Front liners at risk

Yangchen C Rinzin

Last month, a patrolling team in Gelephu intercepted a Bhutanese man returning home after sneaking out across the border. The suspect smelling trouble tried to escape. The patrolling team and police arrested him.

The two policemen who caught the suspect had to hold down the man. They were later quarantined for 21 days along with the suspect. The policemen were released after the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test results came negative.

With the attention diverted on preventing community transmission, those on the frontline getting in direct contact with people exposed to the virus, many say could be the biggest risk of local transmission . Cases of people covertly crossing the border and the spike in Covid-19 cases across the border have increased the workload on the front liners and the risk of local transmission.

De-Suups on duty in Gelephu

Police are tasked to arrest suspects before surrendering them for quarantining. Health officials conduct a Rapid Diagnostic Test (RDT) on the suspects, but not on the policemen who bring them to the quarantine facility. After completing quarantine, a PCR is done and the police escort the suspects to court for trial.

All suspects, so far, have tested negative, but those on duty along the porous border fear that the suspects they handle might test positive after 21 days. By then they would have mingled with others. The Royal Bhutan Police, Royal Bhutan Army, and De-Suups have been patrolling the borders along with the volunteers from National Land Commission, immigration department, forest rangers, and community volunteers since the borders closed in March.

Those on duty follow a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), which specifies handling a suspect and physical distance requirements. However, implementing it on the ground has been challenging. A De-Suup who served in Gelephu said that they are usually given a two-day briefing before being placed at the outpost for a month.

But the ground realities- the heat, the thick uniform with heavy boots, many say compromise the protocols.

“Sometimes, it is suffocating to keep wearing a mask because of the heat. But we’ve to do it if we come across a suspect,” said a De-Suup.

Another said that while they are aware of the physical distance rule, they have to interact closely with suspects sometimes. A De-Suups said that when they see a suspect while on patrol, they immediately surround the suspect to ensure the intruder does not escape, maintain distance and immediately inform the police to deal with the situation.

“We wear face masks, if possible gloves, and we make them carry their own items. We don’t touch the suspect at all,” said a front liner adding that they are not tested after patrolling. Some shared that although they are most careful, there could be a possibility of getting infected by the virus.

Police have designated individuals to arrest suspects. A health team comes to the spot in a designated bus to pick up the suspect along with police personnel. “Such measures give us hope that local transmission from the frontline is slim.”

A health official said that as far as possible the health team tests the suspect immediately so that there is not much physical involvement of the police or patrol team.

The official said that patrolling teams are usually stationed at outpost so there is less interaction with others.

“They were face masks. With cases increasing at the border, we’ve recently enforced that they should be using face shields and gloves too.”

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