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How Bhutan Remained Unscathed From COVID-19 Despite Being Surrounded By India & China?

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The tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan has overcome all odds and kept the COVID-19 cases at bay. Bhutan has the lowest recorded cases of coronavirus in the Indian subcontinent and the efforts of the Bhutanese government and people have made it a real success story.

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COVID-19 pandemic has impacted nearly every country in the world.  The virus does not respect borders and has even reached even far-flung nations and islands.

While most countries have been brought to its knees after the lockdown, economic losses and massive death rate, one country has escaped almost unscathed. Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan kingdom landlocked between Asian giants India and China, has championed in curbing the virus. While Germany, Taiwan and South Korea have received praise for their efforts, the success of Bhutan has largely been ignored.

At the time of writing, Bhutan recorded 21 cases and 0 fatalities according to the data collected from the John Hopkins University of Medicine. At the forefront of the battle against corona have been prominent figures of the Royal Bhutanese government – His Majesty the King of Bhutan Jigme Khisar Namgyel Wangchuck, Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, Foreign Minister Tandi Dorji and Health Minister Dechen Wangmo. Interestingly, the latter 3 are all medical doctors and possess a background in public health.

The Kingdom of Bhutan lays special emphasis on health and healthcare services. All citizens receive free healthcare at the point of care. As enshrined in the Constitution of Bhutan, the National Health Policy states that the state shall “provide free access to basic public health services in both modern and traditional medicines.”

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The government also guarantees to pursue the comprehensive approach of Primary Health Care, providing universal access with an emphasis on disease prevention, health promotion, community participation and intersectoral collaboration.

Bhutan and Coronavirus

A combination of factors put Bhutan at a natural risk of the deadly virus. Firstly, Bhutan is sandwiched between India and China, countries that have a combined total of 180,000+ cases and more 7500 deaths.

India shares an open border with Bhutan and is also home to a substantial Bhutanese population. Bhutan remains a popular tourist destination amongst tourists from China, the place of origin of the coronavirus, with thousands flocking to see the country every year.

Secondly, while Bhutan’s Health Policy mainly focuses on preventive measures to ensure that its healthcare system is not overwhelmed to deal with its 750,00 strong population, its infrastructure remains inadequate. Currently, Bhutan has a little over 300 doctors, 1 ICU Expert, a few lab experts and chest specialists and a dearth of ventilators and personal protective equipment.

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Lastly, as countries around the world started going into lockdown, Bhutanese citizens and students abroad wanted to return home. Most citizens were flying back from highly infected countries and hence could have contributed to the spread of the diseases.

Thankfully, the Bhutanese government was prepared to avert this disaster and took the threat of the virus seriously. The first-ever case was recorded on March 5 when a U.S. citizen tested positive for the virus.

The government quickly swung into action by isolating the patient and incurred the entire cost of treatment. The government then began tracing people who had come in contact with the person and placed them in isolation. From March 16, the government in Thimphu made it mandatory for people returning to quarantine for 14 days.

120 facilities were constructed for the same. An extra week of quarantine was added to reassure the general public. A large scale lockdown was also implemented at the same time as schools were forced to shut, foreigners were no longer allowed to enter the country and social distancing norms were encouraged.

Even though the cases in Bhutan did not rise, His Royal Majesty decided to shut the borders on March 22. This decision raised a few eyebrows considering Bhutan’s reliance on Indian imports for meeting consumption needs.

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However, the local Bhutanese community stepped up and eliminated any existing fears. Farmers started donating crops, people gave food and money in charity to help those in need, hotel owners voluntarily offered their properties to be used as quarantine facilities.

Restaurants and volunteers prepared and distributed food to the needy as well as those working on the frontline. His Royal Majesty even went to the border with India to assist volunteers building shelter for evacuees from the Indian state of West Bengal.

The government not only provided free testing and medical services, but also made sure that people living in isolation facilities did not have to pay for food and accommodation. Thimphu prepared for the worst-case scenario and shelved planned expenditure by reprioritizing its future activities and consolidated funds from different sectors and invested them in COVID-19 response.

On April 11, His Royal Majesty announced the creation of a National Resilience Fund to provide relief and economic stability. An important part of the NRF is Druk Gyalpo Relief Kidu.

The Kidu is aimed at supporting the citizens who have lost their livelihood owing to the adverse impact of the pandemic on businesses. The Kidu, usually a cash grant, will not only pay for the cost of treatment for its students abroad but also cover the travelling expenses of those wanting to return home but lack sufficient funds. Repatriation transport was also organized to bring back nationals via air or land routes.

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One aspect of Bhutan’s response that stands out is the lack of politicisation of the COVID-19 crisis by the opposition. While in countries such as India, the United States and the United Kingdom the global pandemic is being heavily politicised, in Bhutan, this is not the case.

The opposition party Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) has regularly supported and backed the government response led by Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT). Bhutan is one of the youngest democracies in the world and the maturity shown by the politicians sets an example to follow.

The country set up the National COVID-19 Response fund on 9 March and as a show of support, all members of the Bhutanese Parliament donated one month’s salary to the cause.

The government of Bhutan did get assistance from India and even the World Bank to deal with the crisis, however, it was the sheer determination of the Himalayan Kingdom and impressive implementation by the government that helped Bhutan avert a major catastrophe.

The country was not hesitant to take bold decisions and its government worked tirelessly according to WHO guidelines and protocols. This, coupled with the helping hand from the tightly knit Bhutanese community made Bhutan a success story during the coronavirus pandemic.

Penned By Armaan Srivastava

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Coronavirus In Tibet: Limited Impact Of COVID-19 In High Altitude Regions Like Tibet?

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Scientists are now investigating the link between COVID-19 and high altitude regions like Tibet after a study published in the journal Respiratory Physiology and Neurobiology suggested that there is a decrease in prevalence and impact of COVID-19 in populations living at higher altitudes. 

The study takes into consideration the COVID-19 cases in Tibet and high-altitude regions of Bolivia and Ecuador in comparison to the low lying regions. It suggested that the population in Bolivia, Ecuador and Tibet living above 3,000 meters (9,842 feet) reported significantly lower levels of confirmed infections than their lowland counterparts.

In the plateau region of Tibet, Qinghai and part of Sichuan, with a population of 9 million, there are only 134 confirmed cases which are drastically low in comparison to the number of cases in rest of China.

Ecuador is one of the worst-hit countries by COVID-19 in South America with more than 40,000 confirmed cases and over 3,000 deaths. The centre of the virus is the Pacific port of Guayaquil. There are fewer infected cases in the capital Quito, which is about the same size but is 2,800 metres above sea level.

Similarly, Bolivia has over 10,000 positive cases with over 300 deaths. The cases are concentrated in Santa Cruz which is 400 metres above sea level. It is home to about 15% of the population of the country but accounts for two-thirds of the virus cases. Whereas, in La Paz and its surrounding area, which is a highland area in Bolivia, has about 500 positive cases.

The reason explored by the study includes environmental factors including dry mountain air, high levels of UV radiation and the possibility that lower atmospheric pressure reduces the virus’s ability to linger in the air.

“The reason for decreased severity of the global COVID-19 outbreak at high altitude could relate to both environmental and physiological factors,” states the study.

“At sea-level, when people get coronavirus and their lungs get destroyed, it is as if they are climbing Mount Everest in just a couple of days, without oxygen,” said Gustavo Zubieta-Calleja, one of the authors of the study published in the journal Respiratory Physiology & Neurobiology. But “the low rate of infection in Bolivia’s high-altitude population is remarkable and clearly does not follow the often exponential infection rates reported in many countries”, concluded the scientists.

However, experts have questioned these factors. “The virus likes people. It doesn’t care about altitude,” says Peter Chin-Hong, who studies infectious diseases at the University of California at San Francisco. “But we’re still learning so much about this disease, and this does provide us with some good clues to try and understand its progression,” he added.

According to Clayton Cowl, a pulmonologist at the Mayo Clinic and a former president of the American College of Chest Physicians, that the trend might be related to acclimatization, the body’s ability to adjust temporarily to altitude, than to DNA.

Just three populations in the world have been found to have genetic adaptations to altitude: Himalayans, Ethiopian highlanders and Andeans. This is why the coronavirus is exploding on Peru’s Pacific coast, particularly Lima, where most residents descend from Andean ancestors, while the country’s mountain communities are thus far not greatly affected by the virus.

Andrew Luks, professor of medicine at the University of Washington, said that while the proposed link was “intriguing”, it “by no means establishes that high-altitude residence or high-altitude locations are protective against coronavirus”.

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Indo-Pak News

Amidst India-China Standoff, India-Pakistan ‘Limited War’ Over Kashmir Remains High: Experts

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As India-China standoff in Ladakh grabs worldwide attention, the Indian Army continues to engage – what Delhi terms as ‘Pakistan-backed militants’ in Kashmir with many experts speculating a ‘limited war’ between two nuclear-armed nations.

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Cross-border infiltration and militancy have been on a sudden rise in the along the LoC and Kashmir valley and at the same time, Pakistan has consistently warned the international community of an Indian ‘false flag’ operation.

Despite being heavily involved in the conflict between India and China in Ladakh, the Indian Army remains proactive in Kashmir. The valley has not seen any drop in the engagement level of the Indian armed forces as they continue to batter militants and foil infiltrations bids.

In their latest mission, the security forces eliminated three militants of the Jaish-e-Muhammed (JeM) in an encounter. An Improvised Explosive Device (IED) expert was also identified amongst the slain militants.

According to sources, a joint contingent of police, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and Indian Army laid siege around Kangan village of Pulwama district after receiving intelligence reports highlighting the presence of militants in the area.

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As the armed forces conducted door to door searches, the militants opened fire and later died in the heavy gun-battle which ensued. Defence spokesperson Colonel Rajesh Kalia said in a statement that the militants were offered an opportunity to surrender but decided not to do so.

The three militants neutralized in Pulwama add to the 13 terrorists that Indian security forces claimed to have eliminated recently. As earlier reported by EurAsian Times, Indian armed forces eliminated three terrorists in the Naushera Sector and an additional 10 heavily-armed terrorists in Mendhar along the Line of Control (LoC).

The armed forces also recovered arms and ammunition including 2 AK assault rifles, a US-made M-16A2 rifle, a 9MM Chinese pistol, a UBGL with 6 grenades, 5 hand grenades and knives. Medicines, Indian currency amounting Rupees 17,000 and food packets were also recovered from encounter sites.

Ever since the dastardly attack in Pulwama in 2019 in which more than 40 CRPF soldiers were killed, the Indian armed forces maintain extra vigilance in Kashmir. Near the end of May, Indian security forces foiled Pulwama 2.0, a plot to recreate the fatal attack of 2019.

False Flag Operation

While the Indian military is busy engaging infiltrators and militants in Kashmir, Pakistan is raising concerns about a ‘false flag’ operation. The concerns are led by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan who has on several occasions tweeted about an impending ‘false flag’ operation by India.

The allegations from Khan came at the heels of reported ceasefire violations by India following its counter-insurgency operations.’’I am reiterating again that a false flag operation is imminent from India in order to divert world attention away from its ongoing genocide in India Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IoJK),’’ Khan had earlier tweeted.

Khan’s warning of a ‘false flag’ operation was later echoed by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. Qureshi not only supported Imran Khan but also urged the United Nations to block any military confrontation between New Delhi and Islamabad and offered UN Observer Groups to visit the LoC.

Qureshi also highlighted the intentional targeting of innocent civilians by India during cross-border shelling.

India claims that Pakistan is involved in harbouring terrorists who train militants to infiltrate the LoC and wreak havoc in Kashmir. The Indian army has recognized 15 terrorist launch pads across the LoC which are used for the purposes mentioned above.

Pakistan refutes these allegations and believes that India plans to conduct a ‘false flag’ operation under the disguise of these claims. Qureshi had also rejected the ‘launch pad’ allegations as baseless.

While India and China lock horns in Ladakh, experts at EurAsian Times believe that the international community should keep a close eye on Kashmir. Nitin J Ticku, an expert on Kashmir, says while tensions with Beijing will not escalate into a  war, however, the possibility of a ‘limited’ military conflict with Islamabad remains high.

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Americas

Trump’s Mediation Offer ‘Naive’; US Actually Wants India To Challenge Chinese Dominance: Russian Experts

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As Trump’s offer to mediate the India-China border conflict has publically failed, experts argue that “Washington’s policy-makers, who seek to pit the Indians against the Chinese, maybe as naïve as Trump”.

The fierce military standoff between China and India that has been in the headlines for over a month now started in early May when clashes erupted between the troops of both the nuclear nations, that left scores of soldiers injured from both the sides driving a steady build-up of troops in the border region.

The US President, Donald Trump had recently offered to “mediate and arbitrate” the conflict, however, the offered was duly refused by both the involved countries.

Artyom Lukin, an associate professor of international relations at Far Eastern Federal University in Russia opines that Trump’s mediation offer “was perhaps inspired by his recent success in bringing about an OPEC+ deal that ended a brutal oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia.”

In April this year, with Trump’s apparent mediation, the oil giants Saudi Arabia led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Russia led by President Vladimir Putin with 21 other countries as a part of the OPEC+ agreement collectively agreed to reduce oil output by 9.7 million barrels per day between May and June, in an attempt to combat the drop in international demand caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

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It is reported that Pentagon and experts in Washington do not share the same perspective as Trump’s on the issue of mediation. Lukin believes that “they understand that a rising and ambitious India is the only realistic counter-balance against China.

There are just no other candidates for this role. Russia is in cahoots with China. Japan is a declining and militarily weak power.”

It is widely understood that to maintain control over the whole Eurasian region, “the US needs to keep this super-continent divided against itself, which means never allowing a true rapprochement between Asia’s two biggest powers, India and China.”

Trump’s failure to mediate the Sino-Indian conflict

Lukin puts forward two primary reasons for Trump’s failure to intervene in the Sino-Indian conflict. “Firstly, it is difficult to be an effective mediator or arbiter in international politics if you don’t have leverage over the parties in question.”

He believes that in the case of India and China, “it is not clear what rewards or penalties the US has in reserve for China and India. Most likely there are none.”

Secondly, the scholar in international relations claims that “the best mediator is one that is perceived as unbiased and impartial. On this count, the White House has an obvious handicap, since the US views India as a crucial associate and friend, while China is considered a competitor and rival.”

The Blame on China

US’s rivalry with China has been taken into account by many international critics. Apart from the trade war and technology rivalry, Washington blamed Beijing for the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and has also pointed at China for playing aggressively in the disputed Himalayan region.

It is reported that Alice Wells, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, called China’s behaviour “aggression, the constant attempt to shift the norms, to shift what is the status quo, that has to be resisted whether it’s in the South China Sea… or whether it’s in India’s own backyard, both on land as well as in the Indian Ocean.”

On the flip side, Indian defence experts like Lt Gen H S Panag believes that China’s is ultimately protecting its own “status quo,” that is continuously been threatened by India’s strategic growth in the contested territories along the border.

Since New Delhi seeks to maximize its benefits from the partnerships that it shares with the US, it strategically refrains from being involved in American-led efforts to contain China. “In this sense, Washington’s policy-makers, who seek to pit the Indians against the Chinese, maybe as naive as Trump with his peace-making initiatives” concludes Lukin.

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