Living with COVID-19 in our daily lives

The world has been living with COVID-19 since 2019 with its evolving variants. Once a global pandemic, it is now regarded as a part of the flu. It was first detected in China in late 2019 and has since spread to more than 200 countries and territories. A total of 774 million cases have been reported to WHO as of 7 January 2024 with the 7 million COVID-19 deaths. In Bhutan, a total of 62,863 confirmed COVID-19 cases have been detected as of 21 January 2024 with 21 deaths due to COVID-19 since the pandemic.

As of 16 December 2023, there were 7,344 JN.1 sequences submitted to GISAID from 41 countries. Bhutan detected the JN.1 variants on 18 January 2024, through COVID-19 Integrated Influenza Surveillance by RCDC under the Ministry of Health.

Dorji Tshering, a 33-year-old resident of Gelephu, expressed the view that COVID-19 is now perceived as less deadly, particularly with the availability of vaccines making the illness milder. He shared his view of coexisting with the virus, emphasising that given the existing economic challenges and people traveling abroad, it is essential to treat COVID-19 like the flu and adapt to living with it.

He expressed his concern that the virus is an unseen enemy, and stressed on the importance of avoiding another lockdown, which could lead to job losses and rent difficulties. He shared his opinion on a balanced approach, treating the virus mildly while remaining vigilant about new variants and following preventive measures such as wearing masks, not overcrowding, and practicing regular handwashing.

Embracing the “new normal” involves continued vigilance and adherence to safety measures, such as wearing masks in crowded spaces and prioritizing vaccination. The pandemic’s impact on lifestyles is evident, with a heightened focus on health-conscious practices to minimize risks.

Kunzang Dorji, Deputy Chief Laboratory Officer at the National Influenza Centre, RCDC, emphasised the pivotal role of vaccination, stating that it is the most effective means to safeguard against severe illness and hospitalization. He urged those who have not received their primary or booster doses to promptly come forward and get vaccinated.

Sonam Dhendup, a 27-year-old Thimphu resident, shared that while COVID-19 is no longer considered a pandemic, it has instilled significant fear due to global death tolls reaching millions, including few death cases in Bhutan. Despite this, he believes it’s crucial to adapt to the “new normal” and acknowledge that we are now living with COVID-19.

The recognition of the importance of our health has become evident among the Bhutanese, prioritizing health becomes the foundation for other aspects of life. Consequently, in their daily activities, people are aware of the implementation of health-conscious measures, aiming to reduce and minimize risks to the greatest extent possible.

Bhagat Acharja, a shop owner in Thimphu, shared the impact of the pandemic on various aspects such as the economy, health, and social life. Despite these challenges, he shared his view on the necessity of adapting to the transition into the new normal as staying under lockdown and living in fear of COVID-19 is not sustainable. He also stressed the importance of remaining vigilant and adhering to essential preventive measures. Additionally, he expressed a concern that the prolonged flu-like symptoms observed in people might potentially be COVID-19, as many tend to regard it as a regular seasonal flu.

While there is no need for excessive concern, Deputy Chief Laboratory Officer Kunzang Dorji said one should stay informed on the COVID-19 updates, and heed to expert guidance from organizations such as the WHO and CDC. Additionally, he suggests staying updated with national information provided by the Ministry of Health.

According to the Deputy Chief Laboratory Officer, SARS-CoV-2, naturally undergo changes and evolve as they spread among people over time. As the virus replicates, it undergoes mutations, resulting in different variants. When these mutations significantly differ from the original virus, they are termed “variants.” Scientists identify these variants by mapping the genetic material of viruses through sequencing and analyzing differences between them. Continuous monitoring of these changes is done by comparing the genetic material of the virus with sequences from around the world.

Kunzang Dorji highlighted that while COVID-19 and the flu share similarities, they are distinct respiratory diseases caused by different viruses. The comparison encompasses various aspects:

Both diseases can spread through respiratory droplets, but COVID-19 may spread more easily and for longer periods. Common symptoms like fever, cough, and fatigue are shared, but COVID-19 may include unique symptoms like loss of taste or smell.

Both illnesses can range from mild to severe, with COVID-19 potentially causing more severe complications, especially in older individuals or those with underlying health conditions.

Antiviral drugs can be used for both diseases, but there are more approved treatments for the flu compared to COVID-19, which is still under study.

Vaccination, mask-wearing, physical distancing, and hygiene practices are essential for both the diseases. However, vaccines differ, with the flu vaccine requiring yearly updates and the COVID-19 vaccine potentially needing booster doses for ongoing protection against new variants.

The Royal Center for Disease Control is actively monitoring the emergence of new variants and tracking the virus’s spread through the implementation of the COVID-19 Integrated Influenza Surveillance. This surveillance initiative operates in 7 hospitals for Influenza-Like Illness (ILI) and 11 hospitals for Severe Acute Respiratory Infection (SARI) across the country. The focus is on monitoring viruses such as SARS-CoV-2, Influenza, and other respiratory viruses like respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)

Responding to any pandemic is a collective effort rather than relying on individual actions. Therefore, success lies in fostering solidarity, unity within the community, and collaboration, along with strong support from key organizations such as RCDC, hospitals, the Ministry of Health, and international health organizations.

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