A gloomy afternoon. A light drizzle is falling on the mountaintop flanking the city. As I walk home, I overhear a group of boys saying, the government is bringing Bhutanese back from abroad, and with them the virus too.
This sentiment is echoed copiously on social media posts. They feel the country is incurring huge expenditure to, first, observe quarantine and, second, to provide for the isolation if an individual is tested positive for the virus. They seem to question the economic wisdom in this arrangement.
It is, of course, unbecoming of us to think our compatriots should not return home. They have already lost their jobs. Their safety is not ensured away from home. They have to be welcomed. Had they been our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, would our response be different? But then, who are they after all?
Not very good stories from quarantine
Bhutan is a small country. The economy is small and so is the number of health professionals. We haven’t got many options. Preventive measures are about all we can adopt to stand guard against the scourge that is incapacitating the world, economies, health care systems, all that we hold dear and important. As always, and more so in the trying times, His Majesty The King is personally visiting the southern borders to ensure that the preventive preparedness is right, a highlight of His Majesty’s emphasis on prevention. The government’s decision to quarantine those returning home from abroad for 21 days turned out to be the best decision yet, as indeed we have enough reasons that quarantine is the best measure at our disposal right now.
We hear heartwarming stories from quarantine. Some lost their parents while still in quarantine decided to complete their quarantine period for a larger common good. Others took the initiative to collect and donate large sums of money to the country to help its effort in containing the challenges the pandemic has posed. Hotel owners volunteered to turn their hotels into quarantine facilities. Here, we stand strong as a nation.
However, we also hear some disheartening stories. A group of people in quarantine arranged a party inside the quarantine facility. One of the persons who tested positive had shared food with the persons in another room. Still, others did not report the symptoms to the health workers, and only when the mandatory test was performed at the time of exiting the quarantine facilities were they tested positive. Very often, we hear about people indulging in risky practices such as passing on things from quarantine facilities to individuals outside the facilities. Recently, an individual was reported to have thrown a bag to be delivered to the family out of the quarantine facilities.
We know it is tedious to spend 21 days in a room. But this time, you are doing the biggest service to the nation by adhering to the quarantine rules. Your generosity to share what is on your plate with your next-door friend is the ballast that holds the Bhutanese identity, but this time the generosity could risk transmitting the virus to the person you care. We know you must be eager to deliver the gift to your family after years of separation. But this time, your gift may prove to be fatal. We also know the gift you brought will not perish within 21 days. Your grandmother or grandfather, your parents, your siblings may not be as healthy as you are to make through the infection.
We have all the more reasons to be cautious as the number of cases is rapidly increasing. The complacency and irresponsibility of one person would leak the virus to the community. This would render all the efforts put in by His Majesty The King, the government, and many organizations, individuals, professionals vain.
I don’t think anyone of us wants to have the wound in our conscience for creating havoc in the country. I am not trying to paint a grim picture of the situation, rather it is an inconvenient truth that we are experiencing now.
In the community
Thimphu city was dead silent for a few weeks after the index case was reported. The national referral hospital saw hardly any patient for some days. But with time, even as the number of cases is increasing, people are getting relaxed. The number of hospital visits has increased; people saunter in the streets in groups; young people idle away hours in groups on the streets or in the milieu of their homes. Some people throw the aplomb of baby showers and birthday celebrations in their apartments with hordes of relatives and friends gathering. Odd still, parents are going out, for any number of reasons, with their young children.
It is observed that young people are engaging in physical exercise, which is a good development. But many of them are seen spending time in groups along the road to the Buddha point and thereabouts, in the name of outdoor exercise. We also see sudden influx of people in the town each time people complete quarantine period. It would be best if people just out of mandatory quarantine remain home quarantined for a while.
All these happen despite repeated advisory of the Ministry of Health to observe precautions: adhere to physical distancing, to follow respiratory etiquette, and to avoid unnecessary crowds and visits to public places. Evidently, we have grown immune to health advice, but we are not immune to the virus. Worst still, this virus neither has a vaccine nor a treatment. And science is caught off guard this time. We would do best to remember that, misfortune always strikes us when we expect it the least.
This virus has a long incubation period and is infectious during that period. When the symptoms show up is disparate, too. Some cases show symptoms after 5 to 7 days after they have been infected; others take 14 or 28 days. There are other chilling facts of cases showing no symptoms at all. What’s even more confusing is that the symptoms are similar to that of seasonal flu.
The rate of transmission is fast-paced, too. Let’s crunch some numbers: the health minister said 13 infected people can infect the whole of Bumthang in 5 days. By simple arithmetic, 13 people can infect the whole dzongkhag before the symptoms start to show even in the earliest cases. Therefore, we must exercise the highest caution to prevent a local outbreak.
It shouldn’t take someone’s death to remind us about the vulnerability we all live in. We might be getting relaxed because all the positive cases are recovering. We must feel blessed for that. But, at the same time, we must know all of them were young and healthy people who, according to experts, have much higher chances of recovering than the elderly, or people with compromised health. If the virus leaks out into our communities, with our close-knit culture, it will have a devastating impact.
The young must not think they are invincible. You might put your family at risk. More and more evidence from other countries shows that young people are succumbing to this scourge. Simply put, science is yet to understand this phenomenon in its totality. What we know yet is, as the old cliché puts it succinctly, just the tip of an iceberg.
The best way we can serve the Tsawa Sum this time around is by serving ourselves. We can do this by adhering to the quarantine rules, observing health advice, and staying home.