The numbers of countries affected and cases of COVID-19 are increasing on a daily basis with the World Health Organisation closely monitoring the spread of the disease.
By the time the health ministry issued a travel advisory on Wednesday, the virus was reported in a few more countries. The latest was Iran where as of Wednesday, 139 cases and 19 deaths, the highest outside Mainland China, was reported.
Update from the health ministry on the national preparedness and response plan is comforting. There are measures put in place at entry points, doctors and health workers, 400 of them, are trained and facilities identified or approved for construction.
However, with the risk of the virus becoming imminent, nothing can be comforting and there is no way we can be complacent. Many countries in the region are closing their borders or restricting travellers to contain the virus. We have not imposed restrictions, but prioritised preparedness to tackle it.
But the threat level has increased.
On the same day the virus was reported in Iran, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Syria and Iraq also reported new cases. While news of new cases in new countries can now be expected, reports of the virus threatening the wider Middle East has to be closely followed as it poses a greater risk.
The greatest threat comes from the millions of migrant workers from our region in the Middle East. This includes hundreds of Bhutanese workers in the Middle East. Some of the wealthier Middle East countries are more than equipped to tackle the outbreak. The risk is from the highly mobile immigrant workers.
Experts are saying that the Middle East, in many ways, is the perfect place to spawn a pandemic with the itinerant workers likely to carry the virus. A bulk of them is from our neighbouring South Asian countries. And it is not clear how they are protected especially given the poor working conditions and health care availed to migrant workers.
Thousands of migrant workers from our region travel in an out of the Middle East daily. We are lucky that our immediate neighbours have stepped up surveillance and managed to keep the virus at bay. But with the news of Iran scrambling to contain the outbreak, what is more worrisome is the risk of reaching it at our doorsteps.
The health ministry is calling for cooperation from every Bhutanese to help them prevent the virus reaching the country. The latest is the travel advisory cautioning Bhutanese from travelling to the affected countries.
What we can do, as individuals, is to heed to the advice. We can postpone a study tour to Thailand or Singapore, but we cannot risk the population from the risk of spreading the virus by a single person on official or a study tour.
Not to create panic, but the first month of the Bhutanese calendar is considered as an auspicious month with many religious events, where people gather in the hundreds, organised in the month.
The risk to exposure is higher at crowded places or at big gatherings. The incubation period of the COVID-19, more than two weeks, makes it tricky for health systems that are not well equipped to handle an outbreak.