The second Bhutanese to test positive for Covid-19 shares her views with Kuensel in this letter written from the isolation ward of the national referral hospital
The recent novel coronavirus outbreak has undoubtedly taken the world by storm. It has affected the life of every individual, directly or indirectly.
Flights back home, as you all must already know, have to transit either through Bangkok or Delhi and amidst fears that the cities were going to soon be on lockdown, I had to leave London where I am a university student. I did not think for once, even in the slightest, that I would become victim to the novel coronavirus. I was convinced I had a strong immune system that would fight it off.
Most of how I felt could be attributed to the way the UK government was reacting to the situation while I was there. For many in London, life went on as normal despite the alarming rate at which Covid-19 cases were growing. At Heathrow, airport staff were not wearing even simple surgical masks. I was not screened for symptoms before boarding nor was it mandatory for me to wear masks or protective gear on the flight. In short, protocol measures were severely lacking in the face of this global pandemic. However, it is not my intention to disregard anything that has changed since. I am simply writing about my experience.
Nine hours later, I landed in Delhi. Immediately after I was screened for fever, the airport health team cleared me by stamping a certificate that was to be presented at immigration. In contrast to Heathrow, there was relatively a better sense of health procedure. Approximately five hours later, I boarded my flight to Bhutan.
I landed in Paro in the early hours of March 18. Screening procedures by medical staff was swift and efficient. Coming from London, I could not have been more impressed with how our small developing nation was dealing with the situation. Within half an hour I was out of the airport.
A few days before I arrived, the government had announced a mandatory quarantine period of two weeks (it has now changed to three), for every person flying into the country, in a facility. However, these so called facilities weren’t really what they sounded like. In show of solidarity with His Majesty The King and the government, many private hotel owners have selflessly given up their business as quarantine centres and employees have willingly volunteered to ensure that we were all quarantined comfortably.
Medical teams at the quarantine centre would screen us for new coronavirus symptoms twice every day for the first three days and we were told to call the 24-hour call line in case of any emergency. My hotel was surrounded by a beautiful pine forest. Wonderful meals were provided daily and quite frankly, quarantine was more like a peaceful retreat.
Eight days passed before I lost my sense of smell. After failing to recover for two more days, I informed the health staff. Immediately after I reported my concern, they collected my sputum and mucus samples through a swab and sent it to be tested for the novel coronavirus. 12 hours later, I was woken by a call from the health ministry telling me I had tested positive, making me the fourth person in the whole country to have the virus (now it is five).
So far, all the earlier cases were imported and there have been no inter-community infection as a result of our strict quarantine measures. Early next day, on March 29, I was given a hazmat suit and was brought to the national hospital in Thimphu where I am currently sitting, writing this piece.
I have received the best medical treatment possible from our doctors and have faced no issues whatsoever in the seven days that I have been here. I owe a special thanks to all the nurses who have been on duty during my time at the hospital. They have worked round the clock, not once taking off their protective gear, which if may I add isn’t the most comfortable for 8-12 hours, to make sure I am cared for.
I am eternally grateful to them.
In light of this, I hope that all Bhutanese realise how lucky we are. While the so called superpowers of the world with advanced economies struggle to battle the new coronavirus, our small country has managed to contain it efficiently and while leaders of the first world remain shielded within their sheltered offices, His Majesty The King stands in the southern region making sure that closing borders with India does not ill affect the food supply. Moreover, His Majesty is currently touring the country to inspect the preparedness against the coronavirus. We must never forget how fortunate we are to be blessed with such visionary leaders.
A shared responsibility
However, as citizens we share a huge chunk of social responsibility in battling this pandemic. Extensive efforts that have been put in by our King and the government will amount to nothing if we don’t do our part.
I would like to talk about a few ways that we at an individual level can act in response. Social distancing is an obvious measure. In addition, I think it is important to understand that no matter who we are, no one is immune to the virus. The virus does not have an affinity to specific people.
You must be mentally prepared, if by any chance, you happen to catch it. I do not know much about the scientific technicalities of it, but I do know however that though it is only like a common flu, it spreads quickly and as a consequence, it has created significant level of social scare.
This scare has manifested itself in many forms and one is the social stigma. In my opinion, because of the fear that this has generated, when put in the position, you may feel afraid to confront it. This is what I experienced. Since my symptoms were mild, I tried to convince myself otherwise. I’m grateful to my good friend and roommate for encouraging me to tell the health staff. I request society to not let stigma restrict people from coming forward. Be compassionate. The virus is naturally occurring. If infected, it is simply a case of luck and misfortune.
As a Buddhist nation, we seek comfort in religion. Our spirituality guides us at times like this when science fails us. Impermanence and uncertainty are two of the underlying foundations of Buddhist philosophy. Nothing lasts forever. Situations change rapidly. Your good health can immediately be affected by the virus and in the same way, ill health can soon be recovered. In addition, mortality rate for the new coronavirus is extremely low.
I have tried to keep up my morale by keeping in mind the above. Use isolation and quarantine to do something productive and occupy your mind- paint, listen to music, read, and write. Find time to do something you would otherwise not be doing. Utilise this period to develop a new skill, devote time to meditate and pray at least twice a day. I promise you that it goes a long way. When you avail yourself in this manner, you gain a sense of accomplishment. It is addicting and makes passing days so much quicker. I know that it is easier said than done, and I also know that when you have nothing to do, you lack the will to do things you normally would be doing. Don’t let this pandemic get the worst of you. It will challenge you. Fight to overcome it.
The new coronavirus has tested the globe in ways like never before. Instead of letting it divide us and playing the blame game like most of the world, Bhutanese have shown solidarity in these trying times to battle the pandemic as one nation.
Our King, government and people have come to fight this in unity. It is no doubt that I have always considered myself extremely lucky to be born as a Bhutanese but this situation has made me truly realise how fortunate I am. Bhutan is clearly no superpower. We are a tiny developing nation but we are tackling it better than a lot of other countries. I can only hope that we can serve as an example to the world as we fight this and the world can see how it is possible to emerge victorious if we all stand together.
4th April, 2020.
Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral
Yangchen C Rinzin
The teacher raises her hands and exclaims: “Dear students, we’re going to study this today.”
Standing in front of a green screen inside a brightly lit room, she points to the right: “Yes, we’re going to learn about Phonetics.”
She goes on to explain what phonetics is and makes the sound of an apple by pointing in the air and asks the students to repeat after her. The room is silent. The teacher smiles and says: “Yes, good girls and boys, you got it right.”
She shrugs and asks the cameraman if she got it right.
Similarly, there are two more teachers in separate rooms shouting on top of their voices.
They are busy recording lessons for Bhutan e-learning, a tele-education programme which is aired every morning on Bhutan Broadcasting Service, as a means to engage students as schools remain closed owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. The air time is different for various classes up to Classes XII every day.
However, it is not as easy as it looks on the television.
More than 300 volunteer teachers for the Teachers of Bhutan Volunteers (V-TOB) are involved in various stages of the process to teach on television.
The teachers have to imitate in front of the camera and record the lesson, which is the biggest challenge.
Many teachers volunteered as presenters, but without the experience of acting, a teacher takes more than 30 minutes to complete a lesson.
Among them are mothers who leave their children at home to record lessons for every episode every day. But before they record the final footage, there is a chain of activities such as planning the lesson, developing teaching materials, content writing, reviewing it among peers, and then preparing the mock session in front of the camera.
The education ministry, Royal Education Council (REC)and V-TOB first approve the content, identify the presenter, then record in different studios, an official from REC is placed in each studio to ensure contents are correct, and then it goes to post-production. A review monitoring committee reviews the footage before it is telecast.
Film Association of Bhutan, iBest, Loden Foundation, and Royal Tutorial Project Studios record the lessons.
What started as a single man’s idea has now become a collective effort among teachers where teachers work round the clock. Some travel from other dzongkhags almost every day to Thimphu just to record their lessons.
About nine teachers from outside Thimphu have also volunteered and have camped in a classroom at Motithang Higher Secondary School in Thimphu.
Teachers said the biggest challenge is acting in front of the camera.
“We’re not used to teaching in such situations especially without students,” a teacher said.
Mathematics teacher Sangay Wangmo from Changangkha MSS said it is also difficult because these are general topics for three grades together.
“In the class, it’s easier since we can concentrate on one topic for one class. One must be trained to teach multi-grade but we’re not giving up.”
Another teacher, Tashi Choden from Gedu HSS said for the visual effect, teachers have to act without a clue which makes them edgy and prone to mistakes.
“It’s extremely difficult and we worry if we got the words and sentences right. I was so shy in front of the camera in the beginning but now we all are gaining confidence.”
Teachers also said that in the class they can move around, check on students. “Now, we just have to stare into the camera, and remain rooted in one place, which makes it difficult to concentrate.”
They also have to memorise the lessons without any script and sometimes go blank as soon as they come in front of the camera.
“I hope everyone will understand when they find mistakes. But we want people to know that we’re trying our best,” Kencho Dorji, a Dzongkha teacher from Paro said.
For many, it does not end with the recording and broadcasting of lessons. What comes thereafter is what many dread. Their biggest fear is peoples’ reaction to the lessons after watching them. Teachers have been receiving both negative and positive feedback on social media.
“In the class, we’re aware of the environment of the class and what kinds of students are attending the class, so we teach according to that,” Karma Yangzom, a teacher said. “But on TV we don’t even know who is watching.”
Many teachers have also started asking their students to watch the lessons on TV and assign homework just to ensure they are engaged. Students have also started recording the lessons and later send them to teachers to clarify their doubts.
While they are trying to ensure timely delivery of lessons for their students, they constantly worry about their children at home, most of whom are without anyone to guide.
The V-TOB will have to have at least 500 episodes and so far has completed about 230.
Sonam Norbu, a teacher from Lobesa MSS and a founder of V-TOB said that despite minor challenges, many teachers have volunteered.
“This is a baby step towards Bhutan’s e-Learning in future,” he said.
“We want to set an example that e-Learning should be embraced and not enforced.”
Kelzang Wangchuk | Samdrupjongkhar
Four people who were involved in smuggling tobacco products from across the border are quarantined in Samdrupjongkhar. Police arrested 12 people in possession of tobacco. Eight are in police custody.
The four were quarantined as they have crossed the border risking exposure to the new coronavirus while the border remains sealed.
On April 2, while on patrolling, police arrested two women in possession of tobacco products. According to the sources, the duo had asked an Indian to pass the cigarettes over the wall near the Indo-Bhutan friendship park. Police seized 25 packets of cigarettes from the suspects.
Police also arrested a truck driver ferrying grocery items for a shop based in Samdrupjongkhar as he was found carrying tobacco products on April 3 around 6:30pm. Police later arrested his three friends who asked the driver to bring the products.
According to sources, the driver was sent in quarantine as he had stopped along the Indian highway to buy tobacco. “Any vehicles ferrying grocery items are not supposed to stop in India as India was locked down because of Covid-19,” said the source.
Police seized two packets of bidi, 40 packets of chewing tobacco (baba) and a packet of cigarette from him.
Police also arrested two women and a man who were also in possession of tobacco products on the same day around 7:30pm. Sources said that they have asked Indian vegetable suppliers to send tobacco products along with the vegetables.
Police found the products while unloading the vegetables. Police seized 60 packets of baba and 30 packets of cigarettes from them.
Police also arrested three men for trying to cross the border during patrolling around 10:30pm on the same day. The suspects tried to cross the border from Tashi Poktor. “They would be forwarded to the court as they have gone to India after the closure of border gates,” a police source said.
Meanwhile, police patrolling team also found 280 capsules of contraband drugs along the boundary wall around 10:30pm on April 4. Although, the suspects are at large, police suspect it would be for someone to pick it up later as the team found those products when someone threw over the wall from across the border.
Police are investigating the case.
Samdrupjongkhar police, Desuups and other officials are doing round the clock patrolling along the Indo-Bhutan border since the closure of all entry points on March 23.
Even as international border crossing has been restricted since March 23 to prevent importation and spread of Covid-19 in the country, it has been found that people continue to sneak in and out of the borders clandestinely. This poses serious risk of the disease spreading in the country.
The immigration department has issued a new notification which states that individuals wilfully violating the restriction shall henceforth face severe consequences, including punitive action. If harsher measures are called for to keep our people safe, so be it.
Many are found to be sneaking out to bring in foreign workers. Recently, just four days ago, the police in Samdrupjongkar arrested several individuals who were trying to smuggle in tobacco products. Those who had crossed the border have been quarantined but that does not solve the problem. The threat of infection coming into the country from across the border remains high.
What we must know is that the problem is not just in the border areas. We are dealing with a pandemic that is spreading like wildfire. Consequences have been deadly in many countries. It is in this light that the people should understand the importance of lockdown.
If health advice and protocols are observed sincerely, we can succeed in keeping the pandemic away, albeit not without disruptions. In the countries that have done well to suppress the transmission of Covid-19, it has been found that social or physical distancing can reduce the chance of the disease spreading by almost 70 percent.
Spatial and temporal distancing is, thus, critically important. Both will come with costs, of course, but the need of the hour is to keep our nation and people safe from the pandemic.
It is for this reason that we need to relook and upgrade some of our strategies constantly. Officials responsible ought to make sure that there is strict vigilance; we cannot afford to be complacent. When the entire nation is impelled to face one of the biggest scourges of the modern age, people taking advantage of the situation for personal gains is plain despicable.
We have so far not had a single local Covid-19 positive case. The chances of importation from the borders remain high, though. That is why vigilance has to be strict in the border areas. We must, therefore, restrict unnecessary travel as far as possible and encourage spatial and temporal distancing for as long as we must.
Neten Dorji | Trashigang
Jamyang is a young and industrious farmer in Bartsham, Trashigang.
Jamyang graduated 12 from Jigme Sherubling Central School and pursue National Certificate level two (NC 2 on farm machinery) from Khangma, Kanglung. Later, he got trained at Agriculture Research and Development Centre (ARDC) in Wengkhar, Mongar.
Today, when people are worried about vegetable shortage due to lockdown in India, Jamyang supplied 825kg cabbage, 400kg broccoli, 320kg carrots and 600kg of cauliflower to Regional of Agriculture and Marketing Centre in Mongar.
He made Nu 70,000. In a week’s time, he will have more to supply.
Agriculture and Research Development Centre helped. Jamyang underwent various training on grafting and pruning, fruits processing, commercial farming and land management, bookkeeping, layout and designing on orchard and marketing.
“I always shared my knowledge with youth. Sometimes, I go around the village to encourage them to take up farming,” said Jamyang.
He said that vegetable import could be greatly reduced. “There is support from the government. It is up to the farmers. There is no problem if you do not have land. We can go for large scale farming with land user certificate. These are opportunities.”
Kelzang Wangchuk | Samdrupjongkhar
For more than two years the residents of Pangthang Goenpa in Trashiyangtse have been struggling with an acute shortage of drinking water.
People wake up early and go to the neighbouring villages Nangkhar Goenpa and Kanjur Lhakhang to fetch water. This happens at least thrice a day.
Karma, 30, said although the village had water supply connection there was water shortage because the sources are shared with Domtshang village.
Gewog administration carried out a survey for maintenance, said Karma. “However, nothing has happened until now.”
Yeshi Zangpo, 44, said without water it was impossible to carry out daily chores at home. Hygiene is today a major problem in the village.
Villagers said they have to wake up early to fetch water because their children leave for school at 6am.
“Agencies concerned should fix the problem,” Yeshi Zangpo said.
Toetsho Gup Dechen Wangdi said that since Domtshang village in Khamdang also shared the same water sources, Khamdang gewog carried out maintenance work in the 2014-15 fiscal year as the villagers faced water shortage.
“People also fail to take up their responsibilities such as clearing of debris in the intake and pipelines,” Gup said.
Gup said the gewog administration had allocated Nu 2M for the drinking water maintenance projects in the gewog. “But we could not procure the materials because of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
There are two water sources for Pangthang Goenpa—Lakawa and Brokpa Pangthang. Both the sources are more than a kilometre away from the village.
Nim Dorji | Trongsa
Villagers of Mangdephu and Phumzur in Trongsa are well aware of the government’s e-learning initiative. The problem is they are cut off and cannot access the programmes, both on television and online.
The two villages, one in Langthel gewog and the other in Nubi gewog, are not connected with electricity. While mobile network is reachable at certain points, internet connectivity on mobile phones is a problem. Not many carry smart phones.
However, students are not wasting their time. There are about 30 students in the two villages. Some are in higher secondary school. Students are busy helping their parents in the fields. It is spring and there is plenty of work. Some herd cattle while others are busy in the fields, busy preparing for maize plantation.
“Our children are missing out on their studies,” said a worried farmer, Jamphel Lhendup of Mangdephu. “They had not been studying since the school closed and came back here.”
Without electricity, villagers try to not to use their mobile phones unless necessary. When switched on, they keep their mobile phones on the windowsill to receive the faintest of network. Parents are worried, especially those who have their children in higher classes.
Villager Tsagay has three sons, all studying in Class XII. “It is difficult to charge a phone,” said Tsagay. His village is about an hour’s walk from the nearest road head. “They have board exams. I don’t know how they will prepare.”
Asked why he didn’t send his boys to live with relatives outside the village, Tsagay said that there is no relatives in other places. “Besides it is safer here in our village,” he said. “And who will buy them smartphones?”
Neighbouring villages like Jangbi and Wangling have access to internet and television. But parents have no clue of what is being taught online or on the television.
Dorji Khandu of Thangnyel village said that his son is always watching TV, but he is unsure if he understands anything. “We don’t know what is being taught or if they understand,” he said. His son studies in Class PP.
Villagers feel that the e-learning is only for the those with good access to internet and with educated parents to guide students.
The Office of Consumer Protection (OCP) has penalised a shopkeeper for selling substandard hand sanitisers on inflated prices and vegetable vendors for overcharging customers on green chillies, according to a press release from the OCP.
The OCP in collaboration with the Drug Regulatory Authority investigation revealed that the hand sanitiser does not meet the minimum acceptable level standard set by the World Health Organisation.
A man who works in a pharmaceutical shop in Thimphu had imported the product from an unreliable source and supplied it to pharmacy shops in Thimphu at unreasonable prices by manipulating documents.
“There was sufficient evidence in a product labelling that an average person could reasonably foresee and infer that the product is not fit for the particular purpose. As a certified competent person he failed to exercise professional diligence instead supplied the inferior product through fraudulent practices,” it stated.
The OCP directed him to recall the inferior product from the market and accept the return of the product from buyers.
The OCP imposed a fine of Nu 53,225 for charging exorbitant prices taking undue advantage of the market situation as per the provisions of the Consumer Protection Act of Bhutan 2012.
The OCP also found that there were other brands of hand sanitisers that did not meet the minimum acceptable level which were recalled for safety reasons.
The OCP also investigated the claims of unreasonable prices on green chillies at Centenary Farmers’ Market (CFM).
The OCP found out that the vegetable suppliers, brokers and vendors were unfairly charging unreasonable prices on green chilli aggrieving consumers.
They had failed to comply with the notifications issued by the government directing business entities to avoid charging unreasonable prices taking undue advantage of current difficult situations.
The office imposed a fine of Nu 4,320 on a vegetable supplier after establishing his acts as unfair and unethical trade practices contravening Consumer Protection Act of Bhutan 2012.
The OCP also fined four other vendors Nu 4,060, Nu 12,960, Nu 1,440 and Nu 1,740 respectively for overcharging.
The OCP, according to the press release, is continuously receiving the complaints on price escalation and other unfair trade practices from various parts of the country.
To address such issues, the OCP has formed market surveillance and monitoring teams involving officials from various departments of economic affairs ministry and deputed to different areas in Thimphu, Paro, Haa, Wangdue and Punakha.
“At the regional, dzongkhag and gewog levels, we are collaborating with Regional Trade and Industry Offices, dzongkhag and gewog administrations to carry out market surveillance and monitoring to protect economic interest and safety of the consumers. The teams are constantly observing and monitoring the markets to ensure that unfair trade practices are not proliferating,” the press release stated.
The OCP has also formed teams in all dzongkhags and thromdes to collect market price information of essential commodities on a real-time basis and publish for consumers to make informed purchase decisions. “It is also to keep track of price movement in the markets and monitor price manipulation.”
The OCP requested people to dial consumer helpline toll-free number which is operated round the clock to advise consumers, facilitate lodging of complaints and address consumer issues in the market.
P’ling starts work to prevent dengue fever
Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing
Results of five dengue cases, which tested positive when tested on rapid test kits from Nganglam and Pangbang hospitals, were sent to the Royal Centre for Disease Control (RCDC) in Thimphu for further confirmation.
The sample results were forwarded as officials couldn’t rely on the test kits although it tested positive.
The health ministry’s chief programme officer with communicable disease division, Rixin Jamtsho said the RCDC will confirm the results today.
On March 26, Nganglam reported two dengue positive cases, one IgG case and one NS1, while Panbang reported of two IgG cases and one IgM case on March 20.
“Of the total, three are IgG cases, which indicates infection from the past, meaning the patients are not suffering from dengue at the moment,” Rixin Jamtsho said.
But the other two cases were IgM and NS1, which indicate that the patients were infected with dengue fever in recent time.
Rinxin Jamtsho said that health ministry has already started putting in place all the measures for prevention and control. General public are requested to practice precautionary measures, he added.
In 2019, Rixin Jamtsho said about 5,400 people tested positive for dengue fever from across the country out of 22,600 patients tested for dengue. A total of 9,500 were clinically screened for dengue across the country. Six people died out of which four were pregnant women.
Phuentsholing reported the first and the highest cases.
Currently, in Phuentsholing, the thromde has already formed a Thromde Dengue Taskforce in its effort to prevent a dengue outbreak. The taskforce on Friday went on a vector surveillance and advocacy programme and discovered several spots where mosquitoes were breeding. About 17 different breeding centres have been identified.
Thrompon Uttar Kumar Rai, who is the chairman of the taskforce, said focal persons have been identified to monitor the breeding centres so that the larvae are timely destroyed.
“Advocacy and awareness are also being done,” he said.
Since Phuentsholing saw the country’s highest number of dengue positive cases in 2019, the thrompon said that it was equally important for people to shoulder responsibility in working towards preventing an outbreak this time.
“We are all already tackling Covid-19 and a dengue outbreak at this time will cripple us,” he said, adding that hospital and staffs will face huge challenges. “It will be risky for us all.”
Phuentsholing has consistently seen dengue fever cases in the last five years. Prior to 2019, the highest was reported in 2016 with 857 positive cases but no casualties were reported.
Last year, the first dengue case was reported in July and the fever quickly spread to other dzongkhags. By November, Phuentsholing had seen more than 4,000 positive cases.
An epidemiologist from the vector-borne disease control program (VDCP) under the department of public health, Dr Kinley Penjor is also currently in Phuentsholing.
“A VDCP draft as per the national plan was presented to the taskforce,” he said. “ The Phuentsholing thromde taskforce is in line to the national plan.”
The VDCP, Dr Kinley Penjor said, will carry on the vector surveillance. Further, vector control and source reductions will be carried out based on the findings.
From March 18 to March 24, VDCP team has inspected 5,766 containers (1,538 wet and 700 dry) 116 buildings and 302 units and premises in Phuentsholing.
Out of 302 units, it was found that 15 were potential sites for dengue vectors. In terms of containers, 142 were found to be potential vector sites. It was also found that a large number of stacked tyres at multiple workshops and scrap dealers at Amochhu area are potential mosquito breeding sites.
The surveillance report has recommended thromde and drungkhag to impose strict rules of cleanliness of building surroundings, automobile workshops, and drainage system. System for regular inspection should be instituted and penalties should be imposed to those who do not comply with the rules, the report further recommends.
Although no dengue case has been reported as of now this year, fogging is also being carried out.
His Majesty The King visited the southern, central and eastern parts of the country to inspect the national level preparedness against Covid-19.
His Majesty visited Tsirang and Gelephu on March 31 and has visited Zhemgang, Trongsa, Bumthang, Mongar, Trashiyangtse, Trashigang, Pemagatshel and Samdrupjongkhar since then.
During the visit, His Majesty met with the Covid-19 task-force members of each dzongkhag, who have the responsibility of, among other things, collecting data of the at-risk population and demographics of their respective dzongkhag.
His Majesty visited hospitals to inspect medical facilities, and the Food Corporation of Bhutan (FCB) branches to inspect essential food stock held in reserve.
His Majesty also visited shops to learn how businesses have been affected by the new coronavirus.
In Mongar, His Majesty visited the Royal Guest House, which has now been converted into a Covid-19 hospital. His Majesty commanded that after the pandemic is over, it would become a mother and child hospital for the east.
Throughout the tour, His Majesty emphasised, to all those working in various capacities across the country, that the greatest objective at the moment is to prevent the outbreak of the virus in Bhutan.
His Majesty also visited a DeSuung training site in Dewathang. Upon His Majesty’s command, there will be an accelerated DeSuung training programme to train about 2,500 teachers, in-service graduates, unemployed youth, and other volunteers simultaneously in seven different locations across the country.
The training will commence today, April 6, with special focus on public health and security, to prepare the trainees to support health workers in our efforts against Covid-19 if necessary.
All the volunteers and trainers will be tested for Covid-19 at the start of the three-week programme to rule out the possibility of community infection. A second batch of DeSuups will be trained upon the completion of this batch.
…all three Bhutanese patients are in stable condition: Health Minister
Early detection and containment approach, which Bhutan has adopted to fight against Covid-19, has worked well for the country.
While the three Bhutanese who have tested positive to the virus were already placed in designated quarantine facilities upon their arrival in the country, the first two patients have recovered.
Sandi Fischer, the partner of the first index case, Bert Hewitt, have tested negative to the virus twice. She is now considered recovered.
Health Minister Dechen Wangmo during a press briefing yesterday said that the tourist is ready to leave the country.
However, given the flight disruptions across the world, Lyonpo said that it is not certain when she can return to her country.
Bert Hewitt has also tested negative to the virus recently after he was air evacuated to the US on March 13.
With the couple recovered, Bhutan today has three Covid-19 cases detected in students who have returned from the US and Europe. All three are currently in stable condition in the isolation ward at the national referral hospital.
Lyonpo said that is important for the public to know from where the positive cases came. “So far, all the positive cases have come from the quarantine centres. We still do not have any community transmission.”
She said that a few more cases are expected from the quarantine centres as there were people coming from various parts of the world, with some returning from high-risk countries.
A total of 3,218 Bhutanese have returned from 34 different countries so far. All of them are in quarantine.
Lyonpo said that for those coming from high-risk areas, even before moving them to the quarantine centres, their samples were taken for testing immediately after their flights lands in the country. “The last case was detected in this way. After knowing the group was coming in from a high risk area, we immediately took their samples for test.”
Extended quarantine period
Clearing the ambiguities surrounding the new 21-day quarantine period, Lyonpo said that decision was reached following scientific reasoning and the advice received from the ministry’s technical advisor group (TAG).
She said that there was about 11 percent possibility that a person after being released from the 14-day quarantine could sill tests positive later. “Extending the period to 21 days brings about almost 98.9 percent surety that the person would not test positive later.”
Preparing for worst case scenario
The ministry has come up with three specific plans in the even the country enters the Red zone.
The minister said that once the country enters the Red zone, the objective would then shift to maintain zero fatality (zero death) and provide early clinical treatment. This would then put pressure on the limited health staff in the country.
Human resource management, she said, would be critical during the pandemic as support from international partners would be limited.
For this she said that about 48 doctors who were pursuing higher education outside were called back. 41 of them have reached the country so far.
About 92 students studying MBBS in counties like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have also arrived last month. Those MBBS graduates waiting to join the civil service, doctors in the armed forces and agriculture ministry including retired doctors and nurses have also been identified by the ministry.
With the backup plan to address the shortage of health professionals sorted out, the ministry in collaboration with the Royal Society for Senior Citizens has also devised an elderly programme.
Under the programme, the ministry is collecting data of all the elderly population across the country to provide them with timely support during times of a lockdown.
The elderlies and people with underlying health conditions are considered the most vulnerable group to Covid-19.
Also, the ministry has arranged counselling services for those in the quarantine centers in case they require any support. About 75 percent of those in the quarantine centers are students. “With these three new measures, we are tackling the problem with a whole-of-the-nation approach,” health minister said.
Ventilators and personal protective equipment
While the shortage of ventilators globally has killed many Covid-19 patients globally, health minister said that more than the number of ventilators, Bhutanese should be worried if there are enough operators to use the devise.
Lyonpo explained that not all the Covid-19 patients would require the support of a ventilator. “About 80 percent of Covid-19 positive cases don’t need them. Of the 100 infected, only about 5 of them would need ventilators,” she said. “Most positive cases recover after taking the medicines.”
There are 68 ventilators in the country and 28 more would be arriving soon, she added. The ventilators would be placed at national referral hospital in Thimphu and at the Mongar regional hospital to offer critical healthcare services.
Lyonpo added that a team of health officials would leave to the south and east to evaluate the extent of preparations in different places.
On the personal protective equipment (PPE), she said that the ministry for now has enough PPE sets and were available in places where they are needed.
Australian PM asks visa holders to return home amid Covid-19 pandemic
The Bhutanese community in Australia, like many international communities, has not taken well what the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, told journalists after a national cabinet meeting yesterday.
The prime minister said that those who had come to Australia should return to their home countries if they are not in a position to support themselves in the wake of increasing cases of Covid-19. “Australia must focus on its citizens and its residents to ensure that we can maximise the economic supports that we have,” he had said.
The announcement came after the Australian government refused support to foreign students. The international education sector contributed $34 billion to the Australian economy in 2019.
With more than 8,000 Bhutanese in Australia, as students, dependents and permanent residents, many expressed their shock and disappointment on social media.
A 36-year-old Perth resident said it was the last thing he expected in such difficult times. “We understand everything is expensive here, especially the medical bills and we want to go home but with airports closed and transits not allowed, I don’t know how we would return home.”
He said almost everyone is affected because of the pandemic, as many lost jobs or reduced working hours. “People who have arrived in Australia earlier this year are most affected, as they do not have stable jobs.”
In Canberra, a student said except for newcomers, many who have been in Australia for a longer period might have saved enough to continue their education. “We have already paid our fees and we would incur huge loss if we return just like that.”
While the Council of International Students Australia condemned the Prime Minister’s comment, the Edith Cowan University (ECU) Student Guild President in Perth, where a majority of Bhutanese students are enrolled issued a press release and stated the Prime Minister’s comment doesn’t reflect the overall positive contribution the international students bring to the country.
It stated that it would provide continued support to international students.
Meanwhile, foreign minister Dr Tandi Dorji said the Australian Prime Minister did not ask all international students to return home but only those who cannot support themselves. “All the countries are asking the same and this is nothing new.”
He, however, said that the government is aware of the situation of Bhutanese in Australia and they already discussed the issue. “The embassy in Bangkok already issued an advisory to Bhutanese in Australia.”
Lyonpo Dr Tandi Dorji said that for those who want to return home but not possible as of now because of travel ban or restrictions put in place by most countries, TashiAir and Druk Air decided to charter flights once the travel ban or restrictions are lifted.
According to the advisory issued by the embassy in Bangkok, about 150 Bhutanese, mostly from Perth wanted to return home.
The General Secretary of the Association of Bhutanese in Perth Incorporated (ABPI), Karma Choden, late last night told Kuensel that the association is analysing the situation. “We are working on strategies to address the issues like writing to universities, colleges and institutions to consider some of the issues the ABPI is putting forth,” she said.
“We are also writing to the WA government to look for grants to the ABPI and exploring other options towards supporting the Bhutanese community.”
Perth in Western Australia has the maximum number of Bhutanese in Australia. Karma Choden said the ABPI and the Bhutanese in Perth Covid-19 response group is working to help fellow Bhutanese.
When the agriculture ministry announced urban agriculture initiative, people immediately started forming groups to start vegetable farming. Then, true to form, came another notice from the ministry the same day—the agriculture department will not register the groups.
Agriculture Minister Yeshey Penjor said that the registration was put on hold because the department was in the process of procuring fallow land in the peri-urban areas of Thimphu, Paro, Wangdue, and Punakha.
“As the government land in the core town areas is not feasible for cultivation,” said the minister and that alternatives were being sought in the Dogar Gewog in Paro and Mewang Gewog in Thimphu.
On March 26, the Department of Agriculture asked individuals to register for kitchen garden opportunities. The announcement read: “The Department of Agriculture (DoA) in collaboration with National Land Commission and Thimphu Thromde is mobilising land resources within the thromde for kitchen gardening opportunities to those who do not have a backyard garden space. DoA will undertake the initial land development and seed supplies.”
The move was initiated to boost local production in the Covid-19’s wake. More than 100 interested groups registered with the department.
Director of DoA, Kinlay Tshering, said the initial registration was a test to see if people in the urban areas were interested in agriculture.
She said the department was carrying out technical feasibility and site identification studies. “We are recording the numbers of agriculture youth groups and fallow lands so that we can link them together. It depends on the willingness of the people.”
“The fallow land in the core town area has water problems so we are exploring different locations,” she said.
Groups have begun expressing their frustration on social media.
Gelephu police arrested seven Bhutanese who had visited Tokura village in the neighbouring state of Assam, located half a kilometre from Gelephu-Sarpang highway.
They were caught on three separate occasions in the past three days.
On March 30, the police and surveillance arrested two women with tobacco products while they were returning to Gelephu from Tokura village. A Bhutanese man was caught while returning from Tokura village the following day.
Another two women and two men were caught yesterday as they tried smuggling in tobacco products.
Police said that all of them were quarantined as they had been in contact with people across the border.
According to police, the six who were involved in illegal tobacco possession will be dealt as per the law upon completing the 21-day quarantine period.
In a separate incident yesterday, Sarpang police caught a Bhutanese man returning from Sarpari. The man was quarantined.
Meanwhile, since the sealing of Gelephu-Datgari checkpoint on March 23, security personnel and surveillance teams have been deployed at all the entry points in Sarpang.
However, the surveillance teams are still grappling with the challenge to control the movement of people across the porous border.
There have been numerous calamities like wars, natural disasters, epidemics, throughout human history. We remember the nature of the tragedy, the impact, the suffering, the lessons learnt (sometimes). But we often forget that it is usually about people – our beliefs, values, and behaviour – not guns or bombs, viruses or bacteria, and rain or hail or even earthquakes.
We are talking about oppressors and the oppressed, tormentors and victims, decision makers and recipients, bystanders and participants. Every individual potentially has a role.
Today it is widely known that the biggest challenges to human well being, like climate change, is taking place because we have allowed greed to take over need. There are increasing voices of protest but the culture of consumption appears to be irreversible.
Then comes the Corona virus. It would be purely conjecture if we connect the emergence of this virus to human behaviour but the magnitude of the trends and impact is directly connected to human decisions, particularly decisions by those in power, by leaders responsible for governance.
Globally we see the scenario being played out in the media. Countries with discerning and decisive leaders are minimizing the suffering caused by Covid-19. Power grabbers with political and personal motives are making policies at the cost of human lives.
Dictators and tyrants cannot be condoned under any circumstances, but the lessons of the past months tell us that firmness and discipline is vital at such critical times. Unfortunately this often comes at the cost of luxuries and conveniences.
Not to gloat, not to keep patting ourselves on the back, not to claim any form of victory, Bhutan can so far be proud of our response to a frightening menace. It has taken perceptive planning, firm decisions, and untiring efforts by our leadership at the highest level as well as the cooperation and compliance of most citizens.
But there are signals that the situation will get worse before it gets better. So the threats and risks remain ominous for the small Bhutanese family in a populous region which is better known for chaos and disorder than for order and discipline.
We are grappling with people disconcerted by panic and the fear of the unknown. That’s why the need for intensive awareness campaigns and support. We also hear well as rumblings of resentment that it is a few influential citizens who are compromising public safety. So that’s why the need for everyone to respect informed decisions and to follow advice and rules.
There is one powerful mandate for all of us. Pay close attention to and follow the advice, directives, and examples set by the government – with none other than His Majesty The King at the helm.
Pricing is one of the building blocks in any market. Price may be defined as the “monetary value of a good or service.” Every business, whether formal or informal, invests with an expectation of some profit. The profit is directionally proportional to the price of the goods. However, sometimes, the sellers hike the price unreasonably because certain circumstances favour them. The best example is the recent hike in the price of vegetables particularly green chili as high as Nu 700 per kg from Nu 200 overnight.
With no price ceiling, the Office of the Consumer Protection (OCP) remained toothless even with numerous complaints on the price-related issue. Section 7 of the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) mandates that a “person shall not mislead the consumers on the price of the goods and services.” Section 8 provides various situations where prices can be considered as misleading. Further, Section 9 requires that “goods displayed for sale and, wherever applicable, services shall have the price affixed conspicuously.” The requirement under S.9 is to ensure that, prices must be fair and not a mere display of prices. How does the OCP respond to such challenges even when the price is displayed?
Many Bhutanese often look at Maximum Retail Price (M.R.P.) not realizing that OCP has no jurisdiction to enforce M.R.P. in Bhutan. M.R.P. is an Indian concept under Indian law introduced in the 1990s to control the price but and has no legal force once it exits the Indian market.
Price regulation is a complex issue in the free market today which is based on Invisible Hand Theory. This means “the market will find its equilibrium without government or other interventions forcing it into unnatural patterns.” Though this is also in line with the freedom of contract, a fundamental principle in consumer contracts, this is not always true. Thus, sometimes it is necessary for the state to regulate the price of goods and services.
Government regulation of price is based on the normative theory the “application of the respective pricing rules can be justified by some higher-order value judgments as formally expressed by social welfare functions.” Bhutan as a democratic state guided by GNH is a true welfare country and hence price regulation must be preferred over the laissez-faire approach. There are many countries where price regulation exists even during normal times including most capitalist nations like Unites States, European Union, India, Singapore and Australia where some required clear display of prices and others have verification tools to ensure the price is not exorbitant or misleading. Today, Bhutan is going through an extraordinary situation and state intervention is necessary.
If we do not come up with a strategy to regulate prices through price ceiling, Bhutanese consumers will continue to suffer at the hands of some greedy sellers taking advantage of the situation. When our economy is suffering at an unknown rate, it is high time that we come up with price ceilings for all essential goods including vegetables. Price ceilings will help stabilize the economy, ensure that “essential goods are financially accessible to the average person.” It is the responsibility of OCP to ensure consumer confidence so that, there will be no hoarding. Without price regulation, laws pertaining to the price would remain redundant, hoarding continues and OCP a mere spectator. Our sellers must profit but not at the cost of the nation’s economy by charging unreasonable prices.
Chimi Dema | Gelephu
With about 90 trucks lying idle for almost two weeks following the closure of border gates, exporters and transporters of boulders in Gelephu are worried about repaying loans.
Since the export of riverbed materials from Gelephu came to a halt, many trucks are found in garages and some in the automobile workshops.
It was learnt that transporters have to pay loan installments ranging between Nu 40,000 and Nu 60,000 a month for a truck.
A group of exporters have to pay an equated monthly installment (EMI) ranging between Nu 0.5 million (M) and 0.6M for loan. While others have to pay an EMI of Nu 0.15M.
According to exporters and transporters in Gelephu, the export business has been riddled with frequent challenges since its commencement in November 2018.
But in the past two months, the business was flourishing after negotiations among importers, exporters and transporters on several issues, exporters said.
The Chairperson of Mines and Minerals with Gelephu Think Tank Business Member, Chencho Gyeltshen said, “Amid a thriving business, certain issues keep coming which affect the business.”
He said that the exporters have invested millions in dredging of the riverbed materials (RBM) along the Moa river and stocked thousands of metric tonnes of boulders.
Their biggest concern, he said is that with the monsoon approaching, the RBM worth billions would be washed away.
“This would result in substantial loss,” he said. “We are at greater risk of losing our properties if the situation remains the same.”
Many transporters and exporters Kuensel talked to said that it would help them if the financial institutions could come up with emergency measures for consumers affected by the disease outbreak.
An exporter suggests freezing of loan payments for some months until the situation improves.
A transporter, who took a loan with an overdraft account, said it would help if financial institutions could waive off interest payment in the meantime.
Another transporter, Karma has nine trucks (10-wheelers) with some engaged on hire in boulder business.
Of late, some of his trucks are ferrying cement from Nganglam to Gelephu on nominal transportation charges.
“I cannot afford to leave all the trucks idle any longer,” he said, adding that he has to bear payment for drivers and staff as well as pay rent for the office besides paying loan instalments.
Despite the low charges, he said that the trucks have to be deployed. “But given a large number of free vehicles in the market, it is hard to get a single truckload in five days.”
He said that while the charges could cover the cost for fuel and payment for drivers, the amount is not sufficient to repay the loan.
Another transporter, Chencho said that although the financial implication is huge, they cannot plead with the government considering the current public health crisis.
“It is not wise to bring our problems in the forefront even though we feel helpless,” he said.
The truckers claimed that due to the sudden lockdown by the government of India, they couldn’t calculate payments with the importers for the exports they made.
“We called them to make payments but they said because of the lockdown they can’t pay us.”
In December, when Sangay Kunchok, a final year business student in the Royal Thimphu College was selected for the Mekong Business Challenge in Cambodia, he was excited.
But due to the Covid-19 pandemic, he is virtually competing with teams from 11 other universities tomorrow.
Sangay Kunchok said that he was demoralised when it turned into a virtual competition but he had prepared himself for the business model challenge. “If I could physically attend the challenge, I would have got exposure and built more business networks.”
His business idea, Thunder Guide, expects to carry out tours by displaying cultural sites of Bhutan in multiple languages. The first prototype application contains four languages such as German, French, Vietnamese and Chinese, covering nine cultural sites of Paro, Thimphu and Punakha.
He said that half of the visitors come from non-English speaking countries that do not get professional language guides. Thunder Guide targets high-end tourists.
This tech portal not only solves the shortage of language speaking guides but also gives the tourists’ true, authentic and clear information about Bhutan.
Sangay Kunchok had participated in domestic competitions such as national start-up weekend and Druk Tshongrik Gatoen. He had proposed the idea to the Tourism Council of Bhutan.
The teams will pitch business ideas to a panel of judges from McKinsey & Company, Google, Holdingham Group UK, KrisEnergy and Manulife for the opportunity to represent the region at the 2021 International Business Model Competition (IBMC) in the United States next year.
Covid -19 national mental health and psychosocial response
A working group led by Dr. Chencho Dorji, retired Psychiatrist was formed at the Ministry of Health to plan, prepare and roll out the Mental Health and Psychosocial Response to the COVID – 19 pandemic.
The working group has identified some key strategies and structure to address the growing mental health and psychosocial issues related the pandemic in the country. The strategy is to identify the most vulnerable and high risk population such as individuals with COVID -19 positive symptoms or positive status and their families and give them psychosocial counseling and support to overcome their difficult predicament.
This population group will be minimal in numbers, but their psychosocial needs are the maximum. The next group of vulnerable population are individuals in quarantine facilities, their families and relatives and the front-line workers or first responders such as the health workers, DESSUPS, Police and other volunteers who are at risk of exposure. The third group is the general population, who are either directly or indirectly affected by this pandemic. For them, the focus of our intervention is sharing information, education strengthening their psychological resilience.
Our first task was to establish direct telephone counseling at the national level so that the individuals in the isolation/ quarantine facilities and the general public can easily access information or get telephone counseling. For that, we have set up five dedicated mobile hotlines for people to access.
The numbers are 17123237/38/39/40/41. Any individual who has a psychological issue related to the pandemic and wants to get clarification or counseling can call these numbers. Although, these phone lines are dedicated to counseling, it has also been sharing info on the pandemic and country situation.
However, toll free number 2121 is the dedicated to give specific information related to the COVID – 19 protocols in the country. Over the next week or so, we are planning to organize counseling teams and launch telephone counseling services at the district, thromde, organizations and local communities. Standard operating procedures are being formulated now so that services can be standardized and delivered efficiently in all parts of the country.
Our next priority is to train all the first responders and frontline workers on Psychosocial First Aid (PFA). PFA is equivalent to what we generally understand as CPR or Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation during heart attack or emergency medical condition to revive the person’s life.
PFA is the emergency response to psychological crisis such as when an individual feels lost or suicidal. It is like the revival of a person’s mental faculty from the shock of hearing a dramatic news or being exposed to a life threatening situation.
PFA can be done by any individual after a brief training. We do not need a trained professional counselor to give it. PFA will be useful tool for our current frontline first responders for their own emotional and psychological well-being as well as for those in their care.
Working in the frontline during this crisis is a difficult job. On one hand, individual may experience fear of contacting the virus in the facility if they are not well informed or prepared while on the other hand they may not be sensitive to deal with individual’s in their care. PFA will able to prepare the individual first responder to look after his own mental health as well as he can become competent and sensitive to handle individual under their care.
PFA training and application has five components: preparing the individual responder for his task such as by gathering information and getting mentally and physically prepared. The second part is being mindful and sensitively watchful of individuals and events under theircare without being judgmental or unnecessarily intrusive, the third part is active listening to complaints or problems their clients tell them, the fourth is linking individual’s with problems to available resources and support including linking individual to his own resources and skills, which the individual may overlook during crisis, and the last part is taking care of the responders own psychological health and mental wellbeing.
Our frontline and first responders are exposed to unprecedent stress and anxiety during this critical period of their job. They need to be trained and supported to be able to look after their own health and deliver efficient services in their clients. So, over the next week or so we will be rolling out training for first responders on PFA. Various technologies will be used to give distant training in the context of the pandemic social restrictions to expedite the process. Training teams will also visit the peripheral places to set up the local teams and train them.
Kuensel features Q & A with Dr Chencho Dorji every first Saturday of the month
The room’s well furnished, spick-and-span. A queen-size bed in the centre, there is also a table by the side with a water boiler, tea bags, instant coffee packets and sugar arranged neatly by expert hands. This is my room at Tsherim Resort in Paro.
We got home on the morning of March 19. Thirty-eight of us, mostly students studying in India, were taken straight away to the resort. A nurse met us at the door to give us quarantine advice. Everything happened very quickly.
This is my day 13 in the quarantine centre. There is everything here, meals on time, free Wi-Fi, and health check-up from time to time. I can even do some physical exercises. I have just seven days to complete mandatory quarantine but passing time becomes harder by the day.
I read books. I watch the news on TV. And I sleep. All day long. Suddenly I have to distract myself. Am I thinking too much? Am I worried? Is that good? I wonder what my friends are doing next door.
I have begun to feel irritated by the doorbells. And about how everyone outside tends to think, it’s a luxury staying in a confined room for 21 days.
Often I find myself trying to find out what scientists and researchers have to say about loneliness, hallucination and things like that. Am I going crazy? No. I may be a little bothered by all the time I have to myself.
At night when I am trying to sleep, I can hear my neighbour opening the bathroom door. The noises are heightened with the silence in my room.
Unable to sleep I put the lights on and begin to read.
During the day, I explore my room. There are two houseflies. They come to bother during meal times. There is a small bug that crawls on the windowsill all day long. And a fruit fly which I haven’t seen in a while. I watch them go about their ways; for a moment I have forgotten all the worries in my head.
On the eighth day in quarantine, I realised that the government has spent Nu 8,000 for my care and there are over 2,000 people like me. Nu 16 million has been spent on us already. When I heard that some who can afford paid their hotel bills as a service to the country, guilt tore me.
But getting the best out quarantine seems to be the best I can do. So, on the tenth day, I challenged myself to at least read 100 pages and do 10 knee push-ups a day.
Quarantine is very important at this time. I am already very appreciative of my government for such arrangements for the safety of the people.
If 21 days of boredom and loneliness means going home with surety that I wouldn’t be the one to bring harm to my family and friends, it is worth it. Bonus point, I will walk out wiser (I will have read so many books!) and proud.