Prime Minister shares why things were done the way they were   

Younten Tshedup 

The adhoc lockdown that Bhutan experienced has left many contemplating if it could have been implemented in a more organised manner.

Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering agrees on the need to have been organised but is quick to point out that the consequences would have been different too.

Among others, an organised lockdown would have meant informing the people in advance of the government’s decision to impose a lockdown.

The government declared a nationwide lockdown in the early hours of August 11. The news of an immediate lockdown took the entire country by surprise. But had the government allowed a window of a few days, maybe even hours for the people to prepare themselves, would that have made a difference?

Perhaps. People could have had an opportunity to stock up on essentials, those in other dzongkhags could have returned home and parents could have brought home their children from boarding schools.  This approach would have made the 21-day lockdown much easier to endure.

However, the government reasons that giving a few days or hours to prepare for a lockdown would have triggered people to come out in masses, panicked and paranoid. Physical distancing would have been forgotten and traffic, massive with people moving from one dzongkhag to another would have been another issue.

And in all these commotions, the possibility of transmitting the virus could have multiplied by manifolds. But contrary to this, Thimphu, considered the most populated and the social and entertainment hub of the country, did not register a single positive case so far. Nineteen days after the relaxation of the lockdown, the capital city today has returned to business as usual.

Countries that opted for a ‘planned’ lockdown with announcements made days and weeks ahead are seeing a surge in positive cases today.


Were we prepared for a lockdown?

It was not the smoothest of lockdowns. It was the country’s first and the most extreme form of social distancing measures taken by the government.

Lyonchhen said that until an effective vaccine for Covid-19 is produced, lockdowns for now is the only solution. “Until then, a combination of effective and well-designed lockdowns with reliable and easily accessible testing methods are the only way forward.”

He said that since day one of the lockdown, officials started receiving calls for shortage of cooking oil, salt and rice. “This shows how prepared we were for a lockdown. Despite our reminders, not many were prepared.”

Lyonchhen said that while hoarding of essentials was a negative term, keeping enough supplies for families to last at least a week was a good preparation plan. “If there is one lesson learnt from the lockdown, it would be the inadequate stocking of essentials and properly planning for the family.”

Should future lockdowns come in surprises, the prime minister questioned if people would be more prepared. Assuming that the next lockdown could happen any moment (subjective to the nature of outbreaks), Lyonchhen said, people should plan accordingly.

He said that people should have stocks to last at least five day to a week at their homes at any given point of time. “No automated system will give you what you want other than buying it yourself. The most efficient supplier is yourself.”

This would be possible, he said, if every individual takes up the responsibility, which would also allow the government and the health ministry to focus on what they need to do – disease containment.

“This would be your contribution as a Bhutanese to the fight against the virus. So, sort out your essentials, keep adequate supplies for at least a week,” Lyonchhen said. “By the sixth or seventh day, I would guarantee that people would be allowed to come outside in their respective zones.”

Lessons learnt

Lyonchhen said that because the lockdown was implemented instantly, there were several issues with the delivery services, coordination, communication and implementation, among others.

There were problems, but were they grave? Without a measuring unit and a reference to a past lockdown, Lyonchhen said that it would be difficult to quantify the issues and grade them gravely. “Maybe these issues were the minimum we could have had.”

Since day one, he said, that the government solved all the problems as and when they realised about it. Supplies ran out as dzongkhags producing the items were also under lockdown. “The entire human behaviour was challenged during the initial day. Incoordination was bound to happen, and we apologise for the lapses.”

But now with a reference to look back at, things would be dealt in a much more organised and systematic manner, Lyonchhen assured.

Road ahead 

If the first-ever lockdown was disorganised, people can now expect a more systematic and well-designed lockdown.

A good lesson learnt was that there was no need for a blanket nationwide lockdown. Lyonchhen said that based on the risk of exposure and not only on the number of the cases, the government would decide the type of lockdowns.

“It is very unlikely to have a nationwide lockdown again. Lockdowns hereafter would mostly be in regions and places. But where and how the lockdown would be enforced, would depend on the nature of the outbreak of the disease.”

He explained that should there be more lockdowns, it would be for three weeks. The first few days would be complete lockdown with no resident leaving their homes. “That is why individuals must plan and keep supplies and essentials to last at least for five days to a week. You can’t wait for tomorrow; everyone must be ready for a lockdown where supplies will not be given for at least a few days.”

However, within five days to a week, Lyonchhen said that the health ministry would ensure that the card system is activated and people allowed to move out in their respective zones. Supplies in areas marked red zones would be facilitated by the government.

On the duration of the lockdown, the prime minister said that if a person is infected on day zero, he or she doesn’t become symptomatic in the first two days. The rate of detection by test kits during this period is also low unless the person’s immune system is poor and the viral load very high.

He said that symptoms usually appear after the third day of infection and peaks by the seventh day. It then starts slowing down and by 15 days it fades. This is the time when people become symptomatic and test positive. By the 17th and 18th day, if an individual is not symptomatic, they would not become symptomatic thereafter.

Lyonchhen explained that after 18 days, an infected (positive) person whether symptomatic or not usually (95 percent) becomes non-infectious. This means that there is no live virus in the person and cannot spread the infection to others.

However, he or she could test positive on the RT-PCR test as the test detects even dead viruses.

“Knowing this, we decided for 21 days because by the end of 21st day there is no virus positivity in the particular location and there are no infectious individuals.”

Lyonchhen said a lot of inconveniences were caused during the lockdown but bearing with the troubles and inconveniences was the individual’s contribution to the fight against the pandemic.

“You can’t be proud of contributing to Covid-19 fight without sacrifices and enduring some inconveniences.”

He said that this was the real value of Gross National Happiness. “It’s okay if your company is going into a serious crisis; we can always revive the business. But for now, let’s stay safe.”