“Initiate measures to evacuate Bhutanese from Middle East countries”

MB Subba

The joint parliamentary committee on the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) preparedness and response yesterday recommended the government to postpone the reopening of schools in five dzongkhags till the end of March 2020.

The committee, which comprises 10 members (including three observers) from both the Houses of Parliament, submitted the recommendation after an extensive deliberation.

The committee was formed to review the socioeconomic impact of COVID-19 and provide necessary recommendations to the government in the real time.

The committee recommended, “However, the Ministry of Education should provide clear direction and necessary support to schools for making up classes and covering syllabus on time, especially for classes X and XII students. One such option would be to do away with summer break for these schools.”

Should the government decide to re-open schools from March 19 despite the committee recommendations, the committee recommended that the government should put in place all possible measures, such as sanitizing classrooms, restrooms, provision of free hand sanitizers and hand wash amenities to prevent and mitigate contracting and spreading the virus.

The committee submitted the recommendations in view of the difficult for the school managements and the teachers to manage their own and students’ safety and school hygiene due to a large number of students.

“The size of the classrooms does not permit maintaining a distance of one metre among student. Thus, it will be difficult to practice a preventive measure of social distancing. We also hear that the schools are not adequately confident to handle the situation given the global and regional situation of the pandemic,” it stated in its report to the government.

Chairman of the joint committee, Dorji Wangdi, said that the committee had made the recommendations after a study of the global context and protocols and the government’s efforts.

“We are making recommendations as the legislative arm of the government. We also see if what the government is doing on the COVID-19 is adequate,” he said.

The recommendations have been submitted to Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering, he said.


Strict implementation of quarantine protocols

The committee yesterday recommended the government to direct and empower local government authorities at all levels to monitor the people who come to their communities from abroad and report to relevant authorities.

The committee stated that there were informal reports that some travellers have reached their village and hometowns without any authentication of having been quarantined. “This has caused much panic and anxiety among some of our communities.”

The committee recommended that production of documents to authenticate that they have gone through the required quarantining period must e made mandatory.

“If the system to issue quarantine certificate is not in place, the committee further recommends the government to institute it immediately,” the committee recommended.

The government has made 14-day quarantine at identified facilities and self-isolation at home mandatory for all, including Bhutanese nationals entering Bhutan. While the committee commended the initiative, it cautioned that there had been instances of laxity in the enforcement of protocols.

The committee stated to the government that while it is possible for authorities concerned to quarantine people who travel by air, it was difficult to monitor those entering the country through overland entry points.

The committee also recommended the government to invoke sections 410, 411, 426 and 427 of Penal Code of Bhutan and strictly implement information declaration and quarantine.

The government has said that two persons would be dealt as per the law for false declaration of their travel history.

“While protocols and measures have been put in place for information declaration, screening and quarantine, some cases of false declaration and non-adherence to home quarantine have been found thereby posing serious threat to the society.”


Need to define mass gathering

The committee recommended the government to clearly define the number of people that would constitute a mass gathering.

One of the issues has been that gatherings of people have continued despite the government’s advice to avoid crowds.

“Mass gathering is considered one of the risky modes of transmission as evidenced from the spread of the virus in several countries. The definition of mass gathering differs from 50 to 1000 people,” the committee stated.

The committee recommended the government to carry out demographic mapping of all dzongkhags and identify vulnerable segments and prepare health measures accordingly.

The committee said that the government has announced institution of some committees to work on various contingency plans should the situation fall into the red zone (lockdown stage). However, it added that it is not clear at what stages the preparations of these plans are.

The government, it said, must set clear timeframe for preparation of these plans and finalize at the earliest.


Possible evacuation of Bhutanese from abroad

The committee on March 16 also recommended the government to initiate measures to evacuate students from abroad and those in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries.

It reasoned that many countries were closing schools, colleges and workplaces and encouraging students and employees to leave for their home countries.

Many countries accordingly, the committee said, were resorting to evacuation of their citizens through various ways including chartered flights.

Given that many governments have restricted issuance of visas and suspended flights, the committee recommended the government to continue suspension of tourist visa for another one week and review weekly thereafter.

The government has indicated the tourist ban would be extended.

The committee stated that learning from the mistakes of some of the countries where casual approach to the outbreak has put tremendous pressure on the health facilities, professionals and economy would be imperative to respond appropriately to manage the situation.