TAG recommends people continue following the safety protocols 

Younten Tshedup 

With more than 90 percent of the eligible adult population vaccinated,  many expect restrictions to ease, and lives to return to ‘normal’. However, experts warn it is not the time yet.

Much to the disappointment of many, the ‘relaxations’, may not come anytime soon given the situation the country is currently in.

A member of the Technical Advisory Group (TAG), Dr Tshokey, said that for an individual to be considered fully vaccinated, the person has to receive two doses of the vaccine and complete a two-week duration after the second dose.

The two-week duration known as the immunity response time, Dr Tshokey, said was required for the body to develop an adequate amount of antibodies and have a good immune response against the virus.

Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said that relaxation in the protocols would depend on several factors including the pandemic situation in the region and neighbouring countries.

“There are a couple of conditions that we’ll need to consider before announcing any relaxations to our protocols. TAG is working on it and they will soon submit their recommendation to the national task force,” Lyonchhen said.

Dr Tshokey said that having achieved good vaccination coverage among the adult population would definitely mean that there would be less severe cases among those who get infected and lower risks of death from complications.

“We will see less frequency and intensity of lockdowns. But people will have to continue following all the protocols,” he said.

He said that it would not be correct for people to compare Bhutan with other countries, where relaxations have happened following the vaccination. The parameters — location, size, health facilities, and the real situation on the ground would differ from one country to another, he added.

He said: “Some countries may even be giving up already, but we are still doing whatever possible to win this pandemic under His Majesty’s leadership. One significant difference for Bhutan is the greatest importance given to human life and welfare by His Majesty and the government.”

Dr Tshokey said that people might think that the illness from Covid-19 is not serious or is just like any other flu, and not many have died in the country and then become complacent.

“There are several emerging reports of long-term consequences from the infection. Getting infected, recovering, and being discharged home is not the end. So, unless unavoidable, we should put in all possible means to prevent people from getting the infection and the country from a disaster,” he said.


The threats 

For Bhutan, the biggest threat is from cross-border transmission. Covid-19 is an imported disease, meaning that the only source of such a disease is through the point of entry (POE) — international borders and airports.

With the majority of the commercial flights currently suspended, it is through the international borders — north and south — that the disease can enter the country.

A big wave of Covid-19 in India and its neighbouring states has direct implications for Bhutan. With growing indications of a third wave of the pandemic in India, observers say the situation would only get worse before it starts subsiding.

Many have pointed out that the third wave in India would enter through the Siliguri corridor, which is very close to the Bhutan-India border.

Recently, the United Nations experts have hinted that Myanmar could become a “Covid super-spreader” state. Northeast India shares a long and porous border with Myanmar. A spill-over transmission to the Indian states would eventually pose a threat to Bhutan through the southern borders.

“In such uncertain times, we cannot afford to relax just because we had a successful vaccination campaign,” said a Thimphu-based doctor.

“The present situation of our country is a direct impact of India’s second wave. The third wave could bring in more deadly variants which could evade the immune system despite being vaccinated,” the doctor said.

He said that vaccination will help reduce severe disease if infected but it did not guarantee people from not getting the disease. “People can still be infected despite being vaccinated. The bigger threat is these people could infect those unvaccinated populations who could then go on to develop severe disease.”

Dr Tshokey said: “Whatever benefits we have from the vaccination and whatever relaxations that may come through, we should always remember that there are still no recommended vaccines for children below 12 years.”

He said that these groups of children will always remain vulnerable to catching the virus as well as suffering from a serious illness. “The very young and the very old have always been His Majesty’s concern during this pandemic. So, we need to be very careful about these two groups.”

Following the completion of the week-long vaccination campaign the health ministry has once urged people to strictly comply with all the Covid-19 norms — avoid large gatherings, wearing face masks properly, and washing hands frequently with soap, among others.

Health experts said that Bhutan has not vaccinated enough population to achieve herd immunity and without the wide vaccine coverage, the population would remain vulnerable to outbreaks.

Observers say that it would be wrong, if not foolish, to ask the government to lift the seven-day and 21-day quarantine protocols in the present situation. “These protocols are our last line of defence. Without the protocols, we would have been in a worse situation today,” said one.

In the meantime, Dr Tshokey said that the priority, for now, was to get Phuentsholing out of the current situation. “We are hopeful we can do it. Following this, a lot of work will have to be put into the continuous risk assessment, local infection risk, and pattern post-vaccination studies.”

He said that the experts will have to review local epidemiology, study international recommendations to make whatever possible relaxations that could be put forth. “It will not be so straightforward. We would not desire a situation where we rush to relax and people travel everywhere taking the virus. If the whole country is put in the same risk level, it will be very difficult for us to even get back to our present situation.”

Edited by Tshering Palden