant considering the population size required to achieve stable wild population. “This still shows lots of WBHs have disappeared. The size is extremely low and ecologically not at equilibrium.”
Last year, 25 birds were counted and five nestlings fledged in mid-2019. The bird population is still decreasing on average.
Even keeping the flexibility of increase or decrease by 10 percent due to survey errors, the population still remains under 30 and this indicates the need for long-term conservation efforts to save the bird from extinction, the survey report stated.
The report also found significant change in local population demographics in key foraging habitats. The population in older habitats—Phochu, Mochhu, Punakha, Zawa, Kamechhu, Adha, and Nangzhina— drastically declined over the surveyed years.
Since the annual WBH survey population was first started in 2003, the trend shows a drastic rise between 2008 and 2009. Before 2007, Phochhu and Mochhu areas had reported eight WBH but currently no individuals visit the area. The reason is attributed to disturbance due to Punatsangchu hydropower projects.
“From 2009 to 2013, the population decreased from 30 to 20 in the area,” Indra Acharja said.
This year, no herons were sighted in Phibsoo Wildlife Sanctuary, Lamoidzingkha and Hararongchhu which were critical sites for several years. However, there were no conclusions about the change in population due to lack of conclusive studies on movement and migration of the species.
“We know WBH moves from one feeding habitat to other but maybe they move from basin to basin too,” Indra Acharja said.
WBH is critically endangered under the IUCN Red List of threatened species and is listed under Schedule I of Forest and Nature Conservation Rules and Regulations 2017 in the country.
Bhutan today has 45 percent of WBH global population, which is estimated at 60.
The extremely low and shrinking population of WBH across the region can be attributed to human exploitation and disturbances in riverine habitats.
High Quality United FC (HQUFC) defeated Paro United FC 2-1 to win the Bhutan Super League 2020 title at the Changlimithang Stadium on March 21.
In an equally contested finale, despite numerous goal-scoring opportunities, the first half ended goalless.
Paro United’s Gyeltshen Zangpo broke the deadlock in the 64th minute. The lead however, was short-lived as Paro conceded two consecutive goals in the next eight minutes.
HQUFC’s skipper, Lhendup Dorji equalised in 70th minute. Two minutes later, Tenzin Thinley scored the winning goal for the team.
At the end of the 90 minutes, HQUFC had made 14 shots in total against four of Paro.
The champions were awarded with the rolling trophy and the cash prize of Nu 300,000. The runners up took home Nu 150,000, while Tensung FC who came third was given Nu 50,000.
Paro United’s Sherab Gyeltshen was declared the most valuable player of the tournament. With 10 goals in five games, HQUFC’s Yeshi Dorji was the highest scorer in the tournament. A trophy and Nu 10,000 were awarded to both the players.
In a superiority display, High Quality FC topped the league round with 18 points. Of the seven matches played, the team won six and lost one.
HQUFC entered the finals after defeating Tensung FC 3-1 on March 14. Paro United also grabbed the final place by beating Tensung FC 4-2 in the penalties.
By securing second position in the league round, Tensung FC received two opportunities to play the semi-finals. As per the Bhutan Football Federation’s (BFF) 2018 amendment on the qualification system, it has a provision where the third and fourth position team from the league have to play against one another and then the winner has to play with the loser of the first semi- finals.
Defending champions, Druk Stars FC were defeated by Paro United 1-0 in the semi -final.
Based on the league points, HQUFC, Paro United FC, Tensung FC, Druk Stars FC, and BFF Academy FC enters the upcoming 2020 Bhutan Premier league.
CST FC, Paro Rinpung FC, and Gomo FC have been relegated to dzongkhag league. CST FC is the only team, who failed to acquire any point in the entire league.
Bhutan Super League is the second highest division of professional football league in the country.
A total of eight teams from Thimphu, Paro, Punakha and Phuentsholing took part in the league that began on February 6.
Meanwhile, as a precautionary measure to combat Covid-19, Changlimithang and Changjiji Stadiums will remain closed starting yesterday until April 5.
Starting today, our land borders will be sealed.
We are compelled to take this drastic measure in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. As you have been made aware through various government bulletins, the virus is spreading, causing immense disruption worldwide, and drawing closer to us each day.
At such a time, the health and safety of the people of Bhutan is of the greatest priority, and as such, we are putting in place every measure necessary to safeguard the people of Bhutan.
Should those of you who are abroad at this time wish to return home, the government will help you. I ask those of you who are studying or working abroad, not to worry.
Covid-19 will cause great disruptions to the global economy, and Bhutan will not be an exception. The economic repercussions will not just impact a select few sectors, but each and every one of us. At such a time, we must exhibit the strength that comes out of our smallness, remain united and support one another. During such exceptional circumstances, the government will take the responsibility of alleviating any suffering to the people due to the virus.
As you know, all schools have been closed as a preventive measure, and children are at home instead of in their classes. We do not know when the situation will improve and schools can be reopened. Parents must guide their children, and children must take it upon themselves to use this opportunity to continue studying- at your age, education should be your most important concern. Do not waste time.
On the part of the government, there are already plans to make learning materials as widely available to students as possible. Internet providers, television, and even newspapers, have been tasked to bring learning materials to you. Therefore, it is your responsibility to take advantage of the avenues that will be made available to you.
According to experts, the elderly population is at the greatest risk from Covid-19. We must take care of our elderly, protect them, and ensure that their environment is safe and clean.
As a small country with a small population, we can overcome any challenge we are faced with, if the people and the government work together.
It is important, however, to not lose sight of our national objectives, and aim to bring normalcy as soon as possible so that when this pandemic is behind us, we can continue to work on making our future better and stronger.
In the meantime, we will continue to work ceaselessly through this challenging situation.
Government will maintain status quo on its preparedness plans and strategies
The ‘extra’ precaution Bhutan has taken in handling the Covid-19 situation has proven to be practical in detecting the country’s second positive case yesterday.
The partner of the 76-year-old index case (patient zero) who was air evacuated to the USA on March 13, tested positive for the new coronavirus on the fourth test conducted on March 19.
The 59-year-old partner, along with the tour guide and the driver who were the primary contacts of the 76-year-old American patient were scheduled to leave the quarantine facility yesterday, after completing the 14 days quarantine period.
The driver and guide tested negative for the virus.
As per the World Health Organsiation’s (WHO) guidelines, a suspect is tested and retested only upon becoming symptomatic during the 14-day incubation period. However, irrespective of the symptoms, the health ministry conducted at least three tests so far on all the suspects under quarantine. A total of 400 tests have been conduced so far with 40 tests in the last 24 hours.
Given the international shortage of testing kits, Covid-19 testing elsewhere costs more than USD 3,000, whereas, in Bhutan it is provided for free.
Nothing changes for Bhutan
Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering during a press briefing yesterday said that the detection of second positive case in the country doesn’t bring in any changes to the government’s strategies and preparedness plan for now.
Following the detection of the first Covid-19 case in the country on March 5, all primary contacts of the patient zero, which is also the same for the 59-year-old partner, were traced within the first eight hours and put under quarantine.
Save for the partner, none of the others have tested positive to the virus so far.
No threat from second case
Lyonchhen said that the threat from the partner is negligible and there is no need for the public to panic. He said that the patient is asymptomatic for now and has been moved to the isolation.
“The biggest threat for now should be the deteriorating situation across the world and increasing number of positive cases being detecting in the nearby regions.”
India recorded at least 50 news cases as of 9 PM yesterday, the highest in a single day since the outbreak weeks ago.
While there are no separate plans designed to treat the patient, Lyonchhen said that medical staffs would be deployed as it was done for the first patient and as and when the partner shows any symptoms, she would be treated for it.
“Unless she recovers and tests negative to the virus, it is our responsibility to ensure her safety,” the Prime Minister added.
It was also decided that the guide and driver would have to continue to stay at the quarantine facility in Mothithang, Thimphu. “While they have tested negative and are doing well, their quarantine is being sustained, subsequent to the second positive case detected in the partner,” according to officials from the Prime Minister’s office.
The guide and driver had initially opted to leave the facility quarantine and practice self-quarantine at their respective homes following the completion of the 14-day incubation period yesterday.
Testing is highly sensitive
With people growing skeptic of the testing kit and procedures, Lyonchhen explained that the fact that the fourth test on the partner coming positive after three consecutive negative results, showed how sensitive the testing procedure was.
“No test is 100 percent specific but this test is highly sensitive. We test and retest samples when the results are negative but we do not do the same when we have a positive result. This is the nature of the test.”
Bhutan is using an internationally certified machine, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to test sputum, blood and body fluids of suspected new coronavirus patients.
The PCR uses artificial intelligence to deliver results and human error is very minimal, according to Lyonchhen. The WHO supplies the reagents used in the testing.
The government is expected to impose restrictions on the movement of Bhutanese vehicles, except those transporting essential goods, via Assam and West Bengal in view of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.
“Only vehicles that need to transport medicines, fuel and food supplies, will have to move across the border with precautions even if the situation gets worst,” Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said at the press briefing yesterday.
He said that the Indian government had assured the continued flow of essential goods to Bhutan. He urged people to avoid travelling across the border as a precautionary measure.
India reported a total of 233 (as per NDTV) coronavirus cases from various states as of yesterday.
The neighbouring state of West Bengal reported a new case taking the total cases in the state to two. Another neighbouring state, Assam, did not report any case as of yesterday evening.
The prime minister hinted at stopping buses from Phuentsholing after two days. He added that buses could be stopped immediately if there were no advance bookings for two days.
He said that the government had asked the Road Safety and Transport Authority (RSTA) to provide details of how many advance bookings to other places from Phuentsholing were made.
“They should be allowed to move if people have already bought tickets. We are planning to stop the movement of buses after two days,” he said.
Regional transport officer in Phuentsholing, Karchung, said that about 84 buses depart to various places from the Phuentsholing bus station on a daily basis. Buses to Kolkata and Silliguri have already been stopped.
He said that his office had not received any directive from the government on stopping bus service from the border town. “We will enforce if the government gives us such directives,” he said.
Earlier, the joint parliamentary committee had discussed with the prime minister about the possibility of restricting private vehicles from using Indian routes.
The committee chair, Dorji Wangdi, said that committee was of the view that buses could ply vial India with clear protocols such as the need for passengers to carry lunches and restrictions on interaction with other people along the way.
But he added stopping nature’s call in between would be impossible.
Informal routes sealed
The Royal Bhutan Police (RBP) yesterday notified that it would seal all the informal routes along the border areas to enhance surveillance and compliance to preventive measures.
Informal routes include mule tracks or other routes that are not used officially.
Several temporary checkpoints would be set up within the country to beef up screening and vigilance. Health staff and RBP personnel will man the temporary checkpoints.
The RBP requested travellers entering Bhutan through formal points of entry to declare their travel history honestly. “Irresponsible behaviour and dishonest declaration of one could endanger the lives of many,” it warned.
Samtse dzongkhag on March 17 made it mandatory for vehicles, including public transport buses and taxis, to ply through the Samtse-Phuentsholing secondary national highway.
Students to use stipends for internet data
Yangchen C Rinzin
Following the government’s directives to close all schools and educational institutions including early childhood care and development (ECCD) centres and vocational training institutes from March 18, colleges have started sending students home from March 19.
The faculty members will, however, have to remain in college to prepare and carry out teaching materials for online education.
International students studying in a few colleges are also being sent home as per their parents’ approval.
Royal University of Bhutan’s (RUB) vice-chancellor, Nidup Dorji, said college administration should help and arrange transportation for students home while some parents decided to pick up their children.
He said the faculty members were also asked to keep the students engaged through online education. “However, there are various constraints while conducting online education.”
Nidup Dorji said that although many colleges have virtual learning environment (VLE), it works within the campus, as it was facilitated through dongle. “The biggest challenge is getting access to internet and data affordability.”
He said students would be in different places and it would be challenging to engage all of them since some students would not even have proper internet access on mobile phones.
“Yet, we’ve decided to go ahead with the online education where faculties would upload reading materials, notes and reference materials,” the vice-chancellor said. “We’re not sure how successful it would be, but we’ll try to keep students engaged.”
He added that the current measure is to keep students engaged until the colleges reopen. “If we have to keep colleges closed for more than a month, RUB will have to work out a solution to enhance online education.”
Nidup Dorji said they shared the same concern with the government and sought its intervention to provide access to internet or free internet data from the two telecom companies.
Meanwhile, the vice-chancellor said the university, with approval from the government, has also decided to provide students their monthly stipend. “The students are expected to use it for internet.”
RUB has also decided to send information and communications technology experts to colleges to ensure all necessary arrangements are done or if there is a need for any requirement of additional equipment. “We’re also exploring the possibility of sharing common modules on one platform like broadcast media. We can do this by letting teachers record and then broadcast it.”
There are more than 10,000 students in 10 constituent colleges and two affiliated colleges.
Companies ready to help govt. fight Covid-19
The Druk Holding and Investments (DHI), the commercial arm of the government and its subsidiary companies has proposed to contribute more than Nu 1.50 billion (B) to the government in response of a possible economic slowdown due to the Covid-19 health emergency.
The contribution is in addition to the normal dividend and taxes, which DHI will remit to the finance ministry in the coming months for 2019 financial year.
Besides, to ensure all essential services like electricity, communication, air-transport and banking running in times of emergency, a press release from DHI stated that its subsidiary companies will continue to provide their services to ease all constraints as a result of the Covid-19 situations.
DHI’s subsidiary companies like Bhutan Power Corporation (BPC), Bhutan Telecom (BT), Drukair, Bank of Bhutan (BoB) and Druk Green Power Corporation (DGPC) have stocked up all necessary spares and input materials to last for at least a year.
With the education ministry developing online contents for students following the indefinite closure of schools, Bhutan Telecom is working with the government to ensure availability of affordable and reliable voice and data connectivity. BT also ensures to provide uninterrupted communication service to hospitals and facilities set-up to fight Covid-19.
Bhutan Telecom officials said they could slash rates to help the government facilitate online education. The company is in discussions with the education and information and communication ministries for details. “We need details of where we could extend our assistance. It is possible and we are comfortable,” said an official. However, he said that details are important to ensure that there is no congestion in some areas, which if not planned could defeat the whole purpose.”
The national airline, Drukair will ensure the continuity of its services to help Bhutanese living abroad to return home. In addition, should there be a need, Drukair, the press release stated, stands committed to help in air transport of mass cargo and also for mass evacuation of the Bhutanese residing outside the country.
DGPC has adequate reserves of essential spares and commodities in its power plants to ensure generation of power at all times, while BPC has a manned a team to attend to any electricity related problem that may occur in hospitals and quarantine facilities.
BoB has also extended its full support to the initiatives and measures the Royal Monetary Authority could outline to ease challenges related to monetary issues. A BoB official said they are exploring possibilities to help those affected by the virus and are in discussions with the central bank through the Financial Institute Association of Bhutan. A detailed proposal is expected to be announced next week.
Facilities and other supports
In the fight against Covid-19, DHI has procured and supplied facemasks and hand sanitisers for all its frontline staff of its subsidiary companies. The company has also supplied about 4,000 facemasks to the national referral hospital.
It has offered the use of its guesthouses, human resources and equipment from across the country to support local governments fight the disease. DHI has offered to leverage its network and relationships outside the country to source essentials commodities including medicine.
While the situation is expected to improve eventually with measures put up by the government, the economic impacts could be felt for a long time, stated the press release. “DHI is exploring and evaluating projects that could be undertaken soon to help jump start the economy.”
On March 15, DHI presented a detailed presentation of its initiatives to the Prime Minister outlining its plans and preparedness against Covid-19.
Bhutanese society is on high alert. Sections of the government are working round the clock, senior government leaders are taking more initiatives than they normally do, citizens are cooperating and supporting each other, civil society volunteers are helping to coordinate social activities, youth are being encouraged to stay home, the news media are generally on their toes, and people seem to be generally better behaved.
There is also an enhanced and shared consciousness about maintaining health and hygiene. Most of us have never washed our hands so often or cleaned our houses so thoroughly. Officials along our porous southern belt are more vigilant in dealing with cross border movement of people and goods. We are staying home more than normal, which means closer intimacy with families – a blessing in disguise.
This is the spirit of coming together when faced with a common threat, not entirely spontaneously but with guidance and leadership, as always, from the Throne.
Of course some inevitably fall by the wayside, including school children roaming the street in groups, businesses taking advantage of the panic, people hoarding essentials, and other forms of selfishness. But, generally, there is a sense of an extended family working together.
Can this be the Bhutanese system that we want, a system that functions because we are mindful and prepared and willing to act? The cohesion here comes from a sense of trust, trust in the leadership and, to an extent, trust in each other.
Here’s a somewhat provocative thought. Why is such motivation only a temporary one? What if we worked like this through the year?
There are countries and societies that do function with such diligence and effort. That’s how the Southeast Asian tigers became tigers. They were easy going islanders who decided, or were inspired, to work hard. Some of it came at a GDP-driven cost but the point is that hard work has results.
Today, there is a strong sense that Bhutan has reached a crossroad of sorts. In many ways the world has reached a crossroad of sorts. For example, technology has evolved with such rapidity that “imagination may truly be the only limit”.
It is at such a time that we should look ahead with optimism and determination. What would it take for us to maintain the momentum that the Covid-19 has stirred in us? Do we need common enemy – a common threat?
Ironically, we are faced with a menace more ominous than the virus. For Bhutan, it is the risk that, if we relapse into our old ways as soon as we sense the absence of the immediate threat, the Royal vision of preserving and strengthening the Bhutan that we have inherited for the future generations will be a dream.
After the confirmation of the first Covid-19 case in the country, the government had to take numerous steps to prevent further spread of the virus. As a result, the entire tourism sector came to a standstill, entry of labourers from India is stopped, entertainment centres closed, and the transportation sector faces restrictions. The government also informed that, should the situation worsen, some districts or the entire country may get locked down. In such a case, many will lose their job, default loans, rents or fail to perform their contractual obligation. The government is planning to roll out an economic stimulus plan and coming up with numerous fiscal and financial policies to cope up with the situation.
In such a situation, are there any legal protections for those who may not be able to pay their loans, employers from paying their employees or tenants who may be unable to pay their rents or other contractual liability in Bhutan?
Yes, there is a possibility under the doctrine of force majeure (French word “cas fortuit” meaning “superior or irresistible force) ” where an event or effect that cannot be reasonably anticipated or controlled”.
It is often compared with the Act of God and includes natural disasters, diseases, strikes, lockouts, accidents, wars, terrorism, which are beyond the control of parties in the contract. Under this doctrine, the law “relieves the parties from performing their contractual obligations” and does not have to pay penalties for non-performance under such circumstances and Bhutan is no exception.
Generally, the clause of force majeure is also known as a hardship clause is incorporated within the respective contractual documents. Covid-19, a global pandemic is one such event that will qualify under the force majeure clause.
In-light of this, the performance of contractual obligations such as loans, house rents or other contractual liabilities may become impossible.
In Bhutan, incorporation of force majeure clause within the contract documents is not common. However, Section 87 of the Contract Act of Bhutan, 2013 provides this clause in all contracts automatically. It states “If after a contract is entered into, the performance of a promise made under the contract becomes unlawful or impossible by reason of some event which is not within the control of the promisor, the contract shall become void when such performance becomes unlawful or impossible, and such a contract need not be performed”.
This section makes it clear that banks, house owners or government agencies, private entities, employees and other promisee can’t impose penalties nor performance of contractual obligations in such situations. This is because, due to Covid-19, repayment of loans, salary or house rent or other contractual obligations is “rendered impossible or impracticable” which was not known when the parties entered into contracts nor “had reason to know”.
Considering force majeure as extremely exceptional cases, courts are often required to interpret “a force majeure clause in light of its purpose to limit damages where the reasonable expectation of the parties and the performance of the contract have been frustrated by circumstances beyond the control of the parties.
This means it is not automatic that parties can invoke Section 87 of Contract of Bhutan merely because the Covid-19 case existed in Bhutan but must prove that, the non-performance of the contractual obligation is a result of this disease and performance became impossible and impracticable.
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
Twenty-two hotels in Phuentsholing have volunteered to offer their facilities as quarantine centres for Covid-19.
These hotels are the members of the Hotel and Restaurant Association of Bhutan (HRAB).
The HRAB representative of Chukha, Jigme Tshering, who is also the owner of Park Hotel in the town, said a total of 548 beds were kept at the ready.
“Most hotels are giving all rooms for free. A few are charging minimal fees.”
Officials from the response team are also given rooms. However, they maintain distance and stay separately from those quarantined.
Hotels are charging for the meals. Nu 600 is being charged for three meals per day, which includes evening snack and bottled drinking water.
As of yesterday evening, seven hotels were occupied. Hotels are given sequence numbers so that they can prepare prior to their turn.
The manager of Bhutan Residence, Tshering Tshogyal, said that the hotel had started receiving people since March 19. Bhutan Residence has 47 beds. “We are also charging Nu 600 for the meals.”
Tshering Tshogyal said that the government needed support at this time. Phuentsholing shares a porous border with Jaigaon and so the risks were higher, she added.
The proprietor of Hotel Palm, KN Katel, said it was time for the community and people help the government fight Covid-19. “This is the right moment to help in whatever ways.”
Hotel Palm has also started quarantining people from yesterday.
Meanwhile, Jigme Tshering said that hotel business was going through a difficult time. “We have to pay EMIs. We have the overhead costs and staff had to be also retained. Some hotels have to pay monthly rent.”
Jigme Tshering said that the hoteliers had volunteered for about three months but the duration could get extended depending on the country’s need, adding that people could also contribute in their small ways.
“Small things like bottled drinking water and toiletries would make a huge difference,” he said.
Although the health staff and officials were professional when dealing with people before quarantining them, Jigme Tshering said that hoteliers should handle people carefully. “Most of them are young students and they could be traumatised.”
With the Covid-19 positive cases confirmed in Kolkata, vigilance has heightened in Phuentsholing. As of yesterday, the response team quarantined more than 300 people.
No blanket ban on religious activities, says foreign minister
The joint parliamentary committee on March 18 recommended the government to discuss with the Zhung Dratshang on the possibility of closing monastic schools and colleges, including the private ones, as a precautionary measure against Covid-19.
The seven-member committee, which was formed to advise government on the COVID-19 crisis, stated that while all the schools remain closed throughout the country, monastic schools and colleges are still open as usual.
According to the committee, some monastic institutions have raised the need for clear directives on whether or not monastic schools should be closed and religious activities should be held.
“Monastic schools and colleges face the same risks of Covid-19 as schools and educational institutes,” chairman of the joint parliamentary committee, Dorji Wangdi, said.
However, Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji said that the Dratshang Lhentshog had assured that it would try its best to prevent the virus in their institutions.
He said that the people in monastic institutions were refraining from moving out as a precautionary measure.
The committee stated to the government that mass religious gatherings were taking place on a daily basis despite the advisories to discourage mass gatherings throughout the country.
The committee said that in absence of a clear directive, the monastic schools and colleges are not able to close down or resist from performing religious rituals (Drodoen) at the request of the public.
The committee recommended the government to discuss with the Zhung Dratsang regarding religious gatherings and come up with a clear directive.
In an earlier press briefing, Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji said that there was no blanket ban on religious activities that did not require big gatherings. He said that the public should practice precautionary measures and avoid forming crowds at religious activities.
Expressing its appreciation on the government’s efforts on Covid-19, the committee recommended the government to put in place stricter monitoring measures at all the land-border entry points.
The committee suggested that one measure could be requiring Bhutanese leaving the country for personal work and business for a short period through land-border entry points to deposit their citizenship identity cards. And the CIDs could be given back once their health status is checked.
This, according to the committee, will help segregate people who are entering into the country from abroad trying to escape the quarantining protocols and those who carry less risks of carrying the virus.
It also recommended the government to minimise the duration of stay in Bhutan to the extent possible for the non-Bhutanese from neighbouring countries.
The committee also recommended the government to make concerted efforts in the border towns to man the porous areas that can be potentially used to escape quarantining protocols, besides strictly closing the gates after 8 pm.
The committee stated that it is relatively easier to monitor people entering the country by air, but difficult to monitor those entering through overland entry points.
“If we do not have stringent monitoring systems at overland border entry points, we run the risk of rendering our whole preventive measures futile. There is a high risk of importing the virus through the land-border entry points,” it stated.
The committee applauded the decision of the government to close schools and recommended the government to explore the possibility to use the BBS2 platform to teach some of the important subjects of Classes X and XII.
“Using the platform will enable to teach the students of these two grades throughout the country with minimum human and financial resources,” it stated.
Within two days (March 21-22), Drukair would deploy five additional flights from Paro to New Delhi to accommodate and evacuate stranded students before closure across India to all foreign carriers come into force from March 22-30.
The relieve flight, which is not allowed to carry other passengers, would bring home stranded Bhutanese students studying in the United States and India. There are students who want to come back, said the head of commercial division, Drukair, Wangchuk Tshering.
On March 19, the Indian government had announced that no scheduled international commercial flights would take off from any foreign airport in India. The measure was taken to check the spread of Covid-19 in the face of escalating confirmed cases in the country.
In his national address, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “To check the spread of coronavirus, India had already suspended visas for the vast majority of foreigners seeking to enter the country.”
Drukair has rescheduled Delhi-Paro flight KB205 on March 22 and March 23.
At the press conference yesterday, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering, said the government is looking into the inconvenience faced by Bhutanese outside the country. He urged them to contact either the government or the respective embassies.
However, Wangchuk Tshering said that contacting each stranded students was difficult and is worried that they will be left behind as the flight returns at 2pm in the afternoon. “We can’t contact them and they might miss the flight.”
Each student has to pay Nu 13,102 as per yesterday’s flight fare for students.
Drukair has authorised all its sales outlets, including its agents globally, to process refunds for cancelled flights. On March 10, in line with government’s restriction on tourist, the company announced reduction in frequency of flights to mitigate the high operating cost.
In a similar move, as of March 19, Nepal had imposed arrival restrictions for passengers coming through direct flights, and having a transit in the worst affected countries. Visa on arrival for all foreign nationals have also been suspended from March 14 till April 30. “Nationals of the Bhutan and Afghanistan willing to visit Nepal for compelling reasons may contact Embassy of Nepal in Delhi during office hours.”
As of February 15, Drukair lost about Nu 20 million in revenue as 600 tickets were cancelled. This included both incoming and outgoing passengers since most tickets purchased are for return journeys.
After the first Covid-19 positive case surfaced in the country on March 5, judiciary has taken preventive measures not calling litigants from dzongkhag and dungkhag courts to Thimphu and those in Thimphu to the dzongkhag and dungkhag courts.
Supreme Court’s registrar general, Tshering Dorji, said that case registrations have also reduced by almost 75 percent.
He said that while hearings are conducted based on each case, they try to restrict calling litigants from different dzongkhags.
Supreme Court also formed a Covid-19 task force team to discuss about how to prepare for the outbreak.
In the High Court, most hearings were suspended until March 24 and hearings are conducted for important cases based on priority.
An official explained that the High Court normally receives 15 cases every day but it has now reduced to less than six cases a day.
“We don’t encourage people from the other dzongkhags to come to Thimphu,” the official said.
In dzongkhag courts, hearings are conducted for only criminal cases and hearings for civil cases are deferred.
Judges were also restricted from inter-dzongkhag tours and all judiciary trainings, meetings and conferences were cancelled.
Meanwhile, registrar general Tshering Dorji said they have plans to conduct online video conference for litigants so that they need not come all the way to Thimphu for hearings.
He said it was in plan for the last two years but they could not set it up at one go throughout the country because of financial constraints. “It will depend upon the internet connectivity in different courts.”
As a pilot phase, video conferencing system will be set up in eastern dzongkhags such as Trashigang and Mongar. In the central part, it will be started either in Bumthang, Zhemgang or Sarpang.
In the summer of 1949, there was an epidemic outbreak in Bumthang. The un- diagnosed disease killed 30 people and almost wiped out Shingyer village. With no access to western medical help, the second King quarantined the whole village for more than eight months. However, he kept open the lines of communication and food supply.
According to Lopen Zijid Drakpa, every time there was an epidemic, the King used to issue kasho for isolation.
Shingyer is one of the 10 villages in Ura gewog. “As the epidemic in Shingyer spread throughout the village, the area was isolated by restricting contact with its inhabitants.” Dasho Karma Ura wrote concerning the epidemic in his novel, The Hero with a Thousand Eyes which is based on the life of Dasho Shingkhar Lam who shares the story of Yulsung or the quarantine of a village.
According to the historical novel, there were only two access routes to the village, the Karma Koray and Shaythangla passes, both of which were closed. No one got in or out except the King’s messenger, who every day walked to the outskirts of the village. At a fixed place he would meet the village messenger. The two worked out a safe distance from one other, at which each could speak to and be heard by the other but they were sufficiently far apart to prevent any infection.
After receiving the daily report on health status and food supply in the village, the messenger would take the news back to the King. Based on the report, His Majesty would replenish the monthly food supply. Every month, the King’s men would deliver rations, leaving them 100 metres away from the village. The rations were usually placed below a bough of an old tree. The villagers would then collect the rations.
In the past, when a person was infected by rim ney or an infectious disease, they would be moved out of the village to the nearby forest. To protect one’s village or Yulsung, the villagers would build a house for the patient and the caregiver in the forest.
The caregiver, often a family member, would live next to the patient but maintain safe distance. He or she would manage the rations and cook daily meals leaving them at a safe distance for the patient to pick up.
When the patient died, it was common practise for the men from the village to bury the body in the forest. Usually after a year, once the body had decomposed, the remains are removed and a proper cremation would take place.
Shingyer in Ura is a farming village. As in most highland settlements, the staple food of the village was buckwheat. After eight months, the King sent the hero of the novel to organize the harvesting of buckwheat. In Dasho Karma Ura’s book, Dasho Shingkar Lam states, “I mobilized a man from each house in Ura and descended to the outskirts of Shingyer.”
After the harvest, “I yelled to ask each household to leave a number of bags to pack their harvest.” The epidemic had disturbed the cultivation routine. Half the fields were empty and weeds had engulfed the remainder, dwarfing the crop. After threshing the buckwheat, the Uraps filled the bags and left them out in the fields for the owners to collect.
From the novel, it can be said that around that time there was an outbreak of smallpox in Trongsa. His Majesty strictly prohibited movement of the people. There was an incident where a Trongsap jumped the quarantine. He was immediately arrested and made an example of.
When the 1949 epidemic broke out in Bumthang, Bhutan did not have any hospitals. There were only two doctors, two veterinary assistants and two compounders. Bumthang and Haa were the only dzongkhags to have dispensaries, but both were understaffed and had limited medical supplies. It is not clear what role our medics played during the epidemic outbreak.
The first western qualified doctor, Dr Phangchung, graduated in 1931 but his friend and classmate, Phub Gyeltshen did not. Dr Kabo Tshering graduated in 1942. All three studied at Campbell Medical School in Calcutta. In 1928 the first two compounders, Babu Khoe and Kurtop Tobgay, graduated from Charteris Hospital in Kalimpong. The two first veterinarians, Babu Karchung and Babu Jitshi graduated in 1929 and 1930 respectively from the Bengal Veterinary College in Calcutta.
Dr Bjorn Melgaard co-author of, “Medical History of Bhutan,” believes that the 1949 undiagnosed epidemic could likely have been ma chem or smallpox, or even the plague.
In 1974, ma chem was eradicated from Bhutan. Five years later, in 1979 it was eradicated from the world.
Over the centuries, smallpox broke out many times, claiming the lives of many Bhutanese. For example, from 1905 to 1945, there were nine such outbreaks. Six were in southern Bhutan and the remainder in western Bhutan. The First King hired vaccinators from Jalpaiguri, India to vaccinate the people on four of these occasions (1923, 1927, 1943, 1944).
In 1964 the government created 19 posts for vaccinators. The following year, there was an outbreak of 74 cases of smallpox in Wangduephodrang. According to “The Medical History of Bhutan,” the government increased the number of vaccinators to 25 and a mass vaccination campaign was conducted in 1966.
The 1965-1966 outbreak began amongst Nepalese and Indian workers and spread to the local population. At the time, Bhutan was building the highway to eastern Bhutan and had hired these workers.
To contain the outbreak, the patients were brought to Thimphu and quarantined in a hut in Mothithang. While the exact numbers are not known, 60% of the people who were isolated died.
Fortunately, it was the last major outbreak in the country. According to “The Medical History of Bhutan”, after the 1965-66 outbreak, there were only four further outbreaks close to Bhutan. Between 1966 and 1974 there were 89 cases, with the source traced to either West Bengal or Assam. The number of vaccinations between 1967 and 1975 was relatively small in relation to the estimated population. In 1974, smallpox broke out in Kalikhola linked to the outbreak in Assam. There were only three cases and all survived. Research has shown that the outbreaks were easily contained because of geography and sensibility. The fact that villages were far apart and separated by hills and gorges made it easier to contain any outbreaks. The second reason attributed was the sensible traditional practice of isolating the patient and his family at the onset of illness at some distance from the village.
The 1949 un-diagnosed epidemic of Shingyer believed to be smallpox killed 30 people. Sixty percent of the people who were isolated after contracting smallpox through the 1965-1966 outbreak died. In 1949, when Bhutan had few medics, no hospitals and limited medical supplies, the second King imposed Yulsung and enforced it strictly making no exceptions. In 1965, even with improved public health system, the third King quarantined the infected and used the 25 vaccinators to conduct mass vaccinations.
Historically, in times of the outbreak of smallpox, Bhutan relied for protection on the tradition of Yulsung and trusted the Kings to help contain the disease and tide us over the deadly epidemics.
Every pandemic is an outcome of its time. Simply look at how technology has evolved over time. So, will the pathogens and diseases. But advancement in technology has better equipped men to deal with new diseases. Malaria, Tuberculosis and plague, for instance had wiped out close to a quarter of human race when it first emerged. These diseases are not life threatening anymore. Pandemics like Covid-19 are also undesired outcomes of globalization, which is bound to surface.
The unlimited speed and multifarious network of global connectivity has enriched the global economy. This, however, has also made the world more vulnerable to pandemics to spread at an exponential rate. It remains to be seen how the world combats this invisible epidemic in form of a pathogen.
This is why a bit of global perspective is essential to set a context.
So, the disease is going to cripple the global economy. We have two simultaneous battles to fight-eliminating the disease and preventing a devastating economic recession. With the US anticipating a major recession since 9/11 attack, most European economy at standstill and China perched at epicenter of the pandemic, it is apparent that global economy is headed downward. The race has already begun. The faster the world contains the disease, the softer will be its impact.
The Asian Development Bank has estimated that developing Asia (excluding China) would experience a loss of $22 billion or 0.24% of its GDP under the moderate-case scenario (assuming that the pandemic would result in restrictions lasting up to three months).
From a layman’s point, there is going to be a sharp decline in domestic consumption and investment across the globe as a result of restrictions on movement, hitting the tourism sector, which is the primary revenue source or economic stimulators in most Asian countries. Consequently, this will ripple down to supply-side disruptions, impacting trade and production linkages in other sectors.
The rest of developing Asia is expected to experience a loss of $22B or 0.24% of its GDP from tourism alone, under the moderate-case scenario.
Saudi Arabia and Russia are already engaged in oil price war after they refused to cut the supply to stabilize price in reciprocation to demand suppression in the aftermath of the Covid-19 outbreak, which led to closure of factories and declining movement of both surface and air transport. In China alone, automobile sales have plunged 80% and passenger traffic is down 85%. This trend will repeat in other economies under lockdown.
The worst impact could be the loss of job and wages, looming from the financial market. Some economies have initiated rate cuts and deferment of mortgage payments but it is all contingent on the how fast can the world contain the virus and how long would it take.
Most visibly, governments across the globe will divert their budget and (or) external funding into the health sector at the cost of production and job creation. This is the need of the hour, albeit the impact aftermath could possibly be on foreign aid flow from developed world and international organizations to the developing world.
What about Bhutan?
Bhutan’s economy is modest both in terms of size and substance. Yet it is complicated enough to replicate the global practices because of its uniqueness.
Hydropower is the main source of government revenue and India, the single largest market. While the Covid-19 is not likely to hit the power generation, it should be concerned about the declining demand for energy. For instance, plummeting demand for fuel has sparked a price war between the OPEC countries.
The export market for Bhutan, however remains cushioned by the bilateral power purchase agreement between Bhutan and GoI, which guarantees that India will buy all the surplus power at a pre-fixed tariff.
Domestic market will be hit in the worst-case-scenario or in case the factories had to be shut. Hotels and institutions, classified as LV bulk consumers will be paying trivial utility bills with inoccupancy extending indefinitely. This will directly cost the government coffer as domestic sales of power plunge.
The recently commissioned Mangdechhu is estimated to bring in an additional revenue of Nu 7B annually. However, bulk of the revenue has already been appropriated for pay hike of public servants, leaving behind a slender fiscal space to re-appropriate the national budget for emergency situation such as this pandemic. The ministry of Finance has already estimated a fiscal deficit of Nu 28 in the 12th Plan.
The government is also planning to divert the planned budget to fight Covid-19 and in doing so, it may have to pull out money from capital works because current expenditure comprises of salaries and allowances. If capital works are squeezed, construction sector, which already heave an NPL of Nu 4B and victimized by restriction on labor import, may be subjected to a big blow. The spillover will hit the financial market and slow down the construction of hydropower projects.
Tourism, the country’s largest source for convertible currency is currently at standstill. According to tourism monitor report, Bhutan received 274,097 visitors in 2018, which is an increase of 7.61% over 2017. Of the total arrivals, there were 71,807 international and 202,290 regional arrivals. Total tourism receipt from the international leisure segment was USD 85.41M.
A total of 271 TCB certified tourist accommodation facilities in the country comprising of 136 star hotels (3, 4- and 5-star accommodation) and 135 Village Home Stays (VHS) remains affected, going by the 2018 figures. There are over 2,300 tour operators and over 1,500 guides.
The year would have proven lucrative for tourism after the Lonely Planet ranked Bhutan as top destination early this year, had Covid-19 not turned the tables.
The ADB has estimated that Bhutan’s tourism revenue could decline by USD 0.7M, if the travel restrictions prolong up to six months. This is not considering the indirect benefits. “Tourism arrivals and receipts in many developing Asian economies are expected to decline sharply, as a result of numerous travel bans as well as precautionary behaviour,” according to the ADB’s study on economic impact due to Covid-19.
These demand shocks can spill over to other sectors and economies via trade and production linkages. For instance, travel restriction has already hit two airlines, hotels and restaurants. The ripple effect will be on the grocery stores, retailers, handicrafts, farmers and other service providers like transport industry. In all these chain reactions, loss of jobs and wages should be the biggest concern because most of these establishments are private firms associated with job insecurity.
“There have been substantial production disruptions as a result of forced business closures and the inability of workers to get to work, as well as disruptions to trade and business as a result of border closures, travel bans, and other restrictions on the movement of goods, people, and capital,” according to the ADB.
The NPL in service sector, mainly construction and tourism has ballooned to 30 percent of the portfolio last year and it could prove troublesome for the banks if the sector is further exposed to the Covid-19 shocks. Hoteliers, alone feed the financial institutions Nu 329m in monthly EMI. Stretched over a three-month period, it could cross Nu 1B and cross Nu 2B in worst-case scenario.
For Bhutan, the disturbing factor is credit and import driven consumption, which has already skewed current account balance. Notwithstanding the fact the India is the country’s import destination for more than 80 percent of goods and that third country imports also land on Indian port, Bhutan could face serious blockade if Covid-19 explodes in India forcing the Indian government to take lockdown measures. This will be a testing time for Bhutan-India friendship.
While there are views on deferment of loan repayments or rate cuts, the Bhutanese banking system is not equipped with sophisticated products to cushion the impact. A rate cut on loans may accompany with rate cuts on deposits, particularly the corporate deposits which forms a major share of funds for the banks. Any laxity in payment deferrals and rate cuts could also result in misappropriation, as the hospitality sector is already a beneficiary of host of other fiscal incentives including tax holiday. It is imperative for the authorities to study the balance sheets of private establishments before announcing a rate cut or defer repayment.
FDI is likely to take back seat for quite some time because the financial contagion spreading across the globe transpired by market loss, movements in exchange rates, stock prices, sovereign spreads, and capital flows will take some time to recover.
As the global economy comes at standstill, Bhutanese working abroad could either lose their jobs or return home. Consequently, inward remittance could also plunge.
In pressing times, people can find solace in the country’s farsighted Constitution, which mentions that the country must maintain a minimum foreign currency reserve enough to meet 12 months of essential imports.
While short-term fiscal and monetary tools are available to confront immediate impacts, focus should be on long-term measures because there is an opportunity to transform the economy from the pandemic.
Bhutan achieved egg self-sufficiency after bird flu scare. The ban on chilies resulted in locally grown jitshi ema. In times of corona, can our farmers and CSI’s spot a big opportunity?
AWP has taken the lead to manufacture sanitisers and it could well capture the Indian market along the border if production scales beyond the domestic demand. Big business names across the globe are already doing their risk assessment and identifying new opportunities to explore.
For Bhutan, it would be appropriate to kick start two flagships that have the potential to transform the economy while tourism is put to rest- the CSI flagship and digital Drukyul.
CSIs, because there is a pressing need to boost local production, particularly the agri-business. The better we substitute imports with locally sourced products, the more immune we become to global food shortage should the pandemic persist longer than expected. Probably, there is also an opportunity for the government to lobby for shift in dietary habits.
Hoarding will be inevitable should the situation worsen, but for a dependent economy like Bhutan, traders and suppliers across border stand to gain the most. The government should not only monitor prices of goods in its territory but also use its diplomatic channel to calm unsubstantiated inflation across the border.
We must give entrepreneurs a chance to find solutions that would sustain post pandemic and possibly transform the economy.
Most of the solutions in times of crisis and worst-case scenario rest with Digital Drukyul. It will ensure undisrupted public service delivery, smooth functioning of the government agencies and business firms.
At the same time, it is also wise to capitalize on what is already there. Schools have started to use Google classroom and other social media channels. Banking transactions are made easier with apps but more could be done with fintech tools, which are already there in the market. Bhutan telecom has made it easier to avail services via online forms. There is already an app that delivers food from various restaurants in the capital. LPG delivery is also made possible with a phone call. Bus tickets and taxis can be booked via mobile apps. G2C is already supervising host of public services.
These are examples of services that are possible to avail through an online platform. Lessons from the advanced economy elucidate that these kinds of services proved most beneficial under lockdown.
Covid-19 could permanently shift working patterns as companies across the globe are forced to embrace remote working. The IMF has also sent its employees to work from home, for instance.
Startups such as Slack and Zoom and established giants including Google and Microsoft are offering their tools for free, in the hope that people who start using them in a crisis may carry on once normality returns.
Studies also show that this kind of distributed work evolution has increased the company’s efficiency while providing flexi time to their employees.
Meanwhile, hand washing and sanitization drive has never been this effective. Even the Global handwashing day, observed across the country didn’t bring much impact. Banks, offices, shops and restaurants among others kept sanitizing their facilities and sanitisers for public use. This is a good initiative but it should not end with the pandemic. We have just found a reason to lead a hygienic life amid the pandemic.
He is a former business and economic journalist with Kuensel
The World Water Day (WWD), observed on March 22nd every year, presents an opportunity for us to reflect on something that we often take for granted – water.
Bhutan has one of the highest per capita availability of water in the world. With an average flow of 2,238 cubic meters (m3) per second, Bhutan generates 70,572 million m3 per annum, which equates to no less than 94,500 m3 per person per year, and that is the highest in the region.
As a transient visitor to Bhutan, I am often reminded that water has always been an integral part of Bhutan’s tradition and people’s lives. Bhutanese people have shown the utmost respect for the Deities who protect watersheds, lakes and rivers in the Kingdom.
However, the water we worship, cherish and rely upon is becoming scarce. While visiting rural areas, I have come across communities facing acute water shortages as water sources, including wetlands and lakes, are drying up. This problem is exacerbated in the dry season. Almost 99.5 per cent of Bhutan’s population has access to improved water sources, yet only 63 per cent has 24-hour access to drinking water. In water-rich Bhutan 32.9 per cent of people consider adequate water to be the primary concern. Recently, the Environment and Climate Change Committee of the Parliament, while deliberating climate action, recommended further research to determine why our springs and streams are dissipating.
Recognizing that water and climate change are inextricably linked, this year’s theme of the WWD calls for climate policymakers to put water at the heart of action plans.
Amongst the 17 SDGs, the sixth goal on water and sanitation is said to be one of the most challenging and off-track goals globally. Despite some progress, today, 1 in 3 people – around 2.2 billion worldwide – live without safe drinking water. Most countries are unlikely to reach full implementation of integrated water resources management by 2030. By 2050, up to 5.7 billion people could be living in areas where water is scarce for at least one month a year. This situation creates unprecedented competition for water, and it calls for much more efficient use and management of water to meet the growing demand.
Globally, extreme weather – expected to increase in frequency and intensity because of climate change – has caused more than 90 per cent of major disasters over the last decade. Bhutan is not an exception as it is highly vulnerable to climate change and its consequences, most of which are related to the water sector. The rising temperature induces glaciers to melt, which in turn causes glacial lakes to burst, flooding communities living downstream. This also magnifies the risks to hydropower dams constructed along many of our river systems.
Future climate projection conducted by the Government shows that temperatures in Bhutan will continue to soar, particularly in northern parts of the country. So, we, the global community, must act quickly to reduce carbon emissions. At the same time, we have to adapt to the fast-changing environment.
Water stores carbon and therefore it can help mitigate climate change. Peatlands cover only three per cent of the world’s land surface but store at least twice as much carbon as all of Earth’s forests. Wetlands soak up carbon dioxide from the air. Just as Bhutan has protected its rich forest as an essential carbon sink, we now need to protect and expand these types of environments.
As the only carbon negative nation with more than 70 per cent of its land under forest cover, Bhutan is already contributing more to global climate action than any other country. It has already been investing in clean energy and electric transportation. Water-efficient irrigation systems, rainwater harvesting, smart distribution systems, improved management and governance, and wastage reduction are critical and practical measures that can be used to mitigate the impact of climate change on water. For example, cities around the world are working hard to reduce water leakages as up to 50 per cent of water is lost due to failing infrastructure.
With financial support from the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the Royal Government of Bhutan and UNDP are developing the country’s first National Adaptation Plan, focusing on the water sector. We are looking at water availability for drinking, sanitation, energy and agriculture to identify appropriate adaptation options. UNDP is also working closely with the Government to enhance the resilience of smallholder farms in eight Dzongkhags. Farmers are exceptionally vulnerable to climate change. Yields are affected by variation in rainfall and crops are damaged or lost due to the frequent occurrence of extreme weather conditions. Climate-smart agriculture will help us meet the increasing food demand without depleting precious resources such as soil and water.
These are some humble contributions that UNDP is making in support of the ongoing and future efforts of the Government. Yet we cannot just look to the Government to solve our looming water crisis. Everyone has a role to play. From promoting zero-waste, reuse-recycle, switch off lights, buy and eat local produce, to taking a shorter shower, there are many surprisingly easy steps we can all take to slow down climate change and to conserve water in our daily lives (but not cutting short on handwashing for Covid-19 prevention!).
As we observe World Water Day, let us reflect on the footprint we leave on Mother Earth, how we affect our water resources, and how each one of us can contribute to the movement for climate action.
Ms Azusa Kubota
UNDP Resident Representative
The unsung heroes who treated the first Covid-19 patient shares their story
In the evening of March 5, when the country was in deep slumber, a team of doctors and nurses including support staff at the national referral hospital were dealing with a possible Covid-19 positive patient.
Hours later, Bhutan confirmed its first positive Covid-19 case, an imported case in an American tourist.
As the news of the new coronavirus spread across the country, a growing number of Bhutanese found themselves face-to-face with the possibility of contracting the disease.
While some were thrust unexpectedly to the forefront of a possible national health crisis, others have trained their whole lives for a moment like this. These were the staff of the national referral hospital – doctors, nurses, cleaners, drivers, and other supporting staff.
The frontline fighters
Three doctors – two specialists and a general doctor including seven nurses were actively monitoring the 76-year-old patient until he was air evacuated on March 13. In total, 34 health workers and support staff were engaged in tending the American patient. 26 of them are currently quarantined.
With panic and uncertainty surrounding the new coronavirus, apprehension grew among the health staff in the initial days.
Senior clinical nurse and the in-charge of the intensive care unit (ICU), Tshering Dolkar, was one of the first staff who came in contact with the American patient at the isolation ward.
“All of us were scared in the beginning because it was a new disease,” she said. “However, as days passed, it all became normal for me and my team. We’ve been trained to do this all our lives.”
The 40-year-old nurse who has been providing clinical assistance for almost two decades shared that early preparedness for any possible positive cases at the hospital helped them manage the patient in a professional manner.
Another nurse, who requested anonymity, said that preparations at the hospital began as early as February. Covid-19 wards were identified and emergency drills were conducted regularly.
“By the time we had our first case, it all came naturally to us. While there were apprehensions among a few, we all did what we were trained for,” she said. “The patient and our team became like a family since we were in constant touch. Whenever possible, he would thank us and the country for taking good care of him.”
Besides the nurses and doctors physically attending the patient, there were support staff contributing to the treatment at the isolation ward.
Yeshi Dema, 27, was one of the three cleaners assigned at the isolation ward. “In the beginning, I was scared and also angry for being selected to do the job,” she said. “I could not afford to get sick since I’m the eldest in the family and the sole bread earner.”
She shared that she was constantly worried about her four-year-old son and her ailing mother at home. “As worried as I was for them, they were concerned about my safety too. During our regular video-chats at night, I used to tell them there was nothing to worry about.”
For Tshering Dolkar, besides her decade-long clinical experience, it was her daughter’s support that kept her going under intense pressure. “While my mother was a little worried about my safety, they all knew what I had signed up for.”
Tashi Phuntsho, one of the three drivers assigned for the duty said his family’s support kept him going. “At times she (wife) would call me after hearing all the fake news and get worried,” he said.
The 27-year-old said that like many, he was anxious too in the beginning. “However, I knew that I was safe because of the protective gear we were given and from the advise seniors gave us.”
Although frightening, he said that the experience was enriching. “These few days of working in high-risk situation have taught me so much. I can confidently say that I’m now prepared for any worst case scenarios, should there be any.”
Tshering Dolkar said that the biggest fear in the isolation ward was not of contracting the disease but keeping the patient healthy. “Given the patient’s condition, we were all worried. We were worried about the impression the world would have about our country if we had let our patient, a guest of our country, die.”
She said that having a cooperative team was the biggest asset during the recent emergency. “Doctors did not restrict themselves to treating the patient only. They were equally involved in keeping the area clean and provided all the support they could. We had a really good team who were ready to give everything.”
Following the enriching experience all of them had after dealing with the patient, Tshering Dolkar said that they are now more equipped and aware on how to attend to similar cases in the future.
“We wish to see our patient back in our country in good health soon. His daughter had written to our team upon his arrival in the USA,” she said. “We provided the best of the services we could in times of such national emergency. We pledge to offer the best of our service even hereafter.”
…travellers declaring false travel history remains a challenge
The news of a Covid-19 suspect getting caught at Bongaigoan, a bordering town in Assam near Gelephu has made the town’s residents apprehensive.
The suspect, a migrant worker from Assam was found around midnight on a train to Guwahati after he had escaped the quarantine facility in Kerala on March 16.
Bongaigaon, which is about an hour and half drive (49km) from Gelephu, is a business centre for people in the border town. Sources said that there are Bhutanese still visiting the town daily. “There are people coming in and going there frequently, which is why the news of the escapee was alarming.”
However, officials in Gelephu said that all the necessary measures including a 24-hour surveillance team is deployed at the point of entry in the border town. “We are strictly monitoring the entry and exit of people and should there be any risk in the nearby areas, we’ll act accordingly,” said an official.
Teams comprising of police, health staffs Desuups and volunteers man the border gate on a shift basis. Quarantining of travellers has also been initiated. As of yesterday 72 Bhutanese are under quarantine of which 29 are under home quarantine.
Sarpang Dzongdag, Karma Galay, said that challenges however lie in people not declaring authentic travel history. He said that six people entered the gate by providing false travel history yesterday.
Following a tipoff, the group of six individuals who had returned from West Bengal, India were traced and quarantined on the same day.
Sources said that the group included five vendors and a driver who had gone to Falakata under Alipurduar district in West Bengal on March 16.
Gelephu residents are more concerned about the quarantine exemption provided to day labourers and boulder truck drivers.
A resident who requested anonymity said that boulder drivers ferrying consignments to Bangladesh pose high risk of infection. “They spend three to four days along the way which makes them potential carriers of the virus.”
He said that with the number of Covid-19 cases increasing in India it would be wise if all travels were completely closed until the situation improves. “When travel restrictions on tourists have been imposed, there is no point keeping the Gelephu border open,” he said. “If the entry of day workers are also temporarily closed, it could help us monitor the illegal routes too, as there will be no Indians left in the town.”
Meanwhile, the 24-year-old escapee had fled the quarantine facility with two other suspected coronavirus infected men from Kerala. The two men are from Odisha and West Bengal.
The Assamese was travelling by the Kanchanjungha Express, train number 13175. He was arrested from coach number ER14425. He boarded the train from Parak in Chennai and from there to Howrah by Howrah Mail.
From Seldah station in Kolkata, he took the Seldah-Silchar Kanchanjungha Express and was heading to Guwahati station, according to Times of India (ToI), an English daily paper in India.
According to ToI, all the passengers in the particular coach were medically screened before the train left. All of them have been advised to undergo for home quarantine.
The details of the train the Covid-19 suspect took from Chennai to Bongaigaon:
Train number: 13175
Coach number: ER-14425
Train route: Chennai- Howrah by Howrah Mail Seldah- Guwahati by Kanchanjungha Express
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
With more Bhutanese living across the border moving to Phuentsholing and many travellers quarantined, the point of entries (PoE) initiated to battle the Covid-19 are getting busier in Phuentsholing.
Fifty people were quarantined on March 18, taking the total number of quarantined people to 86.
Bhutan Post’s bus that returned from Kolkata on March 18 evening with 24 passengers was isolated. Passengers details were filled in the health declaration forms and moved to quarantine facilities respectively.
With the news of the first Covid-19 positive case in Kolkata, vigilance among the people has drastically increased.
In the town, water tanks have also been installed in several key areas. Many people use them but there are still a few who don’t use the facilities. Response officials are urging people to use the facilities as much as possible.
Phuentsholing drungpa Karma Rinchen said that they would introduce a permit system, where people will have to show as and when they enter and exit the gates.
He said it is to monitor that no Bhutanese would sneak inside Phuentsholing without revealing their travel history.
Meanwhile, at 7:50pm of March 18, Ugyen Dema, 29, and Nima Zangmo, 30, were busy cleaning their new room. It was a classroom in one of the schools in Phuentsholing. Both were living in Chinese Lane until yesterday.
Ugyen Dema, a housewife, said it was risky living across the border.
“The virus would infect most of us if it is reported in Jaigaon,” she said, adding that they were also advised to shift and not wait for the worst-case scenario.
Prior to shifting to the classroom yesterday, Ugyen Dema and Nima Zangmo said they went to look for rental apartments but couldn’t find one below Nu 12,000 a month.
Their families have taken the classroom. They brought items they needed and would continue paying the house rent in Chinese Lane.
Jigme Choden, who stayed in Gumba Road, said her family has transported important items such as cookers in a room provided in one of the schools in Phuentsholing thromde.
“Today, we will shift and start staying there,” she said, adding there are four members with two children.
Jigme Choden also said that most of her neighbours in Gumba Road have shifted. Although she tried to get a house for rent in Phuentsholing, she said it was difficult to get one.
“When I got a house, the rent was exorbitantly high, up to Nu 20,000 per month,” she said.
Another Bhutanese living in Pragati Toll across the border, Thinley Wangchuk, said he is adjusting with a cousin for about a week before he shifts to the accommodation the government would provide for his family.
“Although the cousin’s house is packed, we will adjust here for some time,” he said.
Thinley Wangchuk works in one of the industries in Pasakha. However, his company doesn’t have accommodation facilities.
People gather for meetings and campaigns
The government has advised the public to avoid mass gatherings as a precautionary measure to stop the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) from spreading in the country.
However, public gatherings, including Dzongkhag Tshogdu (DT) sessions and Covid-19 sensitisation meetings, have not stopped. Religious activities that involve gatherings have not stopped totally.
Health Minister Dechen Wangmo said that the idea of advisory on mass gathering was about social distancing. She said that a distance of one metre should be maintained between two people if people needed to come together.
“In the traditional Bhutanese context, a meeting of three or more people could constitute public gathering. The idea is to practise social distancing,” she said, adding that the definition of mass gathering was subjective.
However, the health minister added that all kinds of gatherings, including training programmes were “highly discouraged” unless they are absolutely necessary.
The health minister said that meetings such as DT and Gewog Tshogde (GT) sessions could be held, as they did not involve many people.
According to dzongkhag officials, DT sessions had to be held as dzongkhags needed to submit their budget proposals to the Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC) by within this month and that local governments also needed to discuss issued related to Covid-19.
The health minister also said that it was not a right time to carry out activities involving groups of people, such as the recent cleaning campaign organised by the Guide Association of Bhutan, due to high risks of contact.
The joint parliamentary committee formed to advise the government on Covid-19, also on Monday recommended the government to clearly define the number of people that would constitute a mass gathering.
“Mass gathering is considered one of the risky modes of transmission as evidenced from the spread of the virus in several countries,” the committee stated.
The definition of mass gathering differs from 50 to 1,000 people, according to the committee.
Nepal, which also confirmed only one Covid-19 case, banned gathering of more than 25 people from March 18, Kathmandu Post reported. It reported that the ban was imposed as a precautionary measure although the only coronavirus patient had recovered.
Similarly, the Indian union territory of Delhi on March 16 announced a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people till March 31 in view of the growing number of Covid-19 cases.
Bhutan is technically does not have a Covid-19 case as the only Covid-19 patient, who was a 76-year-old American tourists has been evacuated to his country.