Younten Tshedup 

Two men arguing over cutting lines nearly turned ugly as they rushed to buy face masks at a local pharmacy store in Thimphu yesterday.

The incident took place after people began to cut lines that started as early as 7am. By 10am, the drugstore ran out of face masks.

Another medical store saw a bigger crowd rushing for the limited face masks and hand sanitiser stock. “I wasn’t lucky enough after visiting three medical stores around. I hope  to get a few here,” said a customer.

Kuenphen Pharmacy that ran out of hand sanitiser solutions since March 5 sold more than 30,000 pieces of face masks. The store also sold more than 100 litres of antiseptic solutions. Namsey Pharmacy sold more than 300 pieces of face masks including antiseptic solutions and other medications for cold.

There are more than 20 pharmacy outlets in Thimphu today.

The mass hysteria was caused following the confirmation of the first positive COVID-19 case in a 76-year-old American tourist in Thimphu, made public early yesterday morning.

While many managed to get the masks, those arriving after 10am had to return empty handed. Besides the face masks, hand sanitisers, surgical gloves and antiseptic solutions sold like hot cakes yesterday.

Dawa Tshering, a private employee arrived at the pharmacy near Norzin Lam around 7:30am. He was still in the queue around 9:30am. “I’m worried now. It is high time we take all the necessary precautions needed to stay safe from the virus.”

The 31-year-old blamed the government. “People on social media were reminding the government to temporarily stop the entry of international tourists,” he said. “This is what we feared when the virus was spreading globally especially in the region.”

A college graduate, Tempa Gyeltshen, said that had the government heeded to the public’s call to stop tourist entry more than a month ago, this situation could have been avoided.

“When developed countries put in travel restriction, we were confident with our preparedness. Look where we are now,” said the 20-year-old. “The tourist could have put many to risk after he visited three dzongkhags. This is very worrying.”

In line with the first confirmed positive case, popular convenience store, 8Eleven Super Market in Thimphu closed doors for customers yesterday. Store officials said that the move was to safeguard its staffs against the virus detected in the locality.

However, those in need of emergency supplies were given the groceries after taking orders from outside the entrance.

8Eleven staffs said that people were seen rushing into the store to hoard food and other stocks, increasing the risk of contracting the virus to its employees.

Many rushed to buy food essentials at various shops across Thimphu yesterday. “We need to prepare for the worst,” said a customer.

Shops near centenary farmer’s market did a brisk business yesterday. One shop sold more than 5,000kg of rice, including 300 litres of vegetable oil.

“Only during festivals our sale goes up like this. But today was no festival,” said the shopkeeper. “There was a wild rush among the customers to buy the goods. Many paid in cash.”

Another grocery shop sold more than 4,000kg of rice, about 500 litres of vegetable oil, 100 plus boxes of biscuits, 300kg of flour and 100kg of cheese, among others.

Given the ongoing situation, customers said that they wanted to buy ‘enough’ food and other essential supplies before shopkeepers hiked the price on commodities. Kuensel however, learnt that none of the shops had hiked their prices as of yesterday.

The Department of Trade notified that there are adequate fuel, LPG and essential food stocks available in the country. The economic affairs ministry has also advised the public to extend full cooperation in ensuring smooth supply of all essential goods and services.

Meanwhile, there are also people who see the mass hysteria and panic creating more damage that the actual outbreak itself.

A corporate employee, Sangay Tshering, said that instead of rushing to drugstores and grocery outlets where the crowds are overwhelming, people should stay home to protect themselves.

“The chances of contacting would be more in such gatherings,” he said. “It would be best to stay home and avoid crowds and practice self preventative measures like regularly washing hands and drinking lot of fluids, especially hot water.”

A class XII graduate, Nidup Dorji, said, “Such panic is natural given the videos people are watching online. People are expected to be scared,” he said. “However, this level of panic is unnecessary and more damaging.”