The second Bhutanese to test positive for Covid-19 shares her views with Kuensel in this letter written from the isolation ward of the national referral hospital

The recent novel coronavirus outbreak has undoubtedly taken the world by storm. It has affected the life of every individual, directly or indirectly.

Flights back home, as you all must already know, have to transit either through Bangkok or Delhi and amidst fears that the cities were going to soon be on lockdown, I had to leave London where I am a university student. I did not think for once, even in the slightest, that I would become victim to the novel coronavirus. I was convinced I had a strong immune system that would fight it off.

Most of how I felt could be attributed to the way the UK government was reacting to the situation while I was there. For many in London, life went on as normal despite the alarming rate at which Covid-19 cases were growing. At Heathrow, airport staff were not wearing even simple surgical masks. I was not screened for symptoms before boarding nor was it mandatory for me to wear masks or protective gear on the flight. In short, protocol measures were severely lacking in the face of this global pandemic. However, it is not my intention to disregard anything that has changed since. I am simply writing about my experience.

Nine hours later, I landed in Delhi. Immediately after I was screened for fever, the airport health team cleared me by stamping a certificate that was to be presented at immigration. In contrast to Heathrow, there was relatively a better sense of health procedure. Approximately five hours later, I boarded my flight to Bhutan.

I landed in Paro in the early hours of March 18. Screening procedures by medical staff was swift and efficient. Coming from London, I could not have been more impressed with how our small developing nation was dealing with the situation. Within half an hour I was out of the airport.

A few days before I arrived, the government had announced a mandatory quarantine period of two weeks (it has now changed to three), for every person flying into the country, in a facility. However, these so called facilities weren’t really what they sounded like. In show of solidarity with His Majesty The King and the government, many private hotel owners have selflessly given up their business as quarantine centres and employees have willingly volunteered to ensure that we were all quarantined comfortably.

Medical teams at the quarantine centre would screen us for new coronavirus symptoms twice every day for the first three days and we were told to call the 24-hour call line in case of any emergency. My hotel was surrounded by a beautiful pine forest. Wonderful meals were provided daily and quite frankly, quarantine was more like a peaceful retreat.

Eight days passed before I lost my sense of smell. After failing to recover for two more days, I informed the health staff. Immediately after I reported my concern, they collected my sputum and mucus samples through a swab and sent it to be tested for the novel coronavirus. 12 hours later, I was woken by a call from the health ministry telling me I had tested positive, making me the fourth person in the whole country to have the virus (now it is five).

So far, all the earlier cases were imported and there have been no inter-community infection as a result of our strict quarantine measures. Early next day, on March 29, I was given a hazmat suit and was brought to the national hospital in Thimphu where I am currently sitting, writing this piece.

I have received the best medical treatment possible from our doctors and have faced no issues whatsoever in the seven days that I have been here. I owe a special thanks to all the nurses who have been on duty during my time at the hospital. They have worked round the clock, not once taking off their protective gear, which if may I add isn’t the most comfortable for 8-12 hours, to make sure I am cared for.

I am eternally grateful to them.

In light of this, I hope that all Bhutanese realise how lucky we are. While the so called superpowers of the world with advanced economies struggle to battle the new coronavirus, our small country has managed to contain it efficiently and while leaders of the first world remain shielded within their sheltered offices, His Majesty The King stands in the southern region making sure that closing borders with India does not ill affect the food supply. Moreover, His Majesty is currently touring the country to inspect the preparedness against the coronavirus. We must never forget how fortunate we are to be blessed with such visionary leaders.


A shared  responsibility

However, as citizens we share a huge chunk of social responsibility in battling this pandemic. Extensive efforts that have been put in by our King and the government will amount to nothing if we don’t do our part.

I would like to talk about a few ways that we at an individual level can act in response. Social distancing is an obvious measure. In addition, I think it is important to understand that no matter who we are, no one is immune to the virus. The virus does not have an affinity to specific people.

You must be mentally prepared, if by any chance, you happen to catch it. I do not know much about the scientific technicalities of it, but I do know however that though it is only like a common flu, it spreads quickly and as a consequence, it has created significant level of social scare.

This scare has manifested itself in many forms and one is the social stigma. In my opinion, because of the fear that this has generated, when put in the position, you may feel afraid to confront it. This is what I experienced. Since my symptoms were mild, I tried to convince myself otherwise. I’m grateful to my good friend and roommate for encouraging me to tell the health staff. I request society to not let stigma restrict people from coming forward. Be compassionate. The virus is naturally occurring. If infected, it is simply a case of luck and misfortune.

As a Buddhist nation, we seek comfort in religion. Our spirituality guides us at times like this when science fails us. Impermanence and uncertainty are two of the underlying foundations of Buddhist philosophy. Nothing lasts forever. Situations change rapidly. Your good health can immediately be affected by the virus and in the same way, ill health can soon be recovered. In addition, mortality rate for the new coronavirus is extremely low.

I have tried to keep up my morale by keeping in mind the above. Use isolation and quarantine to do something productive and occupy your mind- paint, listen to music, read, and write. Find time to do something you would otherwise not be doing. Utilise this period to develop a new skill, devote time to meditate and pray at least twice a day. I promise you that it goes a long way. When you avail yourself in this manner, you gain a sense of accomplishment. It is addicting and makes passing days so much quicker. I know that it is easier said than done, and I also know that when you have nothing to do, you lack the will to do things you normally would be doing. Don’t let this pandemic get the worst of you. It will challenge you. Fight to overcome it.

The new coronavirus has tested the globe in ways like never before. Instead of letting it divide us and playing the blame game like most of the world, Bhutanese have shown solidarity in these trying times to battle the pandemic as one nation.

Our King, government and people have come to fight this in unity. It is no doubt that I have always considered myself extremely lucky to be born as a Bhutanese but this situation has made me truly realise how fortunate I am. Bhutan is clearly no superpower. We are a tiny developing nation but we are tackling it better than a lot of other countries. I can only hope that we can serve as an example to the world as we fight this and the world can see how it is possible to emerge victorious if we all stand together.

Lhachi Selden,  4th April, 2020.

Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral