The Ministry of Health (MoH) has issued a map with a red line across southern Bhutan from Samtse to Samdrupjongkhar that will be Bhutan’s second line of defence against COVID-19 given the rising risks along Bhutan’s southern borders.
The red line demarcates the high risk areas which are the whole of Samtse, lower parts of Chukha, lower parts of Dagana, whole of Sarpang, lower Kheng in Zhemgang, lower Pemagatshel and the whole of Samdrupjongkhar.
The MoH said that individuals in these high risk areas will have to undergo 7 days mandatory facility quarantine and testing at the place of origin if they plan to travel to other Dzongkhags.
The whole intent of this red line is to serve as a second line of defence to prevent a second national lockdown.
The first line of defence is already there along the international border in the form of Dessups, RBP, volunteers, Forest staff, NLC staff and others.
The second line of defence will see RBP personnel and others posted at all points of entry from these high risk areas into rest of the country be it highways, feeder roads, farm roads or even informal routes.
The aim of avoiding another national lockdown is due to the devastating impact it has on the economy and livelihoods from businesses to daily wage earners. The lockdown has also hampered education of children and it will be important to avoid more lockdowns if schools are to open in the future.
Another concern for the government is that with the winter approaching a lot of the major rivers and streams will start subsiding in the south and so this is the time of the year when people cross the border into Bhutan for picnics, to collect firewood or even for poaching.
Winter is also the flu season when a second wave is expected to hit India.
This would significantly increase the risks in the south and hence the second line of defence becomes even more important.
So far, the majority of Bhutan’s cases have been caught in the 3-week quarantine with Bhutanese coming in from the middle-east and other places testing positive.
However, the real nightmare scenario is along Bhutan’s porous southern borders where states like West Bengal and Assam are seeing ever increasing cases. West Bengal as of Tuesday has 298,389 cases and 5,682 deaths and Assam has 195,304 cases with 826 deaths.
With experience already of local transmission cases being detected in Phuentsholing, Gelephu and Samdrupjongkhar the fear of authorities is a carrier of the virus coming up to a place like Thimphu and then spreading the virus.
This second line of defence would enable that person to be detected and treated before such a spread can happen.
A person travelling up would have antigen and RT-PCR testing in addition to 7 days of quarantine paid by the government in mandated quarantine facilities.
No exceptions will be made for anyone at all except for deaths in the family or sickness in which case tests will be done and somebody will be deputed to ensure that the person has minimal contact.
The second line of defence is also a measure put in place given that a vaccine or a cure is a while away.
For those people living in the high risk areas the advantage of such a demarcation is that people within these areas can move around freely in their own areas.
For example, though Dorokha in Samtse is not along the border it has been demarcated as part of the high risk areas since the orange season is coming up and farmers will have to move down to the border areas.
Another example is Dewathang in Samdrupjongkhar which was earlier not in the high risk area, but it too has been included given the travel of people to and from this place within the Dzongkhag.
Similarly, in other Dzongkhags too where there is contiguous movement the whole area has been put in the high risk area to ensure that people do not face inconvenience in getting around.
Currently, to test this second line of defence and the quarantine system, the Dzongdas of Dagana, Zhemgang and Pemagatshel are undergoing the 7-day quarantine after moving to the high risk areas in their Dzongkhags during His Majesty’s ongoing visit.
The Zhemgang Dzongda, Lobzang Dorji, who is under the 7-day quarantine said he has 3 more days to go and he is in the quarantine center in upper Zhemgang along with the Drangpon. The Dzongda said that the food is decent with a menu and there is also another quarantine center in Tingtibi.
He said that to guard the second line RBP had been posted at all roads and also informal routes in the Dzongkhag.
Though the second line will result in more expenditure for the government from tests to quarantine expenses and cause some inconvenience it is considered to be a small sacrifice compared to the other option of local transmission and more national lockdowns.
The Health Minister Dechen Wangmo said the ministry has conducted a risk assessment to identify which are the high risk areas and people travelling from high risk to low risk area will have to undergo 7 days quarantine whereby a person will be tested after 7 days. She said the 7 days is the incubation period within which the virus will be known.
Lyonpo reminded that all the people will have to register before travelling irrespective from where they are travelling and to where they are travelling.
She said that the process of registration has had a great impact and has made their work easier.
She said, “In today’s time every hour is important for us and the registration has made everything convenient whereby whenever we want to retrieve data, the system will show it in few seconds. And tracing has become so easy.”
There were some hiccups in the beginning and police and RSTA had tough time monitoring, however, everyone is getting used to it and it is convenient she said, though it causes some inconveniences to commuters.
“For now people think it’s time consuming and is a waste but in the long run, this system will be beneficial,” Lyonpo added.
Lyonpo said the secretariat to the taskforce in consultation with the zoning team, MoH, RBA and RBP have designed the map which actually demarcates high and low risk area. “Considering all the activities happening on ground, we have come up with the multi-sectoral approach to demarcating the area and they have done a good job with it,” she said.
She said they will try to make the map available through various platforms.
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