Q & A with the Southern COVID-19 Task Force on managing the MDP in Phuentsholing after the outbreak there

Question: What are the new SOP measures and compliance measures at the MDP to ensure our lifeline remains open and functional?

Taskforce: Bhutan relies heavily on imports of a variety of goods and commodities from the region and beyond and Phuentsholing has always been the key hub for trade and commerce. Phuentsholing is the main gateway for maintaining supply lines, particularly essential items such as food, fuel and medicines. Ensuring a steady inflow of essential items has assumed even greater importance at a time when we face a grave challenge due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Task Force attaches the highest priority to preventing and mitigating the risks of transmission and spread of COVID-19 in Bhutan. This priority remains at the core of all initiatives. Mindful of the grave risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Task Force has, since its inception, developed strict containment protocols to mitigate risks and at the same time facilitate the import of much needed essentials and other supplies as well as exports.

The COVID-19 Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) Protocol governs import of all goods. The IPC is comprehensive and prescribes requirements for the driver of the vehicle, unloading areas including the process of unloading and transshipment, handling of documents and cash, use of hand sanitizers, hand washing, use of face masks, physical distancing, designated holding areas for drivers as well as monitoring and inspection. Facilities such as holding areas, wash rooms, canteens to purchase food, etc. have been set up. All vehicles and drivers ferrying goods from one part of the country to another via India are escorted by officials of the Road Safety and Transport Authority (RSTA) and De-Suups to ensure compliance with the containment protocol.

A comprehensive containment protocol developed by the SC19TF is strictly being implemented at the Mini Dry Port (MDP) and Pasakha Industrial Area in Phuentsholing, including other locations such as private warehouses, FCB, depots, etc. Through this mechanism, the Task Force has been able to facilitate a steady inflow of essential items and other goods and commodities, which are indispensable for the people and nation.

To decongest the MDP and ensure that the IPC and other containment protocols developed by the SC19TF are not compromised, multiple unloading and transshipment facilities have been identified in Phuentsholing so that full compliance by drivers and importers bringing in goods can be ensured.

Furthermore, designated officials of different agencies monitor compliance on a real time basis. In addition, the Task Force carries out regular inspections and advocacy at all sites. The Task Force has also instituted an oversight mechanism comprising of joint teams of officials from the Ministry of Health (MoH) and Royal Bhutan Police (RBP). These teams carry out monitoring and inspections at all sites independently. The observations and recommendations of the joint teams continue to inform decision making to further strengthen containment measures and ensure compliance.

Question. How many loaders are there and what is the facilitation capacity right now? Also how many trucks are being cleared?

Taskforce: The Task Force would like to acknowledge and recognize the contribution of the loaders who stepped in at a critical time when there were no workers available in Phuentsholing due to the closure of the international border. Their willingness to step in notwithstanding the risks of contracting the disease is commendable. They worked hard every day at the MDP and RRCO containment facilities in difficult weather conditions and helped facilitate imports of much needed essential items and other goods and commodities.

At present, there are 35 loaders at MDP and about 16 to 20 vehicles are cleared every day. From 17-25 August 2020, a total of 167 vehicles have been cleared. Given the rapidly evolving situation, the Task Force will continue to assess the ground realities to determine the need to increase the facilitation capacity while according primacy to import of essential items.

There are also 9 loaders who facilitate transshipment/loading/unloading of goods and materials at warehouses, go-downs and depots.

Question: Any review of what went wrong in the past leading to the MDP cases? Did some loaders sneak out of their place of residence and mingle around?

Taskforce: Preventing the transmission and spread of COVID-19 remains a formidable challenge for all nations given the highly infectious nature of the virus. The Task Force remains fully committed to mitigating the risks of transmission and spread of the disease and all necessary steps are being taken, particularly at the MDP and other transshipment areas. Preventing the transmission and spread of the disease is accorded the highest priority by the Task Force at all times.

It is difficult to conclusively establish whether the disease was transmitted through operations at the MDP or from some other location. Nonetheless, the Task Force has undertaken a comprehensive review and revamped the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP).

In the past, the loaders were accommodated in a self-contained facility where movement was strictly restricted. Every day, the loaders commuted to the work place and returned to their housing facility in a specially designated bus and the facility was monitored round the clock. Any station leave or separation from the job required prior COVID-19 testing and authorization.

The number of people working at the MDP has now been reduced and the operation of canteens has been suspended for the time being. In addition, monitoring and inspections has been stepped-up. All loaders like the previous batch are kept in a contained facility. They commute to work together under escort and stay together as a cohort and are not permitted to leave the facility without prior approval.  

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