On the morning of March 6, Bhutan woke-up to the news of the first positive case of new coronavirus in the country.
At Kuensel, we had put our two newspapers to bed but we were back in office at 3am to include in the newspaper an announcement of national importance on COVID-19.
Everyone assumed that the German couple who were quarantined the other day had tested positive. When the announcement came, it was a 76-year-old American tourist. It did not matter who brought COVID-19; Bhutan now had the first confirmed case.
Today, at least 125 countries around the world are battling the spread of COVID-19. It took about two months for the virus to appear on the Bhutanese soil after it was officially declared in China.
For Bhutan, the biggest concern was and has been the possibility of an outbreak in the neighbouring Indian states of with which we share open and porous border. Fortunately, not a single positive case has been reported from Assam, West Bengal, and Arunachal Pradesh so far. Quarantining Bhutanese rushing back home mainly through Phuentsholing would be a major challenge otherwise. The city would have to cater for more than 3,000 Bhutanese living in Jaigaon as well a large number of students, monks and people working outside.
There were calls to close our doors to tourists long before the first case was reported. The government decided not to impose travel restrictions considering the interests of about 100,000 Bhutanese in the service sector, a majority of whom depends on the tourism sector. It was a wise decision.
Bhutan’s sovereignty and security today is mainly credited to the guidance of our Druk Gyalpos, who worked tirelessly, and the Bhutanese, who served and fulfilled the noble wishes of their Kings. It is the trust between the Druk Gyalpo and the people that is the foundation stone of our success stories. Our Kings have displayed excellent leadership whenever the country was faced with challenges.
Yet again, our beloved Druk Gyalpo, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, is at the forefront navigating the country to counter COVID-19 and to keep the country safe. Taking personal risks, spending many sleepless nights, touring the country to inspect preparations at various vital points, guiding the government and local government machinery in taking measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, one can only imagine the sacrifices His Majesty is making for the country and the people.
After the news of the first positive case, people were initially alarmed but the way the prime minister and the government, with His Majesty’s guidance, handled the situation meticulously deserve our heartfelt appreciations. The patient receiving the best care with 16 dedicated health personnel and the personal attention of His Majesty is a matter of pride for all Bhutanese.
Our doctors, nurses and health workers who are directly in contact with the patient, risking their lives and working under difficult conditions should not be forgotten.
As the country is on a high alert mode, every Bhutanese should be guided by the fundamental duty provisioned in the Constitution: “A Bhutanese citizen shall preserve, protect and defend sovereignty, territorial integrity, security and unity of Bhutan and render national service when called upon to do so by Parliament.”
We cannot wait for the Parliament to issue a formal order. We must act now. At this point, each one of us could draw inspiration His Majesty’s address to the Nation on December 17, 2009:
“Our country is called a Gross National Happiness country because in happiness, we celebrate together and when we grieve, we grieve together as if we were all members of one family. If there are works to be done, we share equal responsibility in carrying out the work and when we face a problem, together we solve the problem. The best example is the recent natural disasters. Everybody came together as if they themselves were affected by the calamities and this I say is exemplary and something that we should cherish.”
The people are coming together to support the nation’s effort to contain the virus. More will come. The Government of India, our closest friend, has assured us of its continued support.
A glimpse at the global scenario
The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 pandemic on March 11. Ever since the spread of the virus outside China, countries around the world are taking varying measures to try to stop the spread of the virus. As of date, the worst-hit countries outside China are Italy, Iran, France, Germany and Iran. Italy is in lockdown and has the highest death toll. In Iran, the virus infected a number of high officials that include one of the 11 vice presidents, a deputy health minister, and at least 24 members of parliament.
As per Worldometer, an online page that regularly updates figures on COVID-19 news, there are 136,343 confirmed cases worldwide, of which of 70,437 have recovered/discharged and 4,995 have died. Currently, there are 60,911 people infected by the virus, of which 55,152 are in mild condition and 5,759 in critical condition. Top eight countries that surpassed the thousand mark of confirmed cases are: China (80,814), Italy (15,113), Iran (10,075), South Korea (7,979), Spain (3,869), Germany (3,059), France (2,876), and the USA (1,762) as of yesterday afternoon.
There are now more than 125 countries affected by the virus.
From available data, the spreading spree of the disease is alarming; and, the rich, powerful, developed countries are not spared. The prognosis is that it is going to get worse. However, for countries like China and South Korea, with decline in new cases, some reports claim that these countries have peaked their coronavirus epidemic. We could draw some comfort from the 52 percent recover/discharge rate and that 91 percent of the 60,911 patients infected or active cases are in mild conditions.
Here at home, we have a battle of our own. So far, about 142 tests were conducted and only one tested positive. About 62 first contacts are being quarantined and about 330 secondary contacts are under self-quarantine. The virus has disrupted life and businesses but things appear under control for now. As a religious country, rituals are being conducted in all our dratsangs, shedras and goendeys to prevent the spread of the disease.
The CIVID-19 scare has taught us some lessons. As surveillance is the first line of defence against the virus, honesty and integrity of Bhutanese is of utmost importance. Knowing travel history of an individual entering Bhutan is important for the safety of the people.
Fake news is also spreading which only helps create panic among the public. We must fight fake news and disinformation too. This is not a time to panic or cause panic; it is the time to make the most from this national concern.
We must also reflect on and reprioritise, if need be, our development plans so that we are focused on dealing with the challenges in hand.
We should remind ourselves of what His Majesty said in His address to the students of Sherubtse College during its 11th Convocation:
“I believe we can. In fact, I know that we can. I have always believed that every challenge can be changed into an opportunity. Today I know that our country faces many challenges and we will face more challenges in the years ahead but I believe that if we always plan ahead, if we approach our challenges intelligently, if we work hard, then not only can we overcome those challenges but also every challenge that we are faced with can be changed into an opportunity.”
Contributed by Bachu Phub Dorji