Experts warn of severe consequences if guards are let down 

Rajesh Rai, Nima and Younten Tshedup  

After a brief respite, the country is witnessing a surge in new Covid-19 cases sparking concerns. The country is seeing a rapid rise in the Covid-19 cases beginning this month.

The good thing, however, is that the positive cases, for now, are confined within the safe boundaries of the quarantine facility.

But a more worrying trend is brewing just across the country’s southern border. Breaking all records, India has recorded a massive surge of 131,968 Covid-19 cases in the last 24 hours according to India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

Although not the epicentre, the country’s next-door neighbours in Assam and West Bengal are also recording a steady increase in positive cases. West Bengal saw 1,819 new cases in the last 24 hours while Assam recorded 176 new cases.


Shops close by 9pm

What does this mean? Despite the pandemic, the country is still importing substantial quantities of goods from India. These goods are brought inside the country through these Indian states.

Bhutan also shares a 700km long porous border with these states and the incidences of illegal border-crossing is on the rise despite all efforts to guard them.

The novel coronavirus is an imported disease and the only source of such disease is via the point of entries — bordering towns and international airports. The two outbreaks of Covid-19 Bhutan experienced so far were both linked to an outside source.

Many water cans are empty

Besides this external threat, people within the country have already returned to ‘business as usual’. Following the vaccination campaign, there is a general feeling that Bhutanese have become complacent and have stopped following the public health measures.

Thimphu’s busiest thoroughfare, Norzin Lam, is bustling as usual. People in groups, many without facemasks are seen strolling the streets today.

The last remains of the Druk Trace QR code are hanging on the walls of shops and offices. The mini-water tanks in front of the shops have run dry and physical distancing is a thing of the past.

Situation in Phuentsholing   

A 30-minute stroll into the business hub of the country can give you a picture of how complacent people have become. There are people, young and old, walking without facemask. Those who pretend to use one, don’t cover their nose.

Some shops have installed handwashing stations but not many use it. One shopkeeper said people were not following the usual prevention measures as they used to a few months ago. “When we ask people to wash hands, wear masks and register their information, they leave the shop,” he said. “When we can’t change people’s mentality, the government must act.”

Another shopkeeper said that people get offended when they ask them to use Druk Trace, wear masks and maintain physical distance. “They get angry and leave the shop.”

A Phuentsholing resident, Rintshen Dorji, said that people have become complacent after the vaccination campaign. “I think people are under a false belief that they have got immunity against the virus. They must know that is wrong,” he said.

He said that there was a need for more advocacy and sensitisation by the health ministry. Otherwise, he said, with increasing Covid-19 cases in the region, and Phuentsholing being a porous border, it may not take long before another local transmission occurred, triggering a nationwide lockdown. “Now is the time to apply stringent rules.”

A health official in Phuentsholing said that pandemic fatigue could be the reason behind the complacency. “People have grown tired from the prolonged pandemic. We all want to live free as before the pandemic, but Covid-19 has stopped all these freedoms that people normally enjoyed.” He said that if people let their guards down, they would face more difficulties in an event of another outbreak.

Health officials say that complacency in people can undo all the achievements made so far. A doctor said that people should follow the preventive measures irrespective of receiving the vaccine or not. “Not all people will develop antibodies from the vaccine. People must follow Covid-19 protocol to protect those who were not vaccinated, those who are not eligible, and those who wouldn’t have immunity to fight the virus.”


Gelephu almost on track 

Wearing facemask, using Druk Trace app, and avoiding crowds while shopping and moving in the town have become a norm for most of the residents in Gelephu, according to a shopkeeper, Jigme Choden.

However, few continue to come for shopping without wearing a mask. “This happens when they forget their mask. But they buy it immediately. There are a few who won’t use Druk Trace,” she said.

She added that people have become much more comfortable following the safety protocols now. “We share a border with the neighbouring Indian town and the risk is still there. It’s important that we keep following these safety measures.”

The washing stations are filled with water, minus the soap.

Desuup Naveen Kumar Gurung said that shopkeepers in town were supportive in making people use the safety protocols. “They also provide soaps and washbasins for use. But we have to remind people to use the Druk Trace application often,” he said.

The shops are open only till 9pm and movement of vehicles is restricted after 10pm.


Can’t let the guards down 

Bhutan experienced two episodes of Covid-19 outbreak so far with the second one being 10 times bigger than the first. Experts say the next outbreak would be even bigger if people are not careful.

On January 9, the country recorded 39 positive cases, the highest single day detection. Doctors in Thimphu Kuensel spoke to said that the existing health facility would collapse if a large number of people tested positive on a daily basis.

“During an outbreak all sorts of people will get the disease. There will be more serious cases and people will die if timely interventions are not provided,” said a doctor. “Currently, all our positive cases are given special attention during their treatment. This might not continue if we have to attend to a large number of positive cases daily.”

Health experts have repeatedly warned people not to let their guards down especially after the vaccination campaign. The vaccine, especially after the first dose, does not guarantee 100 percent protection against the virus, said Dr GP Dhakal with the national referral hospital.

“Two weeks after the first dose, you may be 50 percent protected which is why, to have full protection, you’ll need to get the second or booster dose. Similarly, adequate antibodies will be produced two weeks after the booster dose,” he said.

“That is why until we’re fully protected, we all need to follow preventive measures, such as wearing face masks, practising physical distancing and regularly washing hands.”

He added that, since almost 38 percent of the population remained unvaccinated due to their ineligibility to get the vaccine, they would be severely impacted if there is an outbreak of Covid-19. “Our neighbouring countries made this mistake and the virus is now rampantly spreading. We’re not yet safe from the pandemic.”

World’s Health Organisation’s country representative in Bhutan, Dr Rui Paulo de Jesus, said the vaccination needed to happen in all countries with good coverage to ensure some relaxation and return to normal ways.

He said that no one is safe until everyone is safe. This means that even after the second dose of the vaccine in the country, if neighbouring countries continue to record increasing cases, the risk of infection will continue to exist for the Bhutanese.

Dr Rui said that the vaccine alone was not adequate protection from the virus. “We still don’t know how long the immunity from the vaccine will last and also how the disease will evolve.”  He said people will have to adhere to measures such as using face masks, avoiding crowds, and regular hand washing.