Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing

Iron Female Ox year-Phuentsholing: On the evening of April 16, 2021, when a 10-year-old schoolboy tested positive for Covid-19 from the community in Phuentsholing, little did its residents know about the long journey they were to take clinging by the tail of the Iron Female Ox year. 

People shut their homes with a firm belief the lockdown would end within 21 days at the most.

But Phuentsholing opened only on August 10, 2021, after nearly four months of lockdown. It is considered by many as the longest lockdown in the world. 

After the lockdown, about 14 days later, a mass testing commenced and brought some hope to the residents. But their hopes quickly crashed as community cases surged even as the testing was carried out. The initially quiet residents raised complaints.

While Phuentsholing residents showed resilience against Covid-19, many among the approximately 33,000 people faced financial burden and mental trauma, as the lockdown extended beyond two months. 

Many of them lived on a meagre salary or daily wage in small enterprises in the private sector. This came amidst mounting pressure to pay rents for shops and houses without any income. Soon, people started to form group chats on social media forums and started raising their concerns.

Only a few got waivers or discounts on house rents. Many left Phuentsholing. 

By the end of July 2021, residents of Phuentsholing had gone through three mass screenings. Every time more community cases emerged.

Between the lockdowns in April, the thromde residents re-elected their former thrompon Uttar Kumar Rai and gave him a second term. 

He nearly lost to his childhood friend, Tashi Wangchuk in the Damgnoi Zomdu from his demkhong. After that, he wrestled a comfortable win against his three competitors securing nearly half of the total votes cast on the poll day. 

The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) carried out rigorous investigations on alleged corruption related to bribery and other practices at the Mini Dry Port (MDP) and truck parking (temporary) ports. It revealed deep-rooted corruption practices from MDP. It was reported many were allegedly involved in smuggling contrabands and tobacco.

As the year saw numerous lockdowns, parents continued to worry about the education of their children. Students from Class IX to XII were sent to other districts to continue, the remaining students had completed most of their schooling learning through online classes in 2020.

The 2021 academic session started with students attending schools in Phuentsholing. Parents realised their mistake soon. By mid of August 2021, students from Class IX to XII were again relocated to Punakha and the rest continued their learning online. 

Many parents who didn’t have access to laptops and smartphones, which affected the online classes of many children. Some teachers and a bikers’ group even searched and donated smartphones.

When Phuentsholing lifted all restrictions on August 10, positive cases emerged in  the same evening from a health facility functioning in a containment mode and shutting it down again. However, the authorities continued with the relaxation after the three-day blackout period.

From then on, to many people’s surprise, the journey with the Iron Female Ox was comfortable, without a single community case until the emergence of the Omicron on January 7, 2022. Many believe it was the second dose that helped their immunity.

After the town went into lockdown on April 17, records with Phuentsholing Thromde showed about 4,129 people were facilitated to travel to  Thimphu, Paro, and Wangdue as of August 12, 2021.

However, this was inclusive of those who left the bordering town after they were stranded when the third lockdown started in April. Soon, the number climbed to 8,000. It also included those who left on official or personal reasons and returned. 

From August 10, 2021, to January 7, 2022, residents witnessed a calm period. But everything changed on January 7, 2022. An expatriate woman tested positive for Omicron. She worked at Lucky Bar and Restaurant in the heart of the town. 

A three-day shutdown was initiated after which the SC19TF started a phase-wise opening. Just as normalcy returned, two more tested positive on January 14. Soon more cases were detected and subsequently, a lockdown was announced on January 16.

The notorious Iron Female Ox with her iron toes raced again bringing dark days for people of Phuentsholing. This time, because it was Omicron, the speed of transmission was faster.

A 47-year-old with underlying health conditions died with Omicron in Phuentsholing.

The SC-19TF faced pressure from the residents as the lockdown continued with community cases emerging every day.

Mass testing was initiated on February 16, after the town was put under a complete lockdown on February 6. In the meantime, the quarantine strategy changed. The task force was running short of quarantine facilities.  Primary contacts, and later, even the positive cases were kept under home quarantine and it continues to date.

Just before the end of Iron Female Ox, the SC-19TF announced the third phase of the relaxation. People were allowed to move from one mega zone to another. All businesses could open.

The Water Male Tiger Year brought hope to her people, as the Prime Minister announced major changes in the management of the pandemic on the eve of Losar.