Unprotected border areas pose challenge to 2019-nCoV preparedness

Younten Tshedup| Gelephu  

Bhutan and India share a long and porous border. It has occasionally been a problem, mostly when used for illegal trade and trespassing.

Today, as the country gears up its preparedness against the global outbreak of coronavirus, (2019-nCoV), the unprotected border areas could prove to be detrimental.

The government has highlighted that the free movement of people through the long porous borders in southern parts of the country posed the biggest challenge against coronavirus preparedness.

But what has been done to address this challenge?

While surveillance has stepped up at main entry points in the south, securing the illegal routes is not only difficult, but also almost impractical given the sheer length of the border.

Gelephu: A case example  

The seven-feet tall border wall that separates Gelephu town and Dadgari village in Assam, India runs only about 500m south of the border gate. At the end of the wall, there are people freely entering and exiting.

Sources said that there are at least seven ‘known’ illegal routes that are used by drug peddlers, labourers and vegetable vendors. There are several more illegal ‘unknown’ routes through the dense forest.

Gelephu is witnessing a sort of construction boom lately and this has lead to an increasing demand for labourers. Also Indian labourers can be seen at the vegetable market, hotels and restaurants and along the roadside sweeping and picking trash at multiple locations.

They are called day-workers. Majority of them come through the main checkpoint with valid documents. However, there are also those who enter the town without documents using the illegal routes.

Health officials shared that despite the effective screening and surveillance measures put at the main checkpoint, should an infected individual enters through the illegal routes, the whole preparedness efforts would fail.

On the other hand, closing entry to these workers could possibly bring the economic activity of the town to a complete standstill.

On an average, more than 3,000 people enter through the main gate in Gelephu daily. The numbers increases on Thursdays because of the market in Dadgari. During weekends, people from as far as Barabisa, Meghalaya, Guwahati and West Bengal come to visit the place.

The number of people walking in and out through the gate on Thursdays are anywhere between 5,000 and 7,000.

Sources said that if not more, at least 40 percent of the people entering from the gate would also be entering from the illegal routes everyday.

However, health officials said that since the outbreak is not reported in any of the neighbouring states of Assam and West Bengal, from where majority of these illegal people come from, they do not pose a severe threat at the moment.

“But because this is illegal, we must do everything possible to prevent the entries altogether,” said an official.

Another official said that although the confirmed cases in India is limited to only Kerala so far, there could be positive cases in other parts of India, which has not yet been identified.

“The initial symptom of coronavirus infection is like any normal flu or pneumonia, it is possible that some of the cases might not have been reported,” he said. “India has a large population that is constantly on the move. We cannot assume anything for now and have to always be alert.”

The lack of awareness on the outbreak and minimal importance given on the other side of the border also raises concerns for effective preparedness on the Bhutanese side.

Locals in Dadgari can been seen casually going on with their routine activities, unconcerned by its surrounding. “They say some sort of disease has come to Bhutan, which is why doctors are stationed at the gate,” said a Dadgari resident.

She said that considered as a ‘no man’s land’, there is no particular organisation looking after the wellbeing of the people in the area. “People here prefer if they are allowed to run their business without any disturbances than to close down the shops and stay home.”

Concerns were also raised about vehicles entering Bhutan at late hours.

Health staffs are deployed on shift-basis from 6am till 6pm at the checkpoint. However, there are vehicles, especially those that are coming from far-flung places arriving late.

Sources said that allowing entry to vehicles during the night in absence of the screening and surveillance team could prove to be detrimental since most of these vehicles are trucks coming from Bangladesh and other highly populated areas.

Records at the checkpoint show that about 25 vehicles enter Gelephu after 6pm daily.

Meanwhile, health officials also shared concerns over the dusty situation near the border gate.

Environmental factor is a major component in the epidemiology for prevention and control of infectious diseases. A poor environmental setting could further aggravate the situation and also put those staffs working at the gate in an exposed setting.

On the request of health workers, Gelephu Thromde has deployed a water-tanker to sprinkle water twice during the day.