I don’t know the context, or as they say the wisdom, on the decision by Bumthang Dzongkhag Yargye Tshogde to suspend the issue of permits to set up businesses in the district. But some wishful thinking occured on my mind as this news flashed on my timeline.
A totally another idea.
Of late, I have been thinking why Dzongkhags and Gewogs in Bhutan do not do anything to attract good people and investments into their area so that wealth and jobs are created, more taxes raised and there is some form of balanced growth in the country. Instead, if we go by some recent posts from the districts, there seem to be additional walls built by dzongkhags, gewogs, and parks with the so-called ‘clearances’ for businesses in their areas.
Elsewhere, even in India, states roll out red carpets to the likes of Tata, Gates or Bezos to build factories in their states. Indian PM Modi, when he was the chief minister of Gujarat, once received USD 200B of foreign direct investments.
Back home, we have often lamented that everything is happening in Thimphu. Everyone in investing in Thimphu. Or that most chhilip tourists visit only Paro and Thimphu. I am sure that if local governments roll up their sleeves in this direction, such capital-centric trends can be reversed. Maybe some could even lobby for tax and other in-kind incentives to attract investments.
Maybe the promotions or reelections of the local government leaders should be tied to taxes paid by their people within their territory.
Excuse this wishful thinking
The Pandemic will spur a new trend in Bhutan – domestic tourism. And tourists will not be equated to dollar-paying visitors only. I welcome this development with an open arm. And with a big kiss.
Many middle class folks of Thimphu and Paro know every shopping mall in Bangkok but wouldn’t have stepped into Baeyul Langdra, which is around the corner. Forget about Omba Nye or Pemaling. And unless our people are on official tour (read as government paid-trip), no one actually travels to see our own land, to know our own people or customs better – or to purposely visit our own sacred sites. Most Bhutanese suffer from the Lhasa Ama Syndrome when it comes to local places.
Domestic tourism is more sustainable, leaves less social or cultural foot prints and prevents capital outflow. It also brings the people of the same country together in harmony and solidarity – and has many positive ramifications.
Again, the choice is not an either-or but a case of the need for both – local and international visitors. So far the focus in terms of policy or marketing has been on international tourism. I am not challenging its benefits or validity. But like in every country, we can have both – local and international, and authorities, especially the Dzongkhag Administrations, can promote travels into their Dzongkhags. Gewog Administrations should play good hosts. If these things are in place, thanks mainly to the social media posts and selfies, international tourist flow into their areas will increase, with or without politicians making lofty promises or DYTs having to nag with elected governments. For example, I already have a solid enquiry for Athang Rukha through my posts.
Time to explore your own country better, people. 😁😁😁
Aap Phub Thinley and Aum Pechum are Norpen (head of cattlemen) for Gangtey Gonpa. They are from Lamga village in Athang gewog. Whenever I am in their village, they make a point to visit me. Sometimes they walk the whole day to reach Lamga. They live a semi-nomadic life with the herd, moving the camp once every one-two months between Rukha (peak Winter) and Salading (peak Summer). They have eight camps in total.
This time I reciprocated their visits, with me visiting them at Salading La, which stands between Phobjikha and Trongsa. I went with some gifts of tea leaves, rum, betel nuts and canned food for my old friends.
Salading stands at around 4,100m and is a three-hour uphill climb from Zizi, the last village in Phobjikha valley. It is totally an uncharted territory – except for herders and foresters. From there you could see the Gangtey-Phobji valley and the tall Himalayan peaks bordering with China. You could also walk along the ridge (for over 15 kilometers I am told) and trek to Jowo Drushing and back – or exit to Trongsa.
My daughter accompanied me on this trek. And experienced sleeping in cowherders’ smoke-filled hut and eating cheese as tea snacks 😂😂😂
Enjoy the heavenly places in the picture.
OK. Let me get this off my chest. It is not anything important, but since there are no interesting selfies to upload and nothing exciting happening this week, apart from my routine online meetings, let me take the opportunity to share this.
It pertains to my social and spiritual works such as building temples and chortens in places like in Athang Rukha and Lamga – and in Kheng Kikhar There are many questions and comments that my friends, family and countrymen have posed. Some out of genuine concerns for me (They think I might go penniless one day), some out of curiosity (Is he trying to lay the ground works for a future in politics?) and some, I wouldn’t exclude, out of pure envy (Where does he get the money from?). We are all unenlightened souls. I understand.
So why do I do what I do? How I do it? Meaning how I fund these things. And why don’t I invest in building assets, like doing a multi-storied castles, like everyone else?
It is age
First, as I have mentioned before, life rolls out like a video game – in stages. As you play the game of life, you pass on to the next level every couple of years, where you face new challenges, meet new opportunities and embrace new roles. I must say that I had my share of fame and fortune, for which I am forever indebted to my clan and my country. I had my share of dreams and disappointments too. And in many of the opportunities that were laid out for me, I excelled. In some, I failed, to be honest.
All these are now behind me, though. As Bhutanese, having zoomed past the age of 50 (I also turned a grandfather recently), one normally engages in spiritual pursuits and takes a slower pace with life. That’s exactly what I am doing. There was time, in my younger days, when I worked like there was no tomorrow – or like I was going to live forever. I must be one of the few government employees who spent many nights in office, go home for breakfast and shower and come back to work. I am not making this up. Ask anyone I worked with back then. And when I look back, I am proud because I covered more ground than others. Having a Japanese wife helped, for sure. Now, of course, I need to sleep on time.
Work and balance
Second, I still work, by the way. But I do what I love and, to paraphrase Confucius, I don’t feel that I am “working” because I have chosen a third career that I love – teaching. Almost everything I do is online and can be done from anywhere – and I have been doing that even before COVID-19. Simply put, I still have an income.
Third, it is about practicing some degree of contentment – tsham tshay in Bhutanese – a balance in one’s life. How much does one really need? How long do you want to cling to power? How much do you want to accumulate? As I said, I had my time. I had my share. I even tasted power. Now, my life is minimalistic. No Prados. No buildings. No silk ghos or designer wears. I rarely buy new clothes anyway. And thanks to the coronavirus, no foreign travels either. So most of my earnings can go into my social and spiritual works. And here I must thank my wife for not only letting me do this, but also for doing her share of work and donating and contributing generously to spiritual and social causes, from time to time.
My late mother used to say that every child is born with a soenam (fortune/destiny/merit). As they grow up they will have their dreams. Help them to fulfil theirs – and do not impose yours on them. Most important give them a well-rounded education – and not leave them with just properties. The Chinese actor, Jackie Chan, once said, with good education, your children will build their own fortune. With bad or no education they will sell away yours.
And also, you should not use your children as an excuse to be greedy yourself, or to accumulate wealth (typical of Asian parents).
One of my teachers tells me that being human is the best chance to get closer to enlightenment – whatever that is. Of course, you can be reborn to continue, but there is no guarantee that you will be human again. What if your rebirth is as a mosquito? Or as hungry ghost? You don’t have to be a monk to be religious, either. In fact, the Bhutanese word for charity, or social work, is gyelwa, which means “enlightenment” or “realisation”. And so if you want to get out of this samsara – you can also do it by embracing some social works. Many characterise these things as “giving back” to the society. For me, it is just being a good human being.
One compelling reason why you should be altruistic, and be more human, is because you are a Bhutanese. I am not saying it is a national requirement. What I mean is, as a Bhutanese you have the luxury to be selfless and to be generous. Not all nationalities can do that, you know? For example, if you are an American, you have to keep a good bank balance in case you get sick. Health care in many countries costs you an entire fortune. In Bhutan it is free. Elsewhere, you could also go homeless if you forget to insure your house and a fire or an earthquake brings it to the ground. In Bhutan, if you are landless or handicapped, or you lose your house to a misfortune, you can appeal to the King. My grandfather, Gyeltshen, did after we lost ours in 1978. Furthermore, in case you go broke or hungry you can always call up a family member. The social safety net here is huge – and perhaps THE best in the world. And I pray that it remains that way because being a Bhutanese allows you to be the best human being.
As you dwell in this human realm, one should not miss the chance to do some gyelwa. As a donkey you can still do it, but, I guess, it will be little more difficult. And as Bhutanese, under our King, remember, we have the luxury to be selfless, generous, and compassionate. You don’t need much, either. You can do a lot with very little. It is more about pouring your heart too and less about money.
Again, I don’t want to sound patronising or paternalistic. We all do what makes us happy. Life and happiness are subjective. One could also be fine driving around a Prado, while dreaming of owning another multi-storied building – or be still overwhelmed with power or patang. It is one’s personal choice – one’s way of life..
As for me, I have chosen to put them all behind me. And embrace this stage of my life – of being little more human – and being little more Bhutanese. And may be as productive a citizen as ever.
The community kitchen is done and the sacred paintings of my temple are complete too. This is the latest update from Lamga village.
For those who were not following my work there, the village is a new settlement of mainly people from Zizi in Phobjikha. Lamga is the last village along Harachu valley and beyond it is wilderness of Black Mountains of central Bhutan.
The permanent houses were built by Tarayana in 2008-10. However, the inhabitants had no place to meet or conduct their monthly rituals. They were doing religious ceremony every month, sometimes twice, under tarpaulin sheets. In monsoon season, it was a disaster. This really shocked me and I promised them that I will look into it.
In 2015, I agreed to sponsor the construction of the community temple. And in my usual way, we worked when I had money, stopped when I was broke, and resumed again. After four years we completed the works. It took some time but it is done. The temple has Tshela Namsum – Tshepamay, Namgyelma and Drolma as the main statues and place is blessed by His Eminence Gangtey Trulku, who also committed to grant the debri (mural painting).
Last March, when I had self-quarantined there, we decided to do a community kitchen, wooden flooring and bring drinking water. I also deputed a painter from Bumthang to do the sacred paintings. One important remaining work is installation of serto (golden pinnacle). Anyone wants to be the sponsor?
The groundbreaking and the foundation works on the temple was conducted on the day HRH The Gyalsey Jigme Namgyel was born. It was done by the villagers without any prior planning. In local belief, unplanned tendrels are the most auspicious. The villagers are very proud of this sacred coincidence.
From Taksha Range Office along Wangdue -Tsirang Highway, veer left and follow the farm road to Rukha. At 17km, at Dolepchen, there is bifurcation. The right one goes to Rukha. Go straight till there is no road left 😂
Where to stay:
Chorten Tshering and his family have a tourist-standard home-stay house if you want to spend a night in the village. Toilet attached to the house with shower plus hot stone bath. The Harachu is believed to have medicinal effects – known since ancient time.
The village is perfect to detox from the social media and unplug from the world. And get some mantras done at the temple. It is the quietest place on Earth. The Lamgaps are simple and generous people.
Best time to visit:
From month of October till May.
Taksha (lower Wangdue – Tsirang Highway), July 23, 2020
It rained. And it rained. The sky didn’t even take a breath for days.
I like rain – except when it brings down the mountains, or causes damages to life or properties – or when it physically blocks my path. The highway from Thimphu to Taksha was fine, but the farm road to Rukha – some 26 kilometers away, was blocked at several points. In two places I was told that it was impossible to even cross on foot. I was advised to wait in Taksha, while the entire chiwogs of some 42 households had mobilised to clear the boulders and landslides with bare hands – and assisted by just one bulldozer.
It is monsoon, and I know it is crazy of me to plan a trip into this area during this season. However, I had made a promise – and the next day was the best day to do that. Known locally as Drup Tshezhi (Literally meaning Fourth Day of the Sixth Month), the day when, some 2500 years back, Gautama Buddha gave his first teaching after attaining enlightenment. Thus, it is one of the holiest days in the Buddhist calendar.
And my promise was to donate and also install the statues of 21 Tara (Drolma Nisho Tsachi) in Rukha Pelden Lhamo Temple. Jetsun Drolma is the considered as the Peaceful Avatar of the otherwise wrathful Pelden Lhamo (Devi in Sanskrit). Having installed the statue of Pelden Lhamo there last April, it was time for her Peaceful Manifestation to also find a place in that sacred abode, so that the locals, and the nation at large, receive her blessings – especially during these trying times. I had promised to donate in honour of my daughter and my grandson.
Encouraged by my friend, Ngawang, who works as a forest ranger in the area, we set out from Taksha on foot, like in the good old days – braving the battering rain, landslides, leeches, sand flies, snakes, falling boulders, and slippery trails. Nine able-bodied men had come from Rukha and Samthang to carry the statues, packed in four boxes and sealed in plastics.
After two hours of walking and climbing, we got to Harachu where the entire hill had come down and it did look impossible to cross over. There were peebles, muds and even boulders that were continuously falling down. So, I pulled out some chhandru (blessed grains of rice), which my father gave me and told me to carry on every trip I made. As instructed, I tossed few in the air and recited the Chabdro prayers, and then I told the members to cross – one at a time. The mud and the boulders miracolously stopped falling. The villagers were amazed by my power and by my lack of fear. 😎😎😎
I was the last to cross. It wasn’t easy. Walking over slippery piles of pebbles that were sitting atop wobbling rocks is no fun. If the earth gave away it was straight down to the gushing river – which was at least 3,000 feet below. When we were all safe on the other side, we took a group photo to celebrate our modest achievement. We resumed our hike, covered more road – and crossed more slides – and every now and then dodged the falling boulders that were shooting straight at us. Interestingly, there were only laughter and childish joy – and looking out for each other in this otherwise treacherous journey.
After four hours we reached Samthang, where my local host, Tashi, had arranged the lunch, which we had at 4 in the afternoon. His house has been our permanent motel in the past, when we could only reach there, on foot, on the first day from Taksha. He and his family have been the sweetest in hosting us every time. Now, I am expected to drop by – in every trip, no matter how in a hurry I am. Tashi had also rallied the whole village to show up with shovels and spades to help clear the farm road falling within their village zone. Thanks to his team and the team at Rukha, the second half of the farm road was all clear for us to ride into Rukha on Boleros, owned by the villagers. It was a joy, albeit some slippery and scary stretches.
There were two more tea-stops before we got to Rukha. One was at Migtana, arranged by an amazing young health worker, Yeshi Dorji. He is a health assistant posted here and is respected by the community for his tireless round-the-clock service. Yeshi is also known to be very strict with personal hygiene and has gone out of his way to ensure that every house in the valley had a toilet and a wash basin. Yeshi is also very religious and contributes to the spiritual activities in the valley.
It was past 6 p.m. when we finally reached Rukha – our destination. The children and women of the village had lined up in front of the temple with khadar (white scarves) and with small baskets of rice and eggs to welcome our expedition in a traditional manner. The lama, Ugyen Tshering, was also there to receive us with a procession consisting of singing ladies accompanied by the sounds of religious instruments called Jaling. After making three rounds of temple, we entered and lowered our precious cargo. “Now it is your problem,” I told the lama, “You take on from here. I have done my part.” We both laughed. A huge air of relief filled the room – and reassured the atmosphere in the village. Everyone was worried for my safety. They all came to say hello to me and apologised profusely for the bad weather and the huge hardship I had to go through. “Well, it is because you guys have killed so many bears and musk deer that Jetsun Drolma wanted those sins to be cleared. So you had to carry her on your back through this rough weather.” They all laughed.
The next morning – on the Day of Drup Tshe Zhi, it was still misty as the Lama and his team started the Lhabsang Thruesel (Water Purification) ceremony. The national weather center had in fact predicted storm and more rain for the week.
I had spent the night at my usual place – belonging to Gup-drep Chokila, from where one can get the most terrific view of the village and the temple. I slowly got out of my bed, brushed my teeth, washed my face and headed for the temple. I could relax a bit because Ranger Ngawang had offered to play the sponsor for the day – sacrificing perhaps his two months salary to cover the day’s expenses.
The Installation Ceremony
After I sat down in the temple, the main ceremony – Drolma Yuldhog commenced. The monks chanted the mantras in deep basso profondo followed by blaring sounds of ritual cymbals and drums and horns. As streams of villagers came in and prostrated to the altar and made their wishes and offerings, it felt so surreal to watch these people – who were hunters-gatherers living in the forest until few years back, and are now just the first generation to practice the Buddha Dharma. And yet, from their faces and actions, their dedication and faith are no less than ours, who have been at it for several generations. I felt a deep sense of pride and satisfaction of having led them into a life of Dharma – and harmony with the natural world.
When the ceremony took a tea break, I went out of the temple to stretch a bit. Sitting in a lotus position is actually a torture for me. Outside, I found the day had suddenly brightened. The Sun had dug a large hole through the monsoon clouds – right over us, and just over us. Elsewhere it was still cloudy – or raining. Then, of course, there was the usual rainbow over Pekarphu – something we are used to.
Every time we do something good out here, the deities and the divinities seem to show up as a double rainbow over the sacred mountains of Pekarphu and Tsendaygang.
I put out my face towards the Sun (I think I was a sunflower in my previous life) and cherished the moment of brightness and the Sun after being for days in the battering rain. I closed my eyes and let the story of Tara (Jetsun Drolma) played on my mind like an old film.
Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion, was once looking down on the human world when he saw countless Beings going through immense sufferings. On seeing what he saw, a tear fell from his eyes out of compassion, which formed a lake and in which a lotus sprung up.
When the lotus opened, the goddess Tara was revealed.
Remembering our heroes
The day ended without the usual songs and dances. I thought it wasn’t appropriate as the Nation mourned the deaths of four soldiers in Gelephu. Celebrations can wait for some other time.
And so, as evening fell, I took off for another nearby village – Lamga. It is another place and another story – of community, friendship and partnership.
And the journey continues
A more formal consecration ceremony with public blessings and outside invitees called Drub of all the works in Rukha and Lamga will be organised as and when the Covid pandemic recedes)
Tara – Jetsun Drolma, is a favorite Buddhist deity, who is revered in all schools of Mahayana Buddhism. In the Himalayas, the deity is depicted as a female Boddhisattva.
The 21-Tara project is a very sacred spiritual undertaking, which few are blessed to achieve. The 21 Taras as per the Nyingma tradition are:
- Drolma Nyurma Pelmo; Tārā Turavīrā – Tara who is swift and courageous for development of Bodhichitta
- Drolma Yangchenma; Tārā Sarasvatī – Tara for music, knowledge and wisdom
- Drolma Sonam Chokter; Tārā Puṇyottama-dā – Tara who grants supreme merit for the force of merit
- Drolma Tsuktor Namgyalma; Tārā Uṣṇīṣa-vijayā – Tara who is completely victorious for long life.
- Drolma Rikje Lhamo; Kurukullā : Tara for magnetising people and wealth
- Drolma Jikché Chenmo; Tārā Mahābairavā – Tara who causes terror for destroying the power of harmful influences
- Drolma Shyenkyi Mitupma; Tārā Aparadhṛṣyā – Tara who is invincible for protection from hailstorms and lightning
- Drolma Shyen Migyalwa; Tārā Aparajitā – Tara, triumphant over others for repelling blame
- Drolma Sengdeng Nakkyi; Tārā Khadira-vaṇī – Tara of the Khadira Forest for protection from the Eight Great Fears.
- Drolma Jikten Sumgyal; Tārā Trailokavijayā – Tara who conquers the three worlds to have power over the world
- Drolma Nor Terma; Tārā Vasudā – Tara who bestows wealth for dispelling poverty and granting good fortune
- Drolma Tashi Dönché; Tārā Maṅgalārthā – Tara who brings auspiciousness for the auspiciousness of children, fame, rain and so on
- Drolma Drapung Jomma; Tārā Ripu-cakra-vināśinī – Tara who destroys the power of enemies for victory in war
- Drolma Tronyer Chendze; Tārā Bhṛkuṭī – Tara for protection from maligant spirits
- Drolma Rabtu Shyiwa; Tārā Praśāntī – Tara who guarantees perfect peace and for purifying harmful actions
- Drolma Barwé Öchen; Tārā Kiraṇojjvalā – Tara who is ablaze with light for dispelling spells and negative effects
- Drolma Pakmé Nönam; Tārā Aprameyākramaṇī – Tara of limitless subjugation for protection from robbers, thieves, animals and hunters
- Drolma Mabja Chenmo; Tārā Mahāmāyūrī – Tara to protect from, and to neutralize, poison
- Drolma Mipam Gyalmo; Tārā Ajitarājñī – Tara who is unconquerable and victorious for protection from quarrels and bad dreams
- Drolma Ritröma; Tārā Śabarī – Tara, Dweller in the Mountains, who protects from epidemics
- Drolma Özer Chenma; Tārā Mārīcī – Tara, ‘Rays of Light’, for restoring the spirits and energies of sick people.
Few weeks back I was invited to resource a video conference call with 300+ participants brought together by Abroad Inc – an executive retreat program that attracts some of the top entrepreneurs from the Silicon Valley, world’s top philanthropists, scientists, thought leaders and change makers. The theme was, how each one us were coping with this global pandemic that has taken the world by storm. In the five minutes I was allocated, I humbly presented what I was going through and how we were dealing with this fear that has engulfed us – and the world. Here is the rough transcript of my submission:
Greetings from the Contentment Valley
“Greetings to everyone from the jungles of Athang Rukha. This is where I am right now – having escaped as far as I could from the coronavirus (smile). I drove for two hours to find a stable Internet service. I am on a hilltop – surrounded by wilderness. And I am glad that I could join you.
Well! Even we, here in Bhutan, have not been spared from the fear and hysteria caused by this coronavirus pandemic, although only two American tourists have been tested positive so far. But whether it is our own people or a foreigner, once they are here, it is our problem and they have been treated with kindness and compassion – apart from free medical care.
Jumping directly into the question: how have I responded to this crisis, and what do we, as humanity, learn from this crisis? Now, I could have joined the bandwagon of getting into the panic mode – and go shopping and hoarding, and sharing fake news or screaming on social media. But, I thought I could do what is closest to my heart – practice selfless service, compassion and kindness. I chose the latter. And I headed back to Rukha valley.
For those of you who are not familiar with my works in this valley. I have been working with this small community of the last hunter-gatherers of Bhutan – since 2006. I began as a volunteer for a foundation and after the project closed, I stayed on to work on my own – to help the villagers build a community temple – or simply be there for them.
In 2012 I went through a personal tragedy, which almost killed me. When that was over and when I reflected on my life, I realized that if I deserved a place in heaven it was only my work for this community. Otherwise I would burn in hell. As far as I was concerned, no other things I did, or achieved, or accumulated mattered because you would be losing everything in an instant. The few years I had dedicated to this valley was the only thing that made me proud if I was gone that day. Ever since, this valley has become closer to my heart. It is a place for me to practice selfless service and unconditional loving kindness. It is a secret refuge, where I withdraw into during confusing times. And in this global lockdown saga, since I cannot return to Macau, I have decided to be here and complete two temples, which I started years back.
Are you “there”?
When I drove into the valley I found the people were terrified by the news – and by all the rumors that were being circulated – mainly through the social media. Without access to correct information, they relied on hearsays and gossip. They heard that the world was going to end and that we were all going to die. I calmed the situation and told them what I knew that it wasn’t the case. Everything is about how prepared we are and how we can prevent the crisis. I told them that our King is personally overseeing the preparation and prevention works.
I was supposed to return back to Thimphu after a few days, as I always did in the past. But this time I realized I just needed to stay put because the whole valley needed someone – a reassuring figure. They were all relieved that I was here. They have a belief here that when a soenamchen (person of great fortune and merits) is among them, no disease or tragedy would befall on them. I felt funny but didn’t challenge their belief systems.
So, the first lesson we can learn here is that although we are all going through the same fear and trauma, you can still be there for someone who needs you more. If you look around, you will always find another human, another sentient being – someone who is more terrified, less educated, and in a worse situation than you are. You don’t have to be president or a prime minister to lead. You can also provide leadership to those around you – your family, your community. They look up to you for words of comfort to say that everything will be OK. Some of you have thousands of people who even work for you.
Are. You. “There”. For. Them?
Collectivism, imagination and community have been the secrets of human survival – and of human dominance over other species. Our ability to work together has not only enabled us to hunt animals that are bigger and stronger than us, it has allowed us to reach the Moon – both metaphorically and literally. Otherwise some species of monkeys are stronger, faster, or more agile. Our collective strength – to put our hands, hearts, minds and brains together have let us tide over every challenge and every obstacle. So the question is: how can we work together so that we get over this crisis? What is your role? What can you do for others? What can you do for the community or for your country?
Find your “temple”
Lastly, in a bid to succeed, to get rich, to accumulate power – or to simply feed our family, we often forget our inner self and its core wants and needs. As a Mahayana Buddhist where compassion is a core value, I find my inner self drawn towards selfless service and loving kindness. As I said, I am here in this valley completing these two temples. In doing this, I have realized that I have also managed to divert my mind from paranoia to positivism – to something that brings pure joy. I see this being radiated in the whole valley. I suppose this is also providing leadership. What is the use of worrying about something that you cannot bring any solution to it. Of course, we can pray – and we are doing a sacred ceremony on Tuesday the 24th March. But no one is talking about dying here. There is laughter, there is joy and there is togetherness. Yes, we are facing this crisis in our own ways. The other day I was saying that if we should die, we should die doing something we are proud of.
In closing, I hope you all will find your “temple”, your inner self, the true you and who you really want to be. I guess, this period of lockdown is a great time to be that – even if it is for a short period. I hope you will find time and energy to help someone in need. I hope you will find your community and your togetherness.
I thank you all for being in this community.
Let me start with a disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor. The closest I have been is covering health sector for BBS TV as a producer-journalist in my previous reincarnation – many moons ago. As a health journo one learns to speak complex medical concepts in more human language – and synthesize medical reports and studies
Now, here are the latest on COVID-19
What is known about the novel coronavirus?
- COVID-19 has no vaccine still, which is the only long-term answer to the coronavirus crisis. At the time of this writing, around 30 companies and universities are racing to bring out something in the market – and this could take anywhere between 1 to 2 years. So at best, nothing will be available before the end of the year – that is December 2020. At the lead of the race is a Oxford University team and a company called Gilead Science that are expected to bring out only the trial results by May 2020. Certification and mass production are far away.
- As for the cure or recovery of those who catch the virus, it all depends on one’s immunity and medical history. Interestingly, the recovery rate is high and so getting it does not mean a ïdeath sentence.
- The most terrifying aspect of this coronavirus is its asymptomatic nature. In simple words, people who have the virus and do not show any symptoms are called asymptomatic cases. So one could be having the virus, but shows no sign and could pass on the virus to others. Hence, testing is the key.
What is the unknown?
There are many unanswered questions: Why is it spreading faster in some countries and slower in others? Then there are cases of people testing positive again after they have been declared as ‘recovered’. Is this a relapse or was the virus dormant? Are they capable of infecting others? Only time and more research will be able to answer these questions.
Why should we feel reassured and safe?
In any epidemic, one key factor is the government response. And in our case, besides the preparedness and a solid action-plan by our Health Ministry, our Prime Minister is a dedicated medical doctor and above all, we have our King who is overseeing every minute detail of the preparedness and response. Countries that have responded in a similar manner – such as Singapore and New Zealand have done very well in controlling the outbreak and keeping their citizens safe. Testing is another key aspect and Bhutan has, today, one of the highest rates of testing in the world taken in ratio to the population.
There are also some interesting findings of countries that have mandatory BCG vaccination reporting lower Covid-19 mortality. BCG is administered in Bhutan as a part of immunization programme and this vaccine seems to produce, what they call, “off-target effects” that increases the ability of the immune system to fight off certain viruses besides its main purpose of preventing tubercolosis. This finding is yet to be vetted but some explain, for example, the low Covid mortality in countries like Portugal. If it is minimally confirmed, we are in good position to fight off the virus.
Why should we worry?
Bhutan is a small country. We all know each other. And so, even one positive case is one too many. And even a single death is just too plenty. And complicate the matter, we are complacent and relaxed by nature. We say everything is ready when it is not. And we also have too many people with underlying medical conditions such as tuberculosis, hypertension, diabetes, ALD etc.
What is, and why, physical distancing?
According to WHO, the virus can be transferred from one person to another through droplets when one coughs or sneezes. WHO recommends 1 meter while the US-based CDC says 2 meters. Latest study from the same CDC now even claims that the virus travels as far as 4 meters and can be carried around under the soles of the shoes. Hence physical and social distancing have to be practiced. And furthermore, there might be the need for more rigorous hygienic practices like leaving your shoes at the door.
Physical distancing means deliberately maintaining a minimum distance between you and the other person/s so that if a person sneezes or coughs, you are not infected.
On the other hand, avoid going into crowded areas, gatherings, parties, meetings, conferences, markets, malls and large religious events where there are greater chances of getting infected because of more number of people. Furthermore, stay away from going over to meet friends or family members unless it is absolutely necessary. Staying and/or working from home, as far as possible, is the best.
Physical distancing even without local transmission/infection?
Yes, because of the asymptomatic nature of the virus, there could be, or you could be, a false negative wandering around. The government has indicated that a lockdown will be necessary only if there is community transmission. However, we could also be proactive and practice social distancing and prevent the community transmission and a potential lockdown from happening.
Mind you, a lockdown would be bring untold sufferings to many. Already the virus has taken a heavy economic toll with loss of livelihood for many in the service sector such as tourism and hospitality.
Can the young, or the poor, care less?
From the emerging patterns of this epidemic, young people are less vulnerable to COVID-19. However, this does not mean that they can care less and go partying because they could carry the virus and pass it on to a vulnerable person in the family or in the community – such as elderly persons or someone with poor health. Young people should, therefore, be as responsible as anyone. He or she could be the silent killer.
And in no way this is a rich man’s disease. Everyone is vulnerable. Everyone is susceptible and everyone should be careful. In fact, as in every crisis, the poorer section of the society will suffer the most if the situation escalates.
Although people are resisting the physical distancing ordinance because there is no community transmission, how about we reverse the argument? And think different.
We practice safe distancing so that we prevent the community transmission – and a potential lockdown. Instead of waiting for the lockdown and then distance ourselves, let’s prevent the lockdown from happening by safe distancing now.
It is great to see people practicing it across the country. Worst comes, and god forbid, we are better prepared with our personal behaviours.
Social and behavioural changes take time – and time is not a luxury with this pandemic. Need to start now.