A listening crisis

The Covid-19 crisis has unveiled many issues, among them the fact that Bhutanese people are not good listeners. We are not only talking about people not listening to instructions and advice from the authorities or paying heed to the laws of the land. We are talking about a culture where we just don’t listen.

Among the training sessions on Bhutan’s response to the virus there is a session called psychological first aid (PSA). It is a psycho-social problem and the “Mental Health Response Team” appeals to all citizens to follow a LLL theory – look, listen, link. Communication is vital during such times but the Bhutanese dilemma is that communication does not function if we don’t listen to each other.

The problem was discussed during a session for retired nikem (Red Scarf Dashos) this week. Some of our elders find it difficult to hear because of their age and the occasional damaged eardrum from their free spirits and youthful days. But they lived in unique and colourful times when the unmentionable was sometimes the norm. And these veterans share their stories with no regret.

The health team was sensitive. Presenters were emphatically waving their arms in exaggerated gestures to emphasise points for those hard of hearing. Health officials were ready to run to help the odd Dasho who couldn’t hear his phone ringing. The session was punctuated by another Dasho assuring his family members that grandad was fine.

Other stories would be hilarious if they were not so worrying. During sessions for Members of Parliament, politicians had to be urged to listen to people during a disaster and not give long speeches and advice to dazed and shocked victims in distress.

Expatriate counsellors found that it was impossible to get our monks to stop talking. They were more used to talking than listening. We are talking of a society where the heads of families don’t listen to young children, teachers don’t appreciate questions from students, and senior officials talk to rather than listen to their subordinates.

The presenters found that the most attentive group of people was a session for the Wangsel Institute for the Deaf. They couldn’t hear but they focused on the slides and the translation of the presentations into sign language.

According to Dr Chencho, retired psychiatrist and a senior citizen himself, Covid-19 crisis has given Bhutanese health workers an opportunity to be heard “at last”. Mental health has not been on the Bhutanese health system’s priority list. A popular tease for anyone behaving a little odd used to be that he or she should go to Ranchi in Bihar, India, Ranchi being the home of a well-known mental hospital.

Health officials see the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to be heard – that is, if anyone is listening. In fact, this team responding to Covid-triggered psycho-social mental health problems was established on the Royal advice of His Majesty The King.

Meanwhile, society has discovered a new group of non-listeners – the growing number of people in quarantine. There are regular complaints about the lack of discipline, particularly among youth in quarantine, who are frustrating officials, police, and desuups. They are yet to learn that Covid-19 is spread, by not the old and sick, but by the “cool dudes” who insist on group entertainment.

But the mental health professionals are more sympathetic to these youth, who are sometimes influenced by withdrawal from alcohol and tobacco and, occasionally, drugs. There has been report of unruly behaviour – but these are stray cases. Their medical experience has taught them that turning a blind eye to some use of alcohol and tobacco can avert larger problems.

It needs to be recognised that there is a larger social problem because the drug abusers live in Thimphu and, when the demand creates a lucrative market, it is impossible to patrol the long and porous borders. Our suicide rate is also relatively high but our response is mostly theory.

The Covid-19 menace is new on the global stage and there is no expertise or medication. Even the testing is a complex challenge as we saw in Jomotshangka where a man tested positive six times in the rapid test but was eventually found to be negative. It was a moment of panic and an important wake up call.

There are always unforeseen challenges that defy prognosis. Even as we respond to a pandemic, health workers are entwined in new Dzongkha terms – for example “quarantine”, “isolation”, “social distancing”. One question that defies an answer was, in the words of a senior citizen, how do we care for grandchildren who are sitting at home all day? If we do not find these answers, we may be raising another generation of screenagers  who will not know how to listen.

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