Last weekend, The Bhutanese published a 2,400-word investigative article with the headline “How complacency and lax protocols led to the nation’s second COVID-19 outbreak,” which focused primarily on the systemic lapses that led to the second outbreak.
It examined measures inside the airport, logistics and coordination issues and found lapses from the PMO, MoH and the Dzongkhag.
The Shabha driver was only brought in as one of the victims of this systemic ineptitude with no adequate facilities for him, which is why he eventually tested positive.
At no time did the paper personally blame him or hold him accountable for lapses beyond his control. On the contrary the paper interviewed the Shabha driver to help uncover those very lapses.
However, on Monday morning 11th January, Kuensel, a government-owned paper, came out with a story and editorial that completely misrepresented the investigative article and took it out of context effectively accusing The Bhutanese of exposing the Shabha driver as the source of the outbreak as an ‘index patient’ or ‘patient zero.’
The paper did no such thing and in fact the terms ‘patient zero’ and ‘index patient’ were coined by Kuensel and the Health Minister for the driver.
Kuensel ran with the headlines,‘Finding patient zero near impossible: Health Minister’ and quoted the health minister extensively to say the Shabha driver is not patient zero.
The Kuensel article did nothing to further the pertinent issue of lapses raised by The Bhutanese as it did not ask the health minister to respond to the numerous lapses on the part of government agencies pointed out by The Bhutanese in its article.
Senior TAG member mentioned Shabha driver
While the Health Minister expressed concern for the Shabha driver in Kuensel it all started when the Health Minister in an earlier 5th January press briefing pointed to lapses in the Paro airport as the most probable source of the current outbreak in Paro and Thimphu, and even gave a time line of the last week of November and first week of December 2020 when the virus came in.
She also said the virus spread from Paro to the Dechencholing cluster via archery match gatherings.
Following this statement of the Health Minister, the reporter contacted a senior member of the Technical Advisory Group (TAG) of the Ministry of Health (MoH) which advises both the MoH and the NationalCOVID-19 Taskforce on any issues around the virus.
It is this senior TAG member who elaborating on the minister’s points explained that when the minister gave the timeline she was talking about the source of the outbreak being an infectious flight on 27th November from Kolkata where more than 60 percent of the passengers turned positive.
This senior TAG member, in a 16-minute telephonic interview with the reporter at 5.16 pm on Wednesday 6th January, also brought out the case of the Shabha driver, the sequence of events starting from the 27th November flight and he also shared other technical information including contact tracing and test related information around this.
The TAG team advises the minister and holds frequent official meetings with her and is at the forefront of MoH’s efforts to ascertain how the second outbreak happened.
The paper after its repeated efforts managed to get through to the Health Minister on Friday 8th January morning at 9.04 am in a call that lasted exactly 11 minutes.
Here the reporter brought up the case of the Shabha driver as mentioned by the senior TAG member, without revealing the identity of the TAG member. The Health Minister instead of refuting the information said that she would not like to comment as the report is still being compiled.
Not satisfied, the reporter called senior officials in Thimphu, Paro Dzongkhag administration, Paro hospital and the Paro airport who all pointed to the 27th November flight as the source of the virus, and all of them brought up the Shabha bus driver who had tested positive as mentioned by the TAG member.
In fact, the name of the Shabha driver had been circulating among senior government officials in Thimphu before the paper even contacted the TAG member who confirmed it.
The Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji and who is a member of the National COVID-19 Taskforce and Spokesperson of the government in an interview to the paper on 13th January said the flight on 27th November from Kolkata is the most likely source of the current outbreak.
Qualifiers put by the paper
Even with all the fingers pointing to the Shabha driver, the paper was careful to not put definite blame on the driver only saying that he is a ‘suspect’ as the source of infection in the school.
The Bhutanese towards the end was also careful to put a qualifier saying, that even the sequence of events of the spread from Paro is an estimation based on contact tracing and not thoroughly established.
The paper said the MoH is learning new things everyday with new cases coming forward and also raised the puzzle or mystery cases which are not linked to any contact tracing, which raises uncertainty on the current TAG and MoH theory.
Shabha driver’s views reflected
The paper until 8th January Friday night could not get in touch with the driver to get his views as he was in quarantine. On Saturday, the PDF version with the story was given to a limited number of its paid readers.
On 10th January Sunday, the paper could finally get through to the driver via phone, and updated its story with the Shabha driver’s version and other information before publishing the final and complete version for its mass online readers on Sunday afternoon. It also updated the PDF version of the story for the limited number of paid subscribers.
The Shabha driver refuted he being the possible source of infection to the Shabha students and pointed out systemic criticisms as well.
Who is really harassing the Shabha driver
On 11th January Health Minister in her daily prime time evening slot on BBS, actually meant to inform the nation about the status of COVID-19, used it instead to further misrepresent and undermine the investigative article by The Bhutanese.
She said, “Many are saying that the Shabha bus driver must have spread the virus. I have clarified this in Kuensel today..”
She praised the Shabha bus driver for his volunteer services and managed to get a joke in about the virus saying, “No one can say who is bringing the virus unless the person with the virus comes with a light on the head.”
Then switching to a solemn and serious tone, Dasho Dechen Wangmo said she has heard that people are calling the Shabha driver to harass him. “We are a Buddhist country and so I request the people to not do such things,” she concluded.
Concerned for the driver, the reporter called the driver soon after and asked him about threatening calls from the local people or anyone from other places.
He said, “I have not received any phone calls from anybody threatening or harassing me. They don’t even have my number in the first place.”
However, the one call that the Shabha driver did receive and that deeply perturbed him came from the government.
He said that after his interview to The Bhutanese pointing out various lapses was published, he got a call from the Dzongkhag administration cautioning him to ‘look and talk’ or the Dzongkha equivalent of ‘Tai Tai Bae,’ over his public remarks to the paper.
He explained that his two-year contract to work as a driver in Shabha school depended on the Dzongkhag and he wondered what would happen to it after he pointed out such lapses.