Bhutan has to learn the COVID-19 lessons well and move fast before it is too late

The government places great faith in the WHO, but this agency has made some big bloopers along the way.

WHO in an official tweet on 14th January, quoting Chinese authorities, said there was ‘no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel corona virus found in Wuhan.’

It delayed till 30th January to declare it a public health emergency of international concern.

A pandemic was only declared on 11th March after it spread to 100 countries though it met all the criteria of a pandemic weeks ago.

Bhutan did not shut down its tourism for weeks because the government went by WHO advice saying that countries did not require travel restrictions.

We finally did shut down tourism on March 6th when we got our first case through the US tourist and later the second case too.

A Hong Kong tourist who visited Bhutan also tested positive in Hong Kong and their health department says he was in Bhutan during the incubation and infectious stage.

There is no information on the test results or condition of around 5,784 tourists who came to Bhutan from January to March 6th mostly from the now top 10 high risk countries. We got lucky with Hong Kong as the government there publishes the travel history on its website and a local news outlet picked it up which in turn was translated and shared to us by a Bhutan follower in Hong Kong.

In many ways we have only moved beyond believing in the slowing moving and conflicted WHO bureaucracy due to His Majesty’s interventions behind the scenes.

Without His Majesty we may not even have stopped tourism at all until a few more cases popped up.

By not following WHO guidelines and quarantining all Bhutanese coming in, irrespective of symptoms, we have discovered our first three Bhutanese cases.

By sealing our borders (again not recommended by WHO) we have made an important move to protect ourselves.

Now the WHO advice on face masks so far is to use it only for medical caregivers, patients and those who have flu-like symptoms.

The advice instead is that one should maintain a distance of 1 meter and wash hands.

The government has strongly advocated this.

However, new research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) disproves the 1930’s based model that spit or droplets can travel only up to 1 to 2 meters. In lab conditions it can travel up to 8 meters.

A study in Japan also captured micro-droplets coming out of a person’s mouth and staying in the air for up to 20 minutes in an enclosed room. The latter study requires more study but the basic fact of the micro-droplets being in the air is established.

There are studies to show that viruses do live in these micro-droplets.

With around 80 percent of Corona carriers showing minimal or even no symptoms there is a large number of people out there who do not even know they have the virus but are carriers. Countries, including the USA, are changing medical guidelines to say this group is causing infections.

Also, countries around the world that have high usage of face masks like Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and others are doing better than those who do not use them.

The above facts should be important enough for any country to turn its head and evaluate its own strategy.

To the credit of the WHO this time even its advisory body is looking at such evidences with regard to face masks.

The main worry of the WHO is that the use of face masks by the public will mean shortage for medical staff. However, if the virus continues to spread then the same medical staff will inevitably be put in danger in large numbers.

The headache of producing masks should be left to governments and companies, but that should not be an excuse to not look at and implement ways to stop the virus in its tracks.

As example in country after country has shown, Corona is an unforgiving force of nature that does not suffer fools, it does not forgive mistakes and it has only gone easier on those countries that have erred on the side of caution.

Bhutan’s strength is that it has always learnt from the mistakes of its neighbors or the events of world and regional history and avoided repeating them by taking necessary precautions. Our Kings have best exemplified this in contrast to risk averse and pen pushing bureaucrats or leaders around the world.

The natural instinct of any government or bureaucracy is to be averse to change and to then play it safe and not take risks.

This stems from the basic human nature to avoid facing up to unpleasant facts or an unpleasant reality. This is why so many governments across the world have faltered in the face of Corona.

Bhutan has been lucky to have the unique and unifying institution of the Monarchy that everybody rallies behind and that ensures that we are fleet and nimble as a country in the face of world events.

It is inevitable that whatever we do, Corona will come to Bhutan, but as we have bought ourselves some precious time with early interventions led by our King we should also ensure that Bhutan does everything to prepare for the worst so that community transmission can be nipped in the bud, once it inevitably starts.

We do not have to be another China, Italy or USA, but we can learn from them including China’s head of Center for Diseases Control and Infection and respected scientist, Gao Fu, who says that masks is a must, given the factor of micro-droplets and transmission by asymptomatic patients.

The other option is we can wait for ‘peer review journals,’ (which can take years), bureaucrats coming around, the government feeling comfortable and official seals of approval from the WHO, but by then, it may just be too late.

Face reality as it is, not as it was or as you wish it to be.
Jack Welch

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