Are we ready?

No, we are not.

Exactly a month has passed since the first positive case of coronavirus was detected in the country. As soon as the news broke, the town went scrambling. People rushed to pharmacies in droves to buy face masks and hand sanitisers. Motorists lined up for hours to fuel up their cars (Still, I have no idea where they actually wanted to go). Shoppers cleaned up the entire stock of rice, sugar and other items from the grocery stores.

The next day the streets were empty. The Sun had stopped shining. Not even the wind was blowing. Silence had gripped Thimphu. It looked surreal and scary.

A month after, many people seem to have forgotten that we are still going through the biggest public health crisis of our time. We now have three Bhutanese, who have returned from abroad, and who tested positive – and who the doctors and nurses are working hard to send them home after recovering.

The Ministry of Health advises social distancing – or physical distancing to be precise. And the ringtone of my mobile phone tells me to wash my hands. This message seem to have sunk in well, but physical distancing? We aren’t still there – not even close. At Shop 7, on Saturday, I was waiting at a safe distance in queue when a lady, who didn’t even seem illiterate, just cut in front of me and took that ‘social’ space. She had a child with her. Both had no masks on. On Sunday hundreds of shoppers squeezed against each other in queue to grab some kilos of chilis (chilli is our national obsession after road digging). So much for all the advocacy works. I took a walk along Norzin Lam Thimphu over the weekend and while it was quite empty, there were people in the bars and restaurants or walking around without masks – without any resemblance of self-protection or safe distancing. There is someone who has jumped a quarantine in Samtse. Tobacco smugglers have been held elsewhere. Some organisations still think people are overreacting – and are not allowing work from home. It seems for many these are normal times.

But this ain’t normal time. And we are far from coming back to normal. The virus has just started creating havoc in the greatest nation on Earth – the US, because of their complacency, cynicism and media idiocy and extremism. Italy, the country where I spent my youth, is shutdown as thousands die. They are now telling the world not to make the mistake they made. When the virus was ravaging through China and South Korea, they acted normal as if nothing was happening. The ignored every warning. “It is happening out there,” they said and continued doing what they were doing.

There are more recoveries than deaths. I understand that. South Korea and Singapore did well but Japan has just declared national emergency. The only long-term solution, so that we can return to normalcy, is a vaccine for the vulnerable group. This is the only way to get the world on its feet again. Latest news reports say that there are some 19 companies trying to developing a vaccine. Most are only going on clinical trials now, which means it could take at least one year from now before they are available in the market.

Bhutan, right now, is relatively safe thanks to our selfless King and the rapid response put up by the government. And I pray that it remains that way. We don’t need to panic or live in fear. But we can’t be careless or complacent either. Because a minor error here, a small blunder there could jeopardize all the effort that has gone in – and put us all in danger. A complete lockdown has been ruled out – per various government briefings, because it is still felt unnecessary.

But how about a mock lockdown? We can do it for few days to see the public responsiveness. We can fine-tune the movement of emergency vehicles and check our food supplies. We can locate the weakest links in our system and the society. It is just another wild idea.

The government is prepared. We are told. But are the people ready? I think it is safe to think we are not.

(Photo – scene at Vegetable Market. Where is physical distancing?)




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