On the 16th of April evening Bhutan got a rude awakening when the first community cases were detected from Phuentsholing as a mother and son tested positive from the community and 3 frontliners on quarantine duty also tested positive.
At the time Bhutan had 941 cases with only 64 active cases.
Since then Bhutan has seen an effective and ongoing third outbreak in the south and east and so as of Sunday evening or 30th May there were 1,612 cases with 336 active cases.
In terms of the local outbreak there has been a total of 447 local transmission cases since 16th April to 30th May with 228 in Phuentsholing, 180 in Samdrupjongkhar and 39 in Trashigang.
This is also while there is a massive second wave in neighboring India, Nepal and Bangladesh all affected with record cases and deaths driven by new and more infectious variants leading to even global headlines.
One of the main reasons attributed for the spread of the COVID-19 virus in the second wave in India are massive election rallies in multiple states which not only spread the virus in the rallies but also sent a signal of normalcy to the rest of the country and so COVID protocols were weakened across the board in India leading to a faster spread of the virus.
It was hoped that Bhutan’s politicians would have learned their lessons from what has been happening in India.
It was also hoped that the earlier criticisms of the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader in the November 2020 Chhoekhor-Tang bye-election for having mass gatherings and thus violating COVID-19 protocols would have hit home.
Importantly, His Majesty The King has made numerous visits to the high risk areas at personal risk since the start of the pandemic shoring up Bhutan’s defenses and motivating frontliners, medical staff and volunteers.
However, both DNT and DPT seem to have decided that political interests in the two bye-elections are more important than setting a correct example and sending the right signal to the nation.
Both the parties informed the ECB on Friday that their Party Presidents would be going for campaigning for the two bye-elections with the conditions being that they would not campaign door to door and will do only campaigning in small gatherings with COVID protocols.
Last week the Opposition Leader Dorji Wangdi had proposed to the Prime Minister Dasho (Dr) Lotay Tshering that both the party presidents not go for campaigning given the aggravated COVID-19 situation and the ongoing Parliament session. The Prime Minister had said he would get back to the OL after consulting the two candidates.
However, with the Friday decision of both the parties communicated to the ECB the DNT and DPT Presidents who are the PM and the OL of the country will be moving around widely in the two constituencies asking people to vote for their candidates in the middle of an outbreak.
It must be kept in mind that Nanglam is right next to the Indian border while Mongar is right next to Trashigang which has a local outbreak.
It is also ironical that the PM is the Chairman of the COVID-19 Taskforce that is tasked to ensure all the measures and safeguards are taken to stop COVID-19 including preventing crowding. The OL on the other hand is supposed to check and balance the government and call out such behavior.
Bhutan has got a lot of good international press for its handling of COVID-19 due to good leadership, timely decisions and responsible behavior, but the image of active campaigning of the two party Presidents may certainly not give the right impression.
The decision of the two parties will also put the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) in a tricky spot as it does not have any laws or rules designed to deal with violations in a pandemic.
ECB’s Head of Department of Civic and Electoral Training Phub Dorji said that even if COVID-19 norms are violated the ECB will handover the matter to the local authorities who deal with violation of COVID-19 norms.
So if the PM or even the OL who is of cabinet rank violate norms then it is not clear how any local authority can take credible action against them.
DNT and DPT promise to follow protocols
When asked how DNT will ensure COVID-19 protocols are followed the DNT General Secretary Phurba said that they have strict orders from the ECB to follow COVID-19 protocols and they will follow the ECB instructions.
He said the Mongar Returning Officer has decided that a crowd of more than 30 will not be allowed for common meetings and so even the President’s meetings will not have more than 30 people.
Phurba said that to avoid mass gathering the DNT President will have several meetings of a maximum of 30 people each.
He said as committed to the ECB the two Presidents will not do door to door campaigning.
He said mask wearing, social distancing and hand washing will be followed and the PM will campaign following all COVID protocols.
Phurba said that since the PM is also the Chairman of the National COVID-19 Taskforce and a medical doctor he would ensure the protocols are followed and the risk is minimum.
The DPT General Secretary Sangay Phurba also confirmed that both party Presidents would be going for campaigning following COVID-19 protocols.
Sangay said that the DPT candidates would do door to door campaigning and avoid large gatherings.
He said they would follow the COVID-19 protocols as per the strict instructions of the ECB. He said that the number of people going with the candidates would also be limited.
OL Dorji Wangdi said that he had proposed to the PM for the two of them not to go initially but if the PM is going then he would have to go too especially since this is the first election for his two candidates compared to the two DNT candidates who already have electoral exposure and experience.
Given the risks of COVID-19 the ECB itself does not want to leave anything to chance.
Phub Dorji said that unlike in the past the postal ballot facility has been extended to all voters regardless of whether they are civil servants or not and the registration date has been shifted to 31st May to get more on board.
He said the aim of this is to reduce the need for people to travel to vote.
Another change is that while in past elections there is just one election observer per constituency this time the ECB has appointed two election observers per constituency to ensure that there is better monitoring and COVID-19 protocols are followed.
The ECB has also sent two of its two senior officers as Returning Officers. The RO for Nanglam is the ECB Chief Election Officer Sonam Tobgyal himself while the RO in Mongar is the ECB head of PPD Mani Kumar Ghalley.
Public gatherings will be restricted to 30 but if the facility is crowded then it can be less than 30 even.
ECB officials and the candidates and those moving them will do RT-PCR tests every week or every two weeks.
The candidates will have a Desuup with them to ensure COVID-19 protocols are followed.
People taking part in election gatherings have to be masked and maintain distance.
The bigger danger in two bye-election races is the informal evening gatherings that happen without the knowledge of the election officials.
Here Sonam Tobgyal said that the Gewog Adms who are also the Gewog election coordinators have been briefed and they in turn have briefed their own people. He said that normally the voting time is from 9 am to 5 pm but it has been extended by two hours from 8 am to 6 pm to prevent crowding.
Phub Dorji said that the mobile voting booth facility will be offered to people who are above 65 and those who are disabled which will further bring numbers down.
Poll day is on 29th June and the campaign is already on full swing from the 26th May morning after the RT-PCR tests results of the candidates came negative.
Phub Dorji said unlike in Thromde elections they are more comfortable with rural elections as there are Dzongkhag and Gewog officials and people are more mindful about protocols.
Phub said as per the election law the Party Presidents have to submit their tour plan in advance and while doing this this the ECB would brief them on the COVID-19 protocols and the dos and don’ts given the current situation.
He said the gatherings of the Party Presidents will be monitored closely this time.
Phub said that the ECB also has a back up plan on how to conduct the election in case of a lockdown. He said that one way of monitoring any informal gatherings would also be through the candidates themselves who would be keeping a close tab on each other.