COVID-19 crisis: Ensured essential supplies to Bhutan during lockdown, says Indian envoy Ruchira Kamboj

WION New Delhi, Delhi, India May 06, 2020, 09.32 PM(IST) Written By: Sidhant Sibal

Indian envoy to Bhutan Ruchira Kamboj hands over a consignment of essential medicines from India including Hydroxychloroquine to Health Minister of Bhutan Dechen Wangmo Photograph:( WION )

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Envoy Ruchira Kamboj said New Delhi has sent three medical supplies to the country which contained essential medicines including Hydroxychloroquine

India ensured that essential supplies to Bhutan continued during the ongoing pan-India lockdown with around 500 vehicles carrying essential goods entering the country on a daily basis, India's Envoy to Bhutan Ruchira Kamboj has said.

Speaking exclusively to our principal diplomatic correspondent Sidhant Sibal from Thimphu, Envoy Ruchira Kamboj said New Delhi has sent three medical consignments to the country which included Hydroxychloroquine and made sure around 1,700 stranded Bhutanese citizens in eight Indian cities can go back via special Druk Air flights.

She also lauded the "proactive" measures taken by the Bhutanese government to deal with the COVID-19 crisis and called the country's containment model for COVID-19 as a "model for many others".

WION: How has the Mission reached out to Indians in the country?

Ruchira Kamboj: Just to give you an example. Bhutan registered its first COVID-19 case on March 5, an American tourist who had flown into Bhutan from Guwahati on a Druk Air flight along with his partner (American) and seven Indian nationals who were visiting Bhutan for tourism. 

All the primary contacts of the US tourist including the seven Indians were immediately placed in quarantine by the government of Bhutan. 

Meantime, the Mission reached out to the Indians and maintained close contact with them right through their quarantine. 

Upon discharge, the Embassy facilitated their safe return through the land border through close coordination with Bhutanese officials. 

This "action" ensured that all 7 Indians were able to get back home before the imposition of the lockdown in India. This is just one example. There have been some other cases of this nature, where the Embassy has reached out/offered a helping hand to Indian nationals in Bhutan, in these COVID-19 times. 

As for the Indian diaspora and as you probably know, Bhutan does not have Indian diaspora as such. 

Indian nationals in Bhutan comprise, inter-alia, employees of hydroelectric power projects, DANTAK (Border Roads Organization), Druk PNB Bank, private Bhutanese companies, lecturers on deputation to the Royal University of Bhutan under Government of India’s Colombo Plan Scheme and skilled labour engaged in power projects, the construction industry, wood-based industries etc. 

Needless to add, the embassy has been in regular touch with our nationals to brief them on the COVID-19 situation in India and assist them on any and all fronts. With regard to Indian labourers resident in Bhutan, we are in touch with Bhutanese interlocutors and industry/factory owners who are taking care of their residential and livelihood-related needs. 

There are no work-permit related issues. The Mission stands ready to assist any Indian who may wish to return home after the lockdown in India is relaxed sufficiently. Meantime, our emergency telephone lines remain open 24/7, which has been reflected across all our social media platforms as well.

WION: How are India and Bhutan cooperating with each other on the COVID-19 crisis?

Ruchira Kamboj: India-Bhutan cooperation continues apace in COVID-19 times encompassing myriad areas, including, provision of essentials (food, fuel and medicines) as well as our support to the re-prioritization of projects envisaged by the Royal Government of Bhutan under the 12th Five Year Plan to bolster Bhutan’s Economic stimulus plan of Nu 30 billion. 

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi has emphasised that the fight against COVID-19 is not just one country’s, but all of humanity’s. Our ancient Indian heritage sets out that the world is one family, “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”. He has repeatedly underscored the need to put human beings at the centre of our vision of global prosperity and cooperation, and to freely and openly share the benefits of medical research and development. 

In this spirit, we have been honoured to hand over three consignments of medical supplies to Bhutan. The third shipment, that contained essential medicines including Hydroxychloroquine, was handed over to Bhutan on April 27. 

I will also add that the government of India has made all efforts to ensure the uninterrupted movement of essential as well as non-essential commodities to Bhutan. Around 500 vehicles carrying essential goods and supplies enter Bhutan on a daily basis, a figure that is comparable to the number of vehicles prior to the lockdown in India. 

India's "gesture" has been lauded by His Majesty the King of Bhutan as well as the Prime Minister of Bhutan, Dr. Lotay Tshering despite lockdown restrictions. India has also facilitated the maximum number of special Druk Air flights to ensure the return of Bhutanese students and nationals, ordinarily resident in India. 

1,716 Bhutanese students from Chennai, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad, Mohali, Mumbai, Amritsar, Chandigarh and Delhi have been able to return to home territory, as an outcome of these efforts. 

India’s assistance to Bhutan is, however, not just limited to supply of essentials and medicines or facilitating the return of Bhutanese nationals from India. We have assured Bhutan that India will stand in solidarity as it re-calibrates its development pathways in the wake of COVID-19. Both the Prime Minister and the foreign minister of Bhutan have acknowledged this support publicly through tweets. 

It is indeed most gracious of Bhutan to have acknowledged this friendship between two special friends. 

Significantly, India’s efforts have also been lauded by the Bhutanese public, in particular our support in ensuring essential supplies to Bhutan during the lockdown, and the handing over of medical supplies, as would any dear friend to another, in times of need.

WION: How has been the cooperation under the SAARC umbrella? 

Ruchira Kamboj: There was a SAARC leaders video-conference and following that significant initiative of India's Prime Minister Modi, India has offered a number of capacity building programmes for Bhutanese in the health sector and other areas. Bhutanese health professional participated in the SAARC meeting of health professionals. 

Thereafter, Bhutanese officials participated in two live web conferences on COVID-19 programme under the eITEC programme of MEA. The first web meet was by AIIMS Raipur, another one by post-Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), Chandigarh. Also going forward, Bhutan has participated and also continues to participate in all the various SAARC led initiative these by bringing our two countries even closer by through the regional front. 

WION: Are we sharing any containment models or capacity building programmes for Bhutan?

Ruchira Kamboj: Yes, very much so. Bhutan has been closely following developments in India and various initiatives taken by us to contain the spread of COVID-19 and they have expressed the deepest admiration and strong leadership of Prime Minister Modi and we have from time to time communicated all the details. 

I must tell you something very interesting, that Bhutan is virtually COVID-19 free and that is because they have led from the front and have followed a proactive policy that has enabled them to contain the spread of the virus within the country. 

During the course of his recent telephone conversation with Bhutan PM Dr Lotay Tshering, Prime Minister Modi had expressed his admiration for the personal touch and wisdom of His Majesty The King of Bhutan and the Prime Minister of Bhutan, both of whom have led from the front to limit the spread of infection within Bhutan. 

Bhutan has been hugely successful till date in containing COVID-19 through its emergency response, by a simultaneous closure of borders, a 21-day mandatory quarantine in designated facilities for all persons returning to Bhutan, a combination of proactive testing and tracing along with compulsory testing of all quarantined persons before discharge. 

In fact, Bhutan’s containment model for COVID-19 could well be a model/exemplar for many others. 

WION: How has the situation been on the ground in Bhutan? How are Indian diplomats facing the situation?

Ruchira Kamboj: Bhutan has had only seven confirmed cases of COVID-19 with no deaths. Out of the seven COVID-19 cases, five persons have recovered from the disease. So far, there has been no local or community transmission in the country.

While there has been no lockdown in Bhutan, the country is in a partial lockdown mode with all borders closed, all educational institutions indefinitely closed for now, ‘work from home’ in many government & private offices, emphasis on physical distancing in public places and public transport and restrictions on public gatherings.

The Health Ministry of Bhutan has developed two apps - ‘Druk Trace’ and ‘Stay Home’ to facilitate contact tracing in public places and public transport and to monitor/track people placed in quarantine. 

Municipal officials and ‘Dessups’ (volunteers) are ensuring strict implementation of the restrictions and COVID-19 precautions imposed by the government across the country.

The ground situation in Bhutan is better than many other parts of the world. As far as embassy personnel are concerned, we are fortunate to be resident in the self-contained India House Estate in Thimphu.

We have self-imposed restrictions on the movements of diplomats and officials out of the mission. Our focus has been on minimal contact with outsiders, with COVID-19 specific precautions and social distancing taking precedence in all our work. 

Despite these restrictions, we are fully functional in the spirit that “Digital is the new normal and that the Internet in the new meeting room!”. Video conferences and webinars are the order of the day and where necessary, we have actual meetings as well, given that Bhutan is virtually coronavirus free. 

The effort is also to keep our people-to-people contacts robust in these testing times. In this vein and taking a cue from Prime Minister Modi’s 3D animated videos, online yoga and music classes have been launched by the embassy from April 1 onwards, which have proved to be hugely popular with Bhutanese nationals.

Likewise, Prime Minister Modi’s article on “Life in the era of COVID-19” has resonated well with the people of Bhutan, particularly with the youth and student community. 

Both the Royal University of Bhutan and Royal Thimphu College has posted PM’s article on their social media handles. Indeed, these times of COVID-19 have thrown up new challenges for us to pursue our priorities and focus on innovative ways to achieve our objectives to further the special India-Bhutan relationship.