Jigme Wangchuk

Stranded. When can the shops open? How is one supposed to get to the hospital? Why is vegetable order and supply such a frustrating and futile affair?

Eight days after the government imposed the nationwide lockdown, these were the questions.  Twenty-two days after lockdown, these are still the major questions.

We knew a lockdown could happen, but it still came as a surprise. It happened overnight, so to speak. No one was prepared. Was there complacency on the part of the general public? Many agree there was. August 11. With the discovery of a quarantined individual who tested Covid-19 positive six weeks after entering Bhutan, the prime minister announced a sudden lockdown. It was a sensible move, but there would be problems.

When the lockdown was announced, many found themselves ill-prepared. As did organisations, communication fell apart. Something had to be done. Otherwise, the pandemic and the lockdown together could bring untold challenges to the people. The first few days saw hundreds of mobile numbers being circulated, only to find most of them “unreachable” or “switched off”. A dozen other hotline numbers were announced for different type of services.  Almost all were most of the time jammed.

His Majesty’s Secretariat walked in with an idea of a single catch-all call centre.

Phenday Lam, Thimphu, the office of Natural Resources Development Corporation Limited, the home of the call centre, which started with 58 de-suup volunteers on August 18. They came in all raw. At nine in the morning on the first day, the volunteers had to undergo a mock session because no one had ever done this before. Call handling and holding are professional skills.

There are 50 parallel lines, which means 50 call executives. The hall is packed. Each table has a phone line. Besides, there are eight data collectors and a seven-member technical team that generates data and provide recommendations.

The centre now does not get as many calls. Could it be because the centre is very efficient? “We have flaws, but we are improving,” said a member who didn’t want to be named.

I want to give it a try.

“Hello! Lockdown has been eased a little now but after 21 days indoors, I can’t figure out what to do. Where should I go?”

I tried my best sound stupid and irritating. I was taken aback by the voice from the other end of the line. “Sir, where are you currently, exactly? Changzamtog. OK, here is what you could do…You can walk around your house but do not forget to wear your face mask. And, please avoid crowds.”

From the far end of the room, I could see the man answering my call. He was most polite and professional.

The centre produces daily reports that are submitted to His Majesty’s Secretariat, prime minister’s office and other relevant organisations and agencies. This has helped overall coordination by getting all actors on the same page. There have been 14 such reports so far, and 11,434 calls—816 per day. It is challenging to attend to the many calls and to address all the problems but de-suups are coping all right. Three nights they had to work 24 hours. Now, they work from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

An eighty-year-old woman calls from Jungzhina. She has run out of doma and can’t go out to stock up. She needs them now. A man must take his baby to Changangkha Lhakhang. The baby is sick. A tanker driver is stranded at the vegetable market in Changzamtog and must pay Nu 2,000 daily to the caretaker there. How does the centre solve such problems? By the way, these are real problems. The centre has them all recorded.

The centre’s rapid response team comes in. Essentials and supplies are bought and delivered as part of the Royal Kidu.

The team is buying sanitary items for a mother who has just given birth at Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital.

This call centre is to be the one information centre in the entire country. Even the PMO’s Grievance Helpdesk has now been merged with the centre.

Call 1010.