… Phuentsholing residents endure the country’s longest lockdown 

Rajesh Rai and Younten Tshedup     

Once a bustling town, the major commercial hub in the country — Phuentsholing — lies lifeless today. Everything has ground to a stop except for the transmission of the virus.

Phuentsholing will complete the 100th day under lockdown tomorrow. Although the bordering town has had some moments of relaxation in between, it could not come out of the lockdown restrictions completely. The town has been locked down since April 17 after an 8-year-old boy and his mother tested positive for Covid-19 from the flu clinic the previous day.

Residents are exhausted and frustrated with the situation. Many have left Phuentsholing after much endurance for places like Thimphu, Paro, Wangdue, and Mongar. “It’s very depressing when you are confined in your own house for too long,” said Karma Dorji, a businessman who is currently in Mongar with his family.

For others, it is their children’s education that has led to this forced migration. “With the situation showing no signs of improvement in Phuentsholing, I’m worried about my children,” said a father of two in Phuentsholing. “I’m looking for admission for my children in Thimphu. If I don’t get there, I’ll try in other dzongkhags.”

What went wrong in Phuentsholing?

Owing to its close proximity to the international border, Phuentsholing was identified as one of the high-risk areas in the country since the beginning of the pandemic last year. Positive cases from the community continue to emerge even after several months of being under lockdown.

The question is if the lockdown has worked in Phuentsholing? Going by the rate of community case detection, it has not.

Kuensel learnt that recently some of the staff of one of the corporations had organised a dinner in Phuentsholing. Some of the people attending the dinner programme were infected with the virus. There were also instances where people did not show up for testing during the third mass testing.

The government decided to impose a complete lockdown in Phuentsholing on July 9 in preparation for the second nationwide vaccination campaign. But before imposing the lockdown, people were allowed to come out and do shopping on July 8. This was a mistake.

Kuensel learned that some five women working in shops under Mega Zone II were sent to Mega Zone I without being tested on July 8. These women were working in the Core IV area of the main town under Mega Zone II.

Using the e-permit, the women returned to their homes at Toorsa NHDCL housing colony under Mega Zone I. Some of these women tested positive for Covid-19 on July 11, two days after the fourth lockdown. They also infected their friends.

The building where they were living at the NHDCL housing colony in Toorsa area was declared as a ‘red building’.

A resident of the building, Rinchen, said that knowing about the incident he called the hotline number to inquire why the women were allowed to move without getting tested in the first place. “I was told that they only tested people returning to Toorsa settlement. I asked them if it was only the settlement area that was prone to the virus.”

Rinchen said that the mistake forced his building to turn red.

Speaking to Kuensel, a Toorsa temporary settlement resident said that a person over the hotline had told him the same thing that he could return without testing. However, he said that the hotline had advised him to stay under strict home quarantine for seven days.

“But I went to check at a flu-clinic and went home,” he said, adding that he stayed under strict home quarantine. “Without the test result, people are not allowed inside the Toorsa temporary settlement.”

The Delta concern 

One of the reasons why Phuentsholing continues to detect positive cases from the community was because of the highly transmissible Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 virus, said Dr Sonam Wangchuk of the National Immunization Technical Advisory Group (NI-TAG).

He said that Phuentsholing in the past recorded positive cases from the community but the outbreak was not as wide and recurring as the current one. This was because the virus then was not as transmissible as this one, he added.

“We have protocols in place but then they were not being followed strictly before and even today,” said Dr Sonam Wangchuk. “They thought the same measures and protocols would work this time, which we know is not working against the Delta variant.”

Technical Advisory Group (TAG) member, Dr Tshokey, said that unlike in the past outbreaks, the current outbreak saw the majority of the family members turning positive if a single individual is infected. “This is because the Delta variant is highly and effectively transmissible.”

Since April 17, 514 positive cases have been detected in Phuentsholing of which 347 were contacts of the earlier detected patients. 167 positive cases were detected from the community.

The blame game

Frustrated and tired, residents have started blaming the task force for failing to contain the spread of the virus in Phuentsholing. Pointing to the recently uncovered loopholes in the protocols, residents are questioning the credibility of the task force members.

However, there are a few who say that they can only blame the location of the place.

A Phuentsholing resident, requesting anonymity, said: “Not being able to contain the virus cannot be blamed on anyone. Phuentsholing is the import-export hub. Anything can happen at any time given the porous border.”

However, he said that the registration of movement of people to low-risk areas must be transparent. “Some have travelled twice in a month where some have been waiting for more than two months to travel. Some register today and leave within a day or two.”

Containment zones and escort personnel must also be strengthened as main lapses can occur from there, he added.

A woman from Pasakha, Nima Dema said she registered for quarantine to travel on July 2.

“When I call the hotline, they give me different excuses. I don’t understand,” she said. “Even they are not sure when we will get the facility.”

Nima wants to go to Thimphu for some urgent work related to a family problem.  “But I don’t know how they consider the urgent cases. Those responding to hotline calls should know the details of the registration at least.”

Others say the task force including the health officials and frontline workers have been tirelessly working to contain the spread of the virus. “If it wasn’t for them, the entire country would be suffering today. We must understand that they have been staying away from their family and loved ones for more than a year now.”

An employee in one of the industries in Pasakha, Gagan Sharma, said that it was the second time his building was identified as a ‘red building.’ “It was declared as red from July 8. We haven’t come across any problems as of now. I think it is because we were mentally prepared.”

He said that essential supplies have been consistent. The building was declared red once in June before.

Business-wise, it is the small shops, restaurants and bars that would experience significant impact even if the lockdown opens after the vaccination.

A restaurant owner, Karma Tshering Dorji, said he cannot take kidu. “Our King is already doing so much for us,” he said, adding that the government could help them. “If the government can help us avail loans with less interest for those affected businesses in Phuentsholing.”

He said that he would not want a large sum of loan. An amount that could help him pick his restaurant business up and pay for the outstanding rents would be enough, he added. “We can pay the loan once we start our business and it starts running smoothly.”

Edited by Tshering Palden