Younten Tshedup 

Around this time last year, experts warned of a surge in the number of Covid-19 cases as the cold weather is best for the virus to thrive and transmit itself.   

As predicted, the world saw an increased number of cases, including deaths, during the winter. Bhutan too faced an active outbreak of the virus in Phuentsholing around this time last year.   

The threat is the same this time, if not more, warns clinical microbiologist Dr Tshokey. “This is a dangerous time for all of us. More so because we have relaxed many of our protocols now, which was not the case last year,” he said, adding that gatherings are happening as cinema halls, karaoke, and other entertainment centres are now open to the public. 

Dr Tshokey said that during winter, because of the cold weather, people stay indoors with closed doors and windows. These conditions, he said, increased the risk of Covid-19 transmission. “Also, because winter in Bhutan is associated with several festivals and annual rituals, it promotes public gathering, which further increases the risk of transmission.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom has predicted a ‘difficult winter’ for the British as the country has witnessed an increasing number of new cases recently. More than 52,000 people in Britain tested positive for Covid-19 this week, making it the first time the country recorded cases above 50,000 since July this year. 

Over the past few weeks, our neighbour India recorded a significant drop in the number of new cases. However, healthcare workers and policymakers are warning of a possible third wave during the winter months. 

One of the biggest festive seasons in the Indian subcontinent also begins this month. Although various state governments have allowed celebrations to go ahead with strict protocols in place, experts say festivals give people the licence to move around and mingle: conditions in which the coronavirus thrives. Many are worried that the celebrations could contribute to a spike.

Dr Tshokey said that the only advantage Bhutan currently has is the absence of any community transmission of the virus. “Also, we have achieved good vaccine coverage among the population, which gives a certain level of confidence. But besides these points, everything is as much against us as elsewhere.” 

He said that winter is also associated with seasonal flu (influenza). “As more people catch the flu, they will visit the health care centres. This dual burden of Covid-19 and influenza is expected to overwhelm our health system. We will also have to conduct more tests, as the symptoms for both the diseases are almost the same, and in the process, there will be a lot of pressure on our limited resources.”

Meanwhile, he warned that the Covid-19 pandemic was still a global public health concern. “While Bhutan has achieved a lot in terms of containing the disease and vaccinating the majority of its population against the virus, there are many countries still struggling to get the vaccines even to the high-risk population.”

He said that the Covid-19 pandemic can only be eradicated if all countries manage to vaccinate their entire population and have a well-established protocol against the pandemic. “This has not been possible so far, which is why the threat from the pandemic, even for Bhutan, is still there.”