UPDATES ON COVID-19 : IS BHUTAN SAFE FOR TRAVELLING?
Travelling to Bhutan is currently not allowed as the Bhutan government has implemented a travel restriction for all incoming tourists until further notice. The government is closely monitoring the pandemic situation within and beyond the country and updates will be provided progressively as the global situation unfolds.
COVID-19 SITUATION IN BHUTAN
From July 1 2020, Bhutan will be transitioning from Orange zone to Phase 1 reopening. Schools will resume for most of the classes and all students are required to wear masks. While all parks and public spaces will reopen, huge gatherings of crowds including tournaments and spectators will still be prohibited. Wearing of face masks is required at all gatherings and safe distancing protocols are to be followed.
As of June 23 2020, there are 68 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Bhutan in which all are imported cases from Bhutanese returning to the country. All the cases are detected during the quarantine period upon testing. Of the 68 cases, 32 patients have recovered and been discharged. There is currently no community widespread and zero COVID-19 mortality in Bhutan. Bhutan takes the safety of its people very seriously with His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck at the forefront personally seeing through the national preparedness measures. There is a mandatory 21-day quarantine for all Bhutanese who return to the country. All the citizens will be isolated in the designated quarantine facilities where meals will be provided and tests are conducted regularly.
Upon the detection of the first COVID-19 case in Bhutan on March 5, 2020, Bhutan government has initially imposed a two-week ban for all incoming tourists into the country. The government has further extended the travel restriction until further notice in view of the escalating COVID-19 situation in some countries.
TIMELINE OF BHUTAN’S COVID-19 PREPAREDNESS MEASURES
Bhutan has acted swiftly when the global pandemic outbreak was reported. Prior to the country’s first detection of the coronavirus case on March 5 2020, all incoming tourists were required to submit travel history and health declaration upon arriving in Paro International Airport.
The first COVID-19 patient, a 76-year old US citizen, was flown back to the United States on March 13, 2020 via a special Phoenix air ambulance N163PA. He has recovered and is doing very well. The daughter of the patient has written an email to express her gratitude towards His Majesty, the Prime Minister Office and all the healthcare workers who provided the utmost care to her father when he was in Bhutan.
Below is a history and timeline of Bhutan’s preparedness measures that has been in place.
- Tests continue in the Kingdom. Of 58 performed at the Royal Center for Disease Control at Thimphu yesterday, Mar 28, one returns positive. Infected individual is a student who was in quarantine; the case has been isolated and all possible contacts in a quarantine facility. This takes the number of positive cases in Bhutan, to four.
- Prime Minister's Office - PMO, Bhutan issues press release on restrictions for:
- Public gatherings
- Travel (non-essential and leisure travels, public transport locally)
- Business and entertainment
- Games and sports
- Workers in civil service, corporate, private sectors, and other agencies to follow 'work from home' system
- Tests continue in the Kingdom. Of 25 performed in Thimphu and Phuentsholing yesterday, Mar 25, one returns positive. Infected individual is an imported case; immediate contact tracing procedures carried out. This takes the number of positive cases in Bhutan, to three.
- Starting 6am, Mar 23, 2020, Bhutan closes its international borders.
- No locals are allowed out of the Kingdom.
- For non-Bhutanese, exits are allowed. Incoming non-Bhutanese will be scrutinised and quarantined where applicable.
- The partner of the first Covid-19 case tests positive. Results are informed at a press briefing today. Their guides and driver's tests remain negative, but their quarantines are sustained at the quarantine facility in Motithang. Both are doing well. This takes the number of positive cases in Bhutan, to two.
- Prime Minister's Office - PMO, Bhutan's Facebook page updates: Restriction on incoming tourists sustained until further notice. "While the situation back home is under control, the global trend of coronavirus is not encouraging for us to lift the ban."
- Temporary closure of drayangs, nightclubs, discotheques and other joints where huge crowds may gather.
- Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering joins India's Prime Minister, in a video conference to discuss and coordinate in tackling COVID-19 outbreak in the region.
- PM Tshering also sits with representatives of the country's holding and investment arm, the Druk Holding and Investments (DHI), in discussing ways to take Bhutan's economy forward and running. “If we don’t have a clear strategy, we will not be able to make the best use of our resources under this thick cloud of coronavirus,” prime minister said. “Let us work closely so that when the cloud clears, our nation stands benefitted.”
- Prime Minister's Office - PMO, Bhutan's Facebook page updates: The Kingdom is in the 'Orange' zone.
- The Prime Minister and teams at the health ministry discuss intensifying preparedness should the Covid-19 situation worsen. 34 samples picked up through health surveillance today are confirmed to be negative.
- Bhutan is in orange zone where precautionary measures are to be implemented.
- The government imposes a two weeks restriction on all incoming tourists until Mar 20, 2020.
- The Prime Minister's Office - PMO, Bhutan announces first Covid-19 case in Bhutan, confirmed 11pm on Mar 5. Results were validated on Mar 6.
- Contact tracing of the 76-year-old patient from the US was immediately set in place, covering his itinerary including places visited and people he had associated with. The PMO indicates that the traveller's partner, driver and guide are asymptomatic for now, but are quarantined. All 8 Indian nationals on his flight from Guwahati are also quarantined.
- Service staff on the flight, hotel staff associated with the traveller's accommodations have been put on home quarantine, until all checks are cleared.
- Bhutan holds second press briefing on Covid-19 at the Ministry on Health.
- Bhutan’s leaders hold their 3rd internal coordination meeting.
- Bhutan holds first press briefing on Covid-19 at the Ministry on Health.
- Bhutan’s leaders hold their 2nd internal coordination meeting.
- Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital (JDWNRH) increases surveillance at their Outpatient department, and Emergency department.
- Apart from mandatory health checks on all passengers arriving from China at Paro International Airport, Immigrations initiated a separate line listing of Chinese passport holders – where authorities collected information of travellers’ contact in Bhutan.
- Bhutan’s leaders hold their 1st internal coordination meeting.
- Starting today, all in-flight announcements on board Drukair and Bhutan Airlines have included a section asking passengers to notify crew should there be any one who’s unwell, or with travel history to affected areas. These passengers are duly informed to report to the airport’s health unit for thorough screenings and investigation.
- Bhutanese leaders issue cautionary notifications to the public and health centers.
- Paro International Airport installs infrared fever scanners, steps up surveillance measures.
NATIONAL PREPAREDNESS: WHAT BHUTAN'S DOING
Bhutan takes her citizens’ safety, as well as that of all travellers entering the Kingdom, of utmost importance. As such, The Ministry of Health, Bhutan has enforced a detailed list of actions to enhance the preparedness of the Kingdom against the Covid-19 outbreak.
- Paro International Airport has stepped up surveillance measures. Infrared fever scanners have been put in place since Jan 15, 2020.
- Since Jan 17, 2020, in-flight announcements on board Drukair and Bhutan Airlines have included a section asking passengers to notify crew should there be any one who’s unwell, or with travel history to affected areas. These passengers are duly informed to report to the airport’s health unit for thorough screenings and investigation.
- On Jan 22, 2020, apart from implementing health checks on all passengers arriving from China at Paro International Airport, Immigrations initiated a separate line listing of Chinese passport holders – where authorities collected information of travellers’ contact in Bhutan.
- Bhutan’s leaders held the 1st internal coordination meeting on Jan 21, 2020 to discuss national preparedness plans and response planning for Covid-19.
- The 2nd internal coordination meeting was held on Jan 27, 2020.
- The 3rd internal coordination meeting was held on Jan 29, 2020.
LABORATORIES & MEDICAL PERSONNEL
- All health centers are currently following strict instructions to step-up on surveillance. Also, a reporting system was established with Bhutan’s Royal Center for Disease Control (RCDC) to facilitate reporting.
- RCDC has readied their BSL 3 lab to handle the Covid-19.
- Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital (JDWNRH) has set aside patient isolation rooms, medical team and critical units on standby should the need arise.
- Surveillance has also been increased at JDWNRH’s Outpatient department, and Emergency department since Jan 22, 2020.
MOVING ABOUT IN BHUTAN
- All health facilities at points of entry into Bhutan (Gelephu, Paro, Phuentsholing, Samdrup Jongkhar and Samtse) have readied isolation rooms, stepped up infection control measures, as well as placed personnel on standby for the triaging of patients.
- When news of the Covid-19 emerged in January, Bhutanese leaders acted swiftly to issue cautionary notifications to the public and health centers on Jan 15, 2020.
- The public is consistently updated through Bhutan Broadcasting Service announcements, TV talk shows, radio programmes, as well as various social media
- Two press briefings have been held on Covid-19 at the Ministry on Health. The first was on Jan 29, and the other on Feb 5, 2020.