Younten Tshedup

The health ministry’s 2121 hotline has played a crucial role in clearing doubts related Covid-19, quarantine, flight details and many more besides providing a listening ear to hundreds, including some prank calls.

The hotline started as one of ministry’s first response immediately following the detection of the first Covid-19 positive case on March 6 to provide information on the pandemic.

Operators said while most calls received at the centre, located at the national referral hospital, were ‘specific’ to the virus and the developing situation in the country, some just wanted to talk. Some callers did not have any specific questions related to the virus, but just wanted an assurance that things would be normal again.

However, it was different in the beginning.

Senior programme officer with the public health department, Sangay Phuntsho said calls received were event or situation based.

Sangay who was one of the first groups to man the centre said that initially most of the questions were on the signs and symptoms of the disease. “Later as the situation changed, the types of questions and queries also changed.”

When the flu clinics started, people called the hotline to know the locations of the clinics. As the government began bringing back Bhutanese from abroad, the questions shifted to flight availability and timings.

He said questions then shifted on the quarantine centres – location, guidelines and other details. “There were also calls regarding the quarantine and Druk Trace apps and their functionalities and technical glitches.”

In the initial days, the centre received over 100 calls a on an average. On March 6, the centre received 113 calls that increased to 190 over the next four days.

The number of calls has dropped over the months averaging to about 20 to 40 calls today. However, Sangay Phuntsho said calls increases especially when new positive cases are detected or important announcement are made at press briefings.

The hotline was started to provide important information to callers, especially fact-checking rumours and misinformation. “But since we were not trained professionals on all issues, our job was to direct and refer calls to the professionals,” he said adding, that if the inquiry was about some technical glitches with the quarantine or tracing app, the calls were forwarded to the ministry’s IT team.

He said many expressed their gratitude for providing a dedicated line to clear their doubts in a fast changing situation. “People were thankful especially because many had no idea about the disease and several new things emerging. Through the hotline, they had someone who they could talk to and clear doubts.”

However, there were surprises as usual. Sangay Phuntsho said sometimes they received calls from people under the influence of alcohol asking irrelevant things. “There were also toddlers who used to dial the number and kept the line busy.”

Of the 6,652 calls received as of first week of May, 167 were prank calls and 818 calls were missed calls and unresponsive calls.

Today, the second and third year students of the Faculty of Nursing and Public Health man the call centre.