Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing 

When Phuentsholing came out of the four-month lockdown in August this year, nobody expected the pandemic to fade easily. For days people remained indoors fearing transmission.

Much has changed since then. The town crossed 102 days without a single community case yesterday.

However, despite the best protocols in place, it is not without close and risky encounters, Phuentsholing has come thus far.

Protocol breaches 

An increasing number of protocol breaches have been reported this month.

On November 8, a 35-year-old Bhutanese man from Phuentsholing, who was working as a driver in Jaigaon, entered Phuentsholing illegally and discreetly using the jungle route below the Kharbandi Goenpa. He was arrested.

After this incident, several other incidents have also emerged.

In one incident, two male drivers were quarantined for breaching the protocols while travelling outside Bhutan. In another incident, a non-national man tried to sneak through the Sorchen switching point. He was intercepted by the police.

A 26-year-old woman from a high-risk area, who visited her son in the low-risk area was quarantined along with four other taxi co-passengers and the driver.

As per the Southern Covid-19 Task Force (SC19TF) daily bulletin, five percent of the 300 people surveyed did not wear their facemasks properly. Seven percent of the shopkeepers were found not wearing the facemasks properly.

Except for a few, Kuensel also found people wearing facemasks. However, usage of Druk Trace app and handwashing habits have drastically dropped.    

A shopkeeper said that people must be tired of protocols. “What to do? I think they are fed up. But they will have to follow the protocols.”

Another shopkeeper said most comply with the protocols. “They fear another lockdown,” he said. “Another lockdown will have everyone pack and return to their respective villages.”

As coronavirus spreads more in the cold season, people also fear an imminent local transmission. Covid-19 situation in West Bengal and Assam is also another concern.

On November 21, West Bengal reported 725 new cases and 12 deaths. Assam reported 247 new cases and five deaths.

A SC19TF member, Rixin Jamtsho said considering the recent increase of Covid-19 cases in Europe and neighbouring countries, it will not take time to reach Bhutan.

“Risk is there but we are still expecting there will not be a community case,” he said.

Unlike in the past, Rixin Jamtsho said quarantine facilities have strict protocols with front line workers using all means of safety measures.

“People working at the Mini Dry Port and the Points of Entry use surgical masks,” he said.

Rixin Jamtsho also said that shopkeepers are at higher risk than customers because all types of people visit their spaces. It was also found that many shopkeepers don’t use facemasks properly, he said.

Meanwhile, the task force member said people should now use the three-layered masks.

“That is what shops must sell and customers should buy,” he said.

Disposal of facemasks is another caution Rixin Jamtsho pointed out. The virus can survive on the mask even for seven days after it is disposed of and disposing it carelessly has the risk of spreading the virus through air.

Local economy

People are equally worried about their businesses. Phuentsholing saw a huge crowd of people during the Dashain and Tihar festivals. However, shopkeepers say there are not many people these days.

A shopkeeper, Tshering Dorji said that for Phuentsholing to bounce back in business, Chukha must open.

“Driver switching should be shifted to Chuzom from Sorchen,” he said. “I am not saying other dzongkhags should open for us. Chukha alone will improve our businesses.”

Tshering Dorji said that opening Chukha would be similar to dzongkhags such as Sarpang (for Gelephu) and Samdrupjongkhar.

He said the business is down. Selling a carton of Marie biscuit, which took just a week before takes a month now.

A businessman, Karma Tshering Dorji said authorities should not facilitate unnecessary movement of people from Phuentsholing.

“Only those going with genuine purposes, such as training and urgent work should avail the quarantine facilities and travel from Phuentsholing,” he said, adding that letting people travel unnecessarily was costing both the government coffers while impacting the local economy in Phuentsholing.

Karma Tshering also said that Phuentsholing has come a long way since relaxation on August 12. 

“It is time for us all to take individual responsibility to fight the virus,” he said.

While front liners are actively monitoring the people in the town, Karma Tshering said they could sensitise people and not scold them.