Male Iron Rat Year

Covid-19 dominated the Year of the Rat

Younten Tshedup

The Rat (year) had been busy and kept the nation on its toes a few days after it took over the reins from the lazy Pig on February 24 last year.

As we shoo away the Rat finally, the year will be, unfortunately, remembered for the disaster the Rat brought to the country.  Nine days after taking over the year, the novel coronavirus of unknown origin, first detected in Wuhan, Hubei Province in China, was detected in the country becoming, as we reflect, the cause of all disruptions in the country.

What was seen as a far-off foreign threat, this time last year, Bhutan reported its first positive case on March 5. As we welcome the Year of the Ox, more than 860 people in Bhutan have been infected, including a death from the virus.

Bhutan confirmed its first Covid-19 case in a 76-year-old American tourist on the night of March 5. The government immediately banned tourists, closed schools and institutions in Thimphu, Paro and Punakha, where the tourist had visited. On March 18, all schools closed indefinitely.

The government reopened Classes X and XII on July 1. Lessons were broadcast on television and self-learning materials distributed to rural schools and those who didn’t have access to online learning. The online learning came with its own set of challenges for teachers and students alike.

Medical shops ran out of hand sanitisers and facemasks. The health ministry improvised and distributed free sanitiser.

Some 56 flu clinics were set up within weeks across the country to step up surveillance. In the meantime, the country’s index case left for home on March 13. A few days later, his 57-year-old partner tested positive.

The government announced a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all incoming individuals at the points of entry and closed the border gates on March 23. Quarantine period was later extended to 21 days.

The first Bhutanese to test positive for the virus was a female student who returned from Europe. She tested positive while in the quarantine on March 25.


Leadership, the crucial difference

As the world struggled to contain the spread and minimise the impact of Covid-19, Bhutan managed the pandemic well.

This was made possible with guidance from His Majesty The King, who personally oversaw all the containment and response efforts since day one.

His Majesty The King, besides personally visiting all the bordering towns educating the public on the risk from the pandemic, and reassuring those scared by the virus, also made two public announcements on the national television.

From closely following the safety of those infected at the hospitals and isolation facilities, the Druk Gyalpo’s Relief Kidu came to the rescue of many who lost their livelihoods. Food and essentials were directly delivered to those who needed it during the two nationwide lockdowns, cushioning the impact brought about by the pandemic.

Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen sent gifts to frontline workers during the trying times. 

 With deep concerns from the increasing domestic violence and abuse cases during the lockdowns, on the command of Her Majesty, measures were put in place to assist any person who experienced violence during the lockdown.

The importance of the divine intervention, which has always been a part of the Bhutanese culture and tradition, equally contributed to the fight against the pandemic. The monastic community spearheaded by the central monastic body began prayers and rituals to abate the risks of the disease.

His Holiness the Je Khenpo administered the Sangay Menlha initiation and blessing virtually, and urged all Bhutanese to obey health advice.

Many believe that Bhutan could not have been any more prepared for a public health emergency of this magnitude than was this time. The Prime Minister, health and foreign ministers, all had decades of experience in health care, an experience that reassured the people.

Sowai Lyonpo (health minister) Dechen Wangmo, a public health expert (global health epidemiology) said that having medical professionals leading the country’s response against a health crisis was an added advantage. “It helped in making rational and well-informed decisions.”

Lyonpo said that the belief in science and the evidence-based response to the pandemic helped the country reach where it is today.


Lockdowns and struggles

The country experienced two episodes of nationwide lockdown. The entire country was locked down on August 11 for 21 days after a woman in Gelephu tested positive outside the quarantine centre. Two days later, 12 positive cases were reported from the mini-dry port in Phuentsholing.

It was not the smoothest of lockdowns. Despite having the best of SoPs on paper, many teething issues surfaced during the first lockdown.   Communication gaps, poor coordination and shortage of essentials and vegetables exposed the preparedness and response to the pandemic.

People remained stranded, as movements were restricted. While information was heavily filtered before they were made public during the initial days, officials struggled with lack of data themselves.

On December 20, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering told the public to stay home, again. It started with locking down the capital city, home to about 150,000 people.

Although the government holds that the lockdown this time was more organised, the outbreak was 10 times bigger than the one in August. Close to 400 people contracted the disease.

On January 7, the country recorded its first Covid-19 death. A 34-year-old man with pre-existing medical condition became the first victim of the Covid-19 pandemic. People from all age groups — young, old, infants — contracted the infection. A 2.5-month-old infant was the youngest to be infected; the oldest was an 83-year-old.

While the government managed to streamline many of its activities drawing experience from the first lockdown, challenges persisted with the lockdown 2.0 extending over 40 days in the capital. Issues of shortage of vegetables continued even during the second lockdown.

Breaching the lockdown protocol and endangering the lives of others spurred debate on the laws and its implementation.


Solidarity in a pandemic

On the positive side, the pandemic brought out the good side of the Bhutanese people. The country’s success story so far in the fight against the pandemic, according to both Lyonchhen and the Sowai Lyonpo, was because of the cooperation rendered by the people.

“We would not have achieved what we have, if not for the support from the public,” said Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo.

Farmers sent vegetables, rice, and dairy products to quarantine centres and landlords waived rents. Banks deferred loans installments for three months and interest was waived as kidu from His Majesty.

In a show of gratitude and solidarity, companies and individuals contributed to the Covid-19 relief funds set up with His Majesty’s secretariat and the finance ministry. Some travel companies and hotels continued to pay their employees for the initial few months.

International donor agencies contributed generously and committed more. Tour guides out of work took to growing vegetables, some joined the thromde’s workforce and a few others returned to their villages. Some drayang dancers became parking fee collectors.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) applauded the country’s response to the pandemic. WHO representative to Bhutan, Dr Rui Paulo de Jesus said that the uniqueness of Bhutan’s fight against the pandemic was the ‘whole-of-the-society’ and ‘whole-of-government’ approach guided by His Majesty at the helm.

“Today, under His Majesty’s guidance, Bhutan’s response to Covid-19 is second to none and serves as a testimony of how compassionate and visionary leaders can make a difference in the world.”

The health minister said, “The biggest advantage, at this point, is unity and solidarity. Because of the blessing and guidance from His Majesty The King, Bhutan has no option but to excel.”


Vaccinating Bhutan

With all hopes pinned on a vaccine, the country received its first consignment of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine from India on January 20. The 150,000 doses of vaccine came as a ‘gift’ from India to Bhutan.

A nationwide mass vaccination campaign has been planned to roll as soon as the government receives the targeted 533,000 doses for all the eligible population in the country.

The mass vaccination campaign is expected to begin by next month considering the dana (inauspicious month). The government also expects to receive the remaining doses by then.

Vaccination would begin with referral patients including Bhutanese travelling abroad.

However, experts have said that even after the vaccine is administered to the mass, the risk of Covid-19 outbreak would still remain unless the global pandemic status is downgraded.

Until then, following the proven health measures such as wearing facemasks, practising physical distancing, and regularly washing hands with soap is the way forward, according to experts.