Thursday, April 30, 2020

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Amorous Cordyceps Collectors

The news report in the BBS few days back concerning the departure of Cordyceps collectors into the alpine regions of Northern Bhutan came as a bolt from the blue. This is a terribly worrisome news. And yet, it would be unfair to disallow collection of Cordyceps that is the livelihood for thousands of families living in the higher reaches of the country. But our sense of charity is one thing – safeguarding lives is another. When you pit one against the other, which should take precedence? - truly an impossible dilemma.

Cordyceps sinensis: the freakish half worm, half grass natural wonder that is credited with incredible medicinal properties

From what the BBS reports, the government seems to be aware of the threat associated with Cordyceps collection. But I fear that they have not yet understood the real nature of the problem of an unmonitored Northern borders, teeming with thousands of crawling collectors, at sub-zero temperatures.

Cordyceps collections happen in the Districts of Bumthang, Gasa, Lhuentse, Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, Trashiyangtse, Trongsa and Wangduephodrang.

There are a host of dangers associated with Cordyceps collection. The first problem is altitude and temperature – the virus is known to survive longer and spread quicker in colder temperatures. The collection of the worms happen at very high altitudes – up to 16,000 ft. msl. Patrolling the borders in such altitude and temperature range is almost unthinkable.

The harsh conditions in which the collection of Cordyceps happen. Not a blade of grass anywhere

Next comes the state of the health of the collectors. They are mostly in a state of undernourishment. Given the altitude at which they are camped, there are no fuel woods available for preparing meals. Thus the collectors mostly survive on Khuli and pre-packaged Noodles and Tsampa and Bokpi. Surviving on such food for months must surely play havoc with the immune system of the collectors.

Then it is the manner in which they crawl over the grounds – looking for the worms. They all huddle together – not for warmth or company – but any signs of a rich harvest ground and everybody flocks to the same spot.

No physical distancing here - they all crawl in a group

They all throng in the same patch of rich harvest ground

Another group of collectors in close proximity of each other

Lastly they camp in close-knit clusters. The photo below shows a cluster of 50 tents. This is in Phangu – there were two other clusters – meaning there were over 100 tents pitched in one location. Under these circumstances, if transmission happens, it will be rapid.

One of the three camp sites in Phangu, Lunana. This cluster of tents number 50 tents. Although during day they wonder all over the mountain tops in search of the worms, they all camp together in groups. You notice that there are no green grasses or bushes in sight - let alone trees.

I have been to Dhur in Bumthang, Phangu in Lunana and Singye Dzong in Lhuentse on photographic assignments to cover Cordyceps collection. I have seen first hand how people survive when they are out collecting Cordyceps. In Dhur I have seen families with sack loads of pre-cooked Khuli which is the only food they have – they tuck them inside their jackets and munch on them for breakfast, lunch and dinner – for months on end.

From what I hear, the government seems to be worried about the collectors sneaking over into Chinese Tibet to trade in their harvests. My view is that this should be the least of our worries. The real worry is: SEX!

During my trips to these places, my hired hands were local people with sorties to tell. One team member from Dhur and another from Laya recounted to me their experiences that are identical. They tell me that once the collection season is over, the youthful lot head for Tibet for a much deserved rest and relaxation. They hire a room each which are cheap and look for buyers for their Cordyceps. Once the worms are sold and money firmly inside their pockets, the good life begins. For the equivalent of Nu.30.00 they get to soak in the hot springs as long as they like – including a large flask of steaming hot Suja to boot. Once in a while, pretty young girls come to check on them and to provide any service that they might be in need of. And, by the by, they strike up conversations and establish amorous friendships with the young Chinese/Tibetan girls. The Bhutanese youths extend their stay by few days, then a week, then a month and then two months – until they suddenly find that they are out of money. They have been lavish with their temporary girlfriends – they buy them mobile phones, clothing and jewelry. They also buy themselves mobile phones and temporary SIMs for use during their stay there.

At last, penniless, they start for home – worried sick as to how to explain to their parents the cause for their empty pockets. Back home they are treated to sound thrashing by their fathers. But they repeat it once again, the coming season.

I asked this horseman from Laya whom I always hire for my trips to the North-Western regions:

“So why are you so stupid that you spend your entire money behind some girls in Tibet?”

His reply; “Dasho – you simply have no idea – the temptation is too powerful. I mean these nymphets are young and very pretty with long black hair – they are like Khandoms (Apsaras)! Who can resist them?”

Talking of which, are we monitoring Merak in Trashigang. That place gets lots of visitors from Arunachal Pradesh – it appears that there is pretty active cross-border trade happening there. During my trip there, I saw half a dozen of them who had come to buy sheep and booze.

I suggest that the Tourism Council of Bhutan consider deploying Trekking Guides in every cluster of camps in the Cordyceps collection areas across the country, to make sure that every evening there is roll call to ensure that every one of the collectors are resident in the camps, and has not gone traipsing across the border, in search of Khandoms.

This is no joke. Since TCB is already devising ways and means to keep the guides gainfully employed, this is one sure way of giving them employment while keeping the nation safe in the process.

I am suggesting Trekking Guides – because there could be incidences of AMS – Acute Mountain Sickness. Seasoned Trekking Guides would have no issues since they would have already scaled heights above 12,000 ft.

AMS is serious - Thus only people with proven immunity to AMS should be sent to the collection fields. I have personally seen 3 AMS related deaths: one at Jele Dzong, Paro (an American), one at Merak, Trashigang (a government employee) and one at Roelmateng, Singye Dzong, Lhuentse (a young house wife of a Dzongkhag Administration official of Lhuentse Dzong).

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

If We Should See Red

Commandeered by His Majesty the King, our government is doing a remarkable job at containment – thus far we in Bhutan feel safe and protected. But having a neighbor like India that is a cauldron teeming with close to 1.4 billion people, it is a time bomb waiting to explode. Thus I for one am praying that Modi-ji will act the tyrant that he is projected to be. However, I cannot help but feel a sense of unease given India’s population size and habitation density.

For now we have no home grown cases – all those we had are from outside. That is cold comfort though – should India enter a state of full blown spread, which I believe is a real possibility, we need to plan and step up our safety protocols to a level that is many, many notches above what has been recommended under the current controlled circumstances.

Personally, the following is what I will be implementing – the moment a homegrown case is reported:

I will impose a total EMBARGO on house visits by relatives or friends – without exception. No visits – either announced or otherwise.

A member of the family will be allowed only one exit/entry per day. If it is anticipated that a member has to make multiple exits, he/she will have to stay out the whole day. In that event, he/she has to carry pack lunch. He/she will be allowed re-entry into the house only once – day, evening or night.

No visits to restaurants for lunch/dinner. That will be strictly prohibited – that is why the pack lunch. Actually this restriction is already in place.

Two separate outdoors bath tents will be set up outside the house. One tent will house change of clothing for the person needing to exit. One tent will serve as a stripping room.

Tents for change of clothing and removing used clothing of the day

A member of the family needing to exit has to ensure that a full set of change of clothing is deposited inside the clothing tent before exiting the house.

Upon retiring for the day, the member of the family will first remove the shoes/socks and dip it in medicated water trough and hang it outside to dry. He/she will then put on the hand gloves and only thereafter the changing tent should be accessed in bare feet.

There is an interesting product that has been introduced in the market for disinfecting large number of people that seems like a useful product for Bhutan to consider. It is available both in stationary and mobile type of installations.

After removing the day’s clothing – it should be put inside a plastic bag, seal it and thrown outside and left there for the next 24 hours. The member will be required to follow the correct procedures to remove the hand gloves after use, as follows. Bare hand must not touch the used glove’s exterior.

Putting on the right hand glove

Putting on the left hand glove

Hand gloves are firmly on

Taking off: First take off the left hand glove and throw outside

Peel off the glove slowly so that there is no tear

Without touching the exterior of the glove, insert index and middle fingers of the left hand inside the handle of the right hand glove and slide the glove up over the fingers

Peel it off all the way and throw outside the tent

After sanitizing the hands and soles of the feet - this should happen just out side the changing room tent door - the member will walk over the floor mat bare feet and enter the tent housing the fresh set of clothing. After changing into fresh set of clothing, the member will exit the tent in fresh house sandals and access the house.

Once inside the house, the member will proceed to the kitchen or bathroom, and wash his/her hands with soap and water.

The used clothing will be left outside for at least 24 hours, before they are run through the washing machine, using hand gloves. Emptying the soiled clothing into the washing machine should be done with utmost care. Yet again, proper procedure for removal of hand gloves is to be followed, before dropping then into the washing machine.

Isopropyl Alcohol I.P. 70% v/v Hand Sanitizer: Use in moderation.

The label is designed by me but the liquid inside is for real. The original bottle did not come with a dispensing pump so I used another brand's casing.

A member should use hand sanitizer no more than once during the day. The next/second time the member must use hand sanitizer will be during the time of changing clothing. Studies have concluded that it is not very good to use hand sanitizers too often. Moderation in its use is encouraged.

Regular washing of hands with water and soap is the best and the safest. Excessive use of sanitizer is said to have dire consequences to our hand microbiome – the good bacteria that keep our skin and bodes, healthy.

Should any readers have additional precautions to suggest, please do so.

Monday, April 20, 2020

A Revolution In The Making

It is happening! And not in some impoverished remote village in the depths of the Bhutanese wilderness – it is happening right under your noses! They are not the shanty, rickety bullock cart ridding lot, or the barefoot variety plodding over muddy farm roads. These are the upwardly mobile, the nose-in-the-air, squeaky-clean wannabes who come riding in shinny, spanking new latest model cars and SUVs, bearing not laptops or some other modern gadgets, but farm tools such as Hoe, Spades, Crowbars, Shovel, Racks, Pickaxes etc.

These are the new breed of urban farmers that is about to set into motion a trend that this country sorely needs – a trend that has the potential to reboot the Bhutanese people’s evolutionary process that went into animated suspension over a century back.

Yesterday morning as I was driving past Motithang Higher Secondary School, I noticed a bunch of people digging away at the far end of the school compound. Quite evidently these lot were digging up the earth to do some farming. Upon enquiry, I was told that they were the staff of the school. They had divided the vacant plot of land into small parcels among themselves and were going to grow vegetables. I gave them a Thumbs Up.

A section of Motithang HS being dug up for growing food

Much later over lunch it occurred to me that perhaps this may be happening elsewhere around Thimphu. So I pulled out my camera and drove around places that generally do not do farming. When I reached Hejo – opposite the Woodcraft Centre, I saw lot of people digging away in about 20 segregated parcels of farmland. I drove in and realized that these were not the regular farmers – but educated lot of people engaged in farm work. In fact one of the diggers wished me with the utmost courtesy. It turns out that he was one of the trekking guides that I had used a number of times in the past.

A section of Hejo village being turned into farmland by the urban farmers out of jobs and livelihood

It is happening. Farming and agriculture work is no longer infra dig! There is pride, and opportunity, in farm work.

Urban farmers arrive their new workplace ridding in swanky new cars and SUVs

A close up of the urban farmers doing group work

The land has been dug up and beds made for plantation of chilies

A water pond has been created for watering the farm plots

But there seems to be something that could spell trouble - the farmers can't help but huddle in a group - for discussion, distribution of seeds and seedlings. There seems to be a need for a Lajab at each of these farm clusters - so that they are constantly reminded of the need for physical distancing. The government and the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Agriculture  & Forests should immediately work on this so that farm work does not become a potential disaster, after all that we have achieved so far.

No physical distancing practiced - this could be catastrophic

Subsequently, I drove over to meet my friend Tsewang Rinzing, owner of Sakten Tours & Treks for a tete-a-tete. We hadn’t met for quite a while because of the need for social distancing during this difficult times. Over the course of our discussions he tells me that he has been considering his options to continue to support his 18 regular staff, although business is at a stand still and is likely to continue for over a year. He tells me that he believes that one way is to suspend the construction of his hotel project in Punakha and instead use the 8 acres of land available there – to engage his staff to do farming to generate income for themselves.

Now this is pure inventiveness! Are other rich tour operators going to consider doing something similar? Such an endeavor would not only help the workless staff remain gainfully employed and earn their keep, it will go a long way in lightening up the financial burden on the government.

I dare say that with people coming forward with such initiatives and thinking out of the box, the much-awaited revolution in the agriculture sector is a real possibility.

But I hope that the Ministry of Agriculture & Forests will not be caught with their pants down. We need this Ministry to be as valiant as the Ministry of Health has been. Let Bhutan show the way – how a crisis can be converted to opportunity and optimism.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Carpe Diem!

As I have said in one of my earlier posts, this COVID-19 is God sent for Bhutan and it is a crisis that Bhutan must not allow to go to waste. And signs are aplenty that we are indeed seizing the opportunity - to turnaround a potential calamity into an occasion for opportunity.

Because of the virtual lock-down and the possibility of food shortages in the coming months, encouraging reports are filtering in that people across the country – urban youth, farmers, the bureaucracy, government agencies, agro-entrepreneurs, youth groups, agriculture cooperatives - are now solely focused on farm work and food production.

I believe that in the next 3-4 months Bhutan is all set for bumper food production. And I believe that we absolutely have the consumptive capacity to consume them all, within the country. We do not need export market. The question now is:

What are the government’s plans to complement the farmers’ new found initiative and vigor? Is the government machinery organized in a way that they can help the farmers with a reasonable support price (not buy-back price), transportation, distribution, delivery and storage? What are the government’s plans to ensure that the farmers produce do not go to waste for want of better storage facility, transportation, marketing and delivery network?

I believe that with a better and timely planning transportation, distribution and marketing may not be a challenge given that we have more than adequate home market for whatever the farmers produce. But the challenge would be, in my view, if the government were to be unprepared in creating adequate storage capacity.

What are the government’s plans on setting up regional cold storage facilities to stock food that cannot be absorbed by the market at one go. What are the government’s plans on post-harvest processing – in a situation when storage facilities become unobtainable?

For the past one month and for the next few months, thousands upon thousands of students are/will be home bound - resulting in billions of Ngulturms in savings, through suspension of school-feeding program. We could use this savings from the education sector – to build, on a war footing, cold storage facilities across the country, so that the food produced by the farmers and growers could be stored and released depending on market off-take.

Should the government be ill prepared to take on the anticipated mass production of food, the farmers will fall back to the same apathy that has contributed to falling farm production over the decades. The government must do all it takes to ensure that the farmers do not loose the new found momentum.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Bhutan Must Prepare For Few Years Not For Few Months

One of the most ruinous misconceptions the Bhutanese people have today is that as long and our King and the government can contain the transmission of virus to the community, we are safe from its scourge. This is not entirely true.

As I have said in my last post, we live in an inter-connected world and thus, we cannot hope to survive in isolation – it is IMPOSSIBLE to survive as an island. What impacts the world will impact us. There is no escape from that. Despite our very best planning, foresight and strategies at containment, we can never be 100% sure of our invulnerability.

We may be able to survive death by COVID-19 but WE CANNOT HOPE TO SURVIVE DEATH BY HUNGER! It is this real possibility for the reason for which I spoke of shifting focus to food production in my last post. I urge the government and the agencies concerned, to embark on this route without the slightest of delay.

The Royal Government of Bhutan assures us that there will be no shortage of food and that adequate food stock will be maintained. I do not doubt their good intensions. However we all know that this assurance is based on the traditional support and goodwill of the people and government of India towards Bhutan and the Bhutanese people. We also know that India will not be found wanting in our times of need. But it would be foolhardy to believe that our need would be more urgent than their own.

As of now, the Modi government has effectively managed to contain the proliferation of the coronavirus and I earnestly pray that they succeed to continue to do so. But we cannot rule out the possibility of India going the American way. Should it ever happen that the virus overwhelms India, Bhutan and the Bhutanese people cannot hope to remain unaffected. We will be impacted severely – there is no doubt of that.

We cannot hope to rely on imported food to see us through during times of crisis because imported food may not become available to us, for a variety of compulsions. Thus, it is imperative that we prepare for food self-sufficiency – as a more reliant and dependable means of battling the coronavirus, or its after effects.

It is likely that it will be few years before the humanity is able to recuperate from the devastation caused by the virus. Thus, it seems like our preparedness should be not for few months, but for years to come.

Let it not be said that the Bhutanese people valiantly survived the coronavirus, only to die of starvation.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

COVID-19: A God Sent Opportunity for Bhutan

Hi John,

Thank you ... yes lets pray but as you know the tenacity of the human race has always been remarkable. We have always survived many catastrophes and crisis over the centuries. The Black Plague killed 25 million and yet we are still here - all set to face and fight yet another catastrophe.

There are some school of thought that believe that catastrophes such as this is nature's balancing act. Periodic disasters such as this are necessary to maintain the earth's equilibrium. That is why I am a great admirer of your monumental leader Winston Churchill who understood a thing or two about the need for catastrophes - you may recall that it was him who first propagated the thought: "Never let a good crisis go to waste".

Already I am told that one of the positive effects of this virus is that the environment is benefitting across the glob.

You are right, our King and the government are doing a remarkable job of arresting the virus at the borders and not allowing it to reach the communities. As long as we are able to effectively keep the virus at bay, we should be fine.

Something good about this for Bhutan is that we are now effectively liberated from being tethered to our traditional economic activities: our tourism is at a zilch, our industries have ground to a halt, and our exports are suspended. Liberty has finally been imposed upon us - a season has dawned on us - a season of opportunity. The coronavirus has gifted to our government and the people of Bhutan an opportunity to shift focus to areas that have been traditionally neglected.

Thousands of young and energetic hands in the form of tourist guides and workers in the service industry are idling away their time - without work, employment or earning. To me this is a God sent opportunity to seize and embark on a revolution of sorts - to focus on something that should have been our natural choice of economic activity - production of food. Up scaling agriculture production and restocking the rural homes with able bodied agriculture workers is now a possibility. We have fertile land, we have the water resources, and farming is inherently in our blood.

Even if we are able to ward off the virus, since we live in an inter-connected world, as a part of the whole, Bhutan cannot escape the fallout of the global impact of the virus, for the next 2-3 years. Thus, we need to be ready and prepared to walk the distance with imagination and foresight. To me agriculture production is a natural choice.

Sorry for the long winding mail but I hope that at the end of it you see that it is not all gloom and doom.

Please convey my Regards to all your participants to the Conference. I am amazed at their positive attitude - not one of them seem to have given up hope. They are still hoping to be able to make it to Bhutan at the end of July. That is what I keep telling my friends - hope is the very foundation of human civilization.

Bye and take care

Yeshey Dorji
Club Secretary
Rotary Club of Thimphu
RID 3292

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Know Your Virus

One reader of my Blog who is very learned on all issues related to viruses advises me on some aspects of viruses in general and COVID-19 in particular. The reader writes:

I’ve liked your recent posts. Your focus on public health vigilance is exactly right. 

Good tests already exist for finding the coronavirus in individuals and communities. It’s just a matter of manufacturing these screening tests and applying them widely. This means not only to people who are symptomatic and to their contacts, but in a surveillance way across populations, so that public health experts have a clear idea of how many infections — symptomatic and asymptomatic, and among individuals who have recovered and are presumably immune — are out there. The only way to develop and manufacture these tests is to first know what kinds of specific antibody the body is producing against the virus. South Korea and other nations quickly did the science and started making screening tests and applying them widely. 

It is not a cure that will be ready in 12-18 months — it’s the vaccine, which will prevent the infection in those who are inoculated. There are very, very few cures for viral infections, and it’s unlikely that there will ever be a true cure for COVID-19. Rather, there may be treatments that help the body respond to the infection, or that boost the body’s immune system — but not a cure. Antibiotics cure bacterial infections, but there are very few antivirals that cure viral infections.

I thank the reader for the input - we are so much more wiser for it.