People who favour opening up still want COVID protocols in place and restrictions against lifting quarantine for foreign arrivals
People also want the vulnerable to be protected
This paper in a post on its official facebook page on Wednesday 3 pm 9 January asked two questions of the public on the government announcing phase 2 relaxations from April which would mean no more lockdowns, unless bed occupancy went high, and also other relaxations.
The first question was on their view on it and secondly on how they would take their Gyenkhu.
As of Friday 2 pm 11 January there were 368 comments, but of this 58 were replies to each other and another five or so were repeat posts by the same people.
This meant that there were 305 valid comments. Of this a large and clear majority coming to 256 comments from 256 people or 84 % were in favour of the Phase two relaxations and not having lockdowns.
32 comments were against opening up which comes to 10.50% and another 17 had various concerns over the opening up including advice and even queries which came to 5.50%.
The group in favour of relaxations
Even among the majority who wanted to have relaxations, there was a sense of gratitude to His Majesty The King and the government for preventing the spread of the virus and deaths so far and to His Majesty for shouldering so much economic burden with Kidu and other initiatives.
They feel that now is the right time for them to come forward and take up their Gyenkhu. There is a feeling to prevent imposing additional financial burden on His Majesty and the government. People are also worried about the economic fall outs of the pandemic.
After going through the hundreds of comments this group’s main angst is against lockdowns, and there is widespread relief that lockdowns will no longer happen with the detection of cases.
The main reason that people cite against lockdowns and in favour of the relaxations is the loss of income, particularly for the private sector.
There are many who say that unlike civil servants they do not get fixed pay and are having difficulty meeting house rent, or office/shop rents and other necessities.
There is a real fear that continued lockdowns will lead to a lot of financial damage for them and piling debt.
Even the better off ones or those who have a fixed income are particularly worried about the economic impact on the lower economic strata of the society that depend on daily incomes.
However, the voices against lockdowns are not just from the private sector, but there are also civil servants and corporate employees who are against lockdowns, even though it does not financially impact them like the private sector.
However, it is important to state here that even among the 84% who wanted relaxations a significant number of them don’t want to open up completely, but want COVID protocols in place to prevent excessive spread and deaths.
For example, many of them still want quarantine to be imposed for foreign arrivals as they feel the original source of the virus is from outside Bhutan and there is also a worry of what new variants could come in the future without quarantine.
There is also a realization among some that the older generation, co morbid and those under five, who are not vaccinated, are all vulnerable.
The main confidence and reason for people favoring doing away with lockdowns is the fact that they point to the high vaccination rate of the people, booster shots and the on going vaccination of those at five and above.
They also point to Omicron being milder.
There are others who feel that the government would have done adequate research before going for the relaxations.
But everything is not hunky dory as there are a significant number who erroneously equate COVID-19 with the ‘flu’ or the ‘common cold’ not realizing that it is far more dangerous and infectious. There is also a lack of fear in this sub-group with COVID and even a reckless attitude with one even saying it is the ‘survival of the fittest.’
There are also many who feel that lockdowns have a worse effect than the virus in terms of loss of income and mental health.
The government has officially said that Bhutan will not be ‘living with the virus,’ but are only undertaking relaxations for as normal a life as possible, but with still some restrictions to prevent a huge spread and deaths.
However, the understanding and interpretation of most people supporting the opening of the lockdown is that Bhutan has decided to ‘live with the virus.’
For a while now, the 7-day quarantine for domestic travel has been quite unpopular especially among the southern residents who fall in the high risk zone.
Most voices are asking for this to be lifted or modified to home quarantine which has happened, but now that lockdowns are being lifted there are a few voices coming in who are now wary about inter district travel.
Those not in favour of the relaxations
The main worry of the 10.50% or 32 people who are against doing away with lockdowns and restrictions is its impact on the co morbid who are around 90,000 people, elderly above 65 coming to 56,000 and particularly the unvaccinated children under five who number around 60,000.
They feel that even with lockdowns cases are coming up and so when the lockdown and restrictions are done away with then there will be a sharp increase in cases, and this will lead to an increase in deaths.
There is little faith among them that people will follow COVID protocols as they point to people wearing masks improperly and crowding in the past which they predict will happen again.
A repeated concern that comes up most frequently among them is how it can be dangerous for those under the age of five who will be the only unvaccinated group in the country. Some of them even requested the government to cancel its Phase two plans until this age group is also vaccinated.
Some of them said that the phase two relaxations could undo all the achievements of the government in the past two years.
They also point to all the funds used till now to prevent virus transmission like for quarantine centers and how this would all be wasted if things were opened up.
The concerned group
The 5.50% or 17 comments are not welcoming the lockdown nor are they directly against it, but they have many safety issues and health concerns around what will happen once the restrictions are lifted.
Like the ones who oppose doing away with lockdowns, this group is most apprehensive about the impact that the relaxations will have on the comorbid, elderly and unvaccinated children under five.
They point to the those who call COVID-19 as being the flu as incorrect as they are yet to be infected and do not know what it entails.
Some worry about long COVID and the possible long term damage to young lungs. There are also questions on if adequate research has been done before opening up.
Some ask who will be responsible if there are COVID morbidities among children under five who are not vaccinated yet.
Taking on Our Gyenkhu
In terms of taking up their Gyenkhu all three groups have similar answers in terms of wearing masks, not crowding, washing hands, using Druk Trace, advising family members and taking extra care of the vulnerable ones.
There is also a request from them to the authorities to be strict in monitoring compliance on COVID protocols like face mask wearing and not crowding, and if they are found to be violating them then to fine them, name and shame them and also make then pay for quarantine or testing costs.
Some have also enquired if home test kits can be made available at drug stores so they can test themselves and reduce the burden on the government.
However, two important qualifiers are needed on the data and scoring above.
First, while the responses were from across the country the majority came from lockdown hit towns or areas like Phuentsholing, Thimphu, Paro, Samdrupjongkhar, Samtse etc who would have a higher incentive to offer their views.
This may skew the data in favor of what people think in these places.
Second, while the poll was conducted on Facebook which is Bhutan’s most popular social media platform with around 400,000 users and on our news page with around 158,000 followers, it saw mainly the voices of the educated people who can speak and write in English.
It does not include the views of people in remote rural pockets who are not familiar with Facebook or cannot communicate in English.
However, the poll still does serve the useful purpose of collecting the views, thoughts and concerns of a sizeable and influential segment of Bhutan’s population.
The following two boxes on page 13 lays out some of the for and against comments on the phase two relaxations.